By Clarissa J. Ceglio
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Fall 2006
Guided by equal parts passion and practicality, the Connecticut Trolley Museum acquired its first fire engine, a 1930 Maxim Model B10 hose wagon, in 1968. Several volunteers whose love of old vehicles extended beyond the East Windsor museum’s purview of street cars and locomotives suggested it would be handy to have a fire engine on site. The Maxim’s pump would make it easier to fill the boiler of the steam engine the museum operated in summer — and it could extinguish the small brush fires that sparks from the locomotives occasionally ignited along the tracks.
What began as the Trolley Museum Fire Department soon took on a life of its own. The group steadily added to its collection and, in June 1975, opened the Connecticut Fire Museum in a new facility adjacent to the existing trolley barn. If the structure looks more like a garage than a rarefied showcase, it is with good reason. This largely volunteer-run museum not only displays its collection of 16 restored fire engines and related firefighting equipment, it also keeps each vehicle ready to hit the road.
The engines no longer respond to fire alarms (although, mechanically, most are perfectly able). The call these veterans answer is to serve on parade duty, Even the older pumper-and-hose cars, such as the 1926 American LaFrance and 1927 Mack, make appearances now and again. Current gas prices, however, may limit their outings, since each averages only 1 to 2 miles per gallon.
Other highlights of the collection include Car 36, formerly of Hartford’s Engine Company 7 on Main Street. This 1928 American LaFrance rotary gear combination pumper was one of the first units to arrive on the scene of the Hartford Circus Fire in 1944. A less storied but no less interesting specimen is the 1923 Reo pumper, hose, and chemical wagon. In the early 1900s, cash-strapped volunteer fire departments often economized by buying an engine made from the converted chassis of a large passenger sedan such as the Reo. Be sure to take a look at the Reo’s dashboard. If it appears oddly cylindrical, that’s because it’s actually the vehicle’s gas tank. How ironic to outfit a truck to fight fires that was itself a fire hazard on wheels, given the location of a flammable liquid right under the noses of the driver and front seat passengers!
Complete your visit to the Connecticut Fire Museum with a copy of its first — and just released — book, Greater Hartford Firefighting (Arcadia Publishing, 2006). Written by museum members Thomas E. Holcombe and Nancy Johanson, this photo-filled volume traces the transition from horse-drawn equipment to motorized apparatus in the early 20th century. A second book is underway that chronicles firefighting, including a proud tradition of volunteerism, throughout Hartford County.
There are other fire museums in Connecticut, including the Connecticut Firemen’s Association Historical Society in Manchester, and the Museum of Fire History at the New England Carousel Museum in Bristol.
Clarissa J. Ceglio, executive editor for Ethis Communications, Inc., is also an arts writer and member of the Hog River Journal management team.
“Memories of the Hartford Circus Fire,” Fall 2006
“September 11, 2001: Connecticut Responds and Reflects,” Fall 2011
“Everyday Heroes,” Fall 2011
Connecticut Fire Museum
58 North Road, East Windsor
Connecticut Firemen’s Historical Society
230 Pine Street, Manchester
Museum of Fire History
95 Riverside Avenue, Bristol
Built on the chassis of a 1923 Reo sedan, this pumper, hose, and chemical wagon originally served Pine Meadow, a village in the town of New Hartford.
The Connecticut Fire Museum, East Windsor.