The History of Steam Fire Engines in North Carolina

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Long before the era of modern diesel and earlier gasoline powered pumpers, horse-drawn steamers protected many of North Carolina's larger cities and towns. Over 40 steam fire engines served in the state, built by companies including American LaFrance, Button, Gould, and Silsby. Most were delivered between 1880 and 1910.

The steamers served in Charlotte, Durham, Elizabeth City, Fayetteville, Goldsboro, Greensboro, Greenville, Kinston, Monroe, New Bern, Raleigh, Reidsville, Rocky Mount, Salem, Salisbury, Statesville, Washington, Wilmington, Wilson, Winston, and Winston-Salem. At least ten have survived.

Charlotte's Hornet Steam Fire Engine Company operated a Clapp & Jones steamer delivered in December 1866 or January 1867. It was overhauled in 1874 and then operated by the Pioneer Steam Fire Engine Company. The Hornet Fire Company also operated a 1873 Harrell & Hayes first-size.

Charlotte's third steam fire engine was a third-size 1902 American LaFrance Metropolitan (#2813). The 1902 steamer, named "Old Sue," was restored in 1999 by members of the fire department. It was displayed at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Fire Education Center & Museum.

Durham received their first steam fire engine in February 1903, a LaFrance third-size. It was named "Black Pattie" and was purportedly the first steam engine in the state to be delivered with rubber tires. Note: Earlier versions of this article incorrectly cited two LaFrance steamers delivered that year. Durham's second steam engine was not procured until 1912.  

Durham's second steam engine was a 1912 second size American LaFrance Metropolitan steamer (#3368). It was pulled by motor vehicle by 1913 and was still in reserve in 1937. It is still owned by the fire department.

Elizabeth City operated two Silsby steamers, a 1873 third-size (#413) that previously served San Antonio, TX, and that was acquired in 1888, and that was rebuilt in 1902 as a second-size (#2888).

It operated by the Albemarle Fire Company and named Inez, for Chief G. S. Bell's oldest daughter. Inez was still on the roster in 1931 and towed by motor vehicle. It is presently displayed at the Museum of the Albemarle.

Also in 1902, the Elizabeth City's second Silsby steam engine was purchased. Model year to be determined. It was named Betsy, for the woman who donated the land on which the town was charted.

Fayetteville's Chicora Steam Fire Engine Company operated a fifth-size 1882 Silsby (#834). The steamer was still in service in 1914 and was a reserve unit by 1923. It is still owned by the fire department.

Goldsboro's Eclipse Fire Company also operated an 1885 (?) fifth-size* Silsby (#701). The steamer, named "Mary Ellis," was towed by motor vehicle by 1918. Upon delivery of the first motor pumper in 1919, the steamer was placed in reserve. In 1940, it was retired and placed in Herman Park. The steamer was subsequently scrapped during the metal drives of World War II.

Greensboro operated two LaFrance steamers, an 1886 sixth-size* (#117) and a 1904 third-size* (#496). Both were reserve units by 1919 and only the newer steamer was a reserve unit by 1925. The older steamer, named General Greene, is displayed at the Greensboro Historical Museum.

Greenville
operated a fifth-size LaFrance steamer by 1898. The steamer was a reserve unit by 1911 and had disappeared from the roster by 1923. The fire department had a motor pumper and a motor hose truck by 1923.

Kinston operated a secondhand Silsby steamer that was delivered on March 22, 1895. The steamer was named Caswell No. 1 and was soon housed in a new station on Queen Street. In 1904, the Caswell Fire Company No. 1 was organized. The steamer was still in service in 1914 but had disappeared from the roster by 1925.

Monroe operated a fifth-size* 1886 Silsby (#856) steamer. Purchased with a municipal bond approved in July of that year, the $3,500 engine was first stored in a local livery stable. Companies that operated the steamer included the Acme Fire Company.

The steamer was a reserve unit by 1902 and still in reserve by 1922. It was stored at Old Station 1 and later moved to a glass case at Jaycee Park. The steamer was returned to the fire department in recent years and is housed at Station 1 awaiting restoration.

New Bern was served by three steamers of various makes, including the state's first steam fire engine, a third-size 1865 Amoskeage (#127) that was operated by the New Bern Steam Fire Engine Company.

The city's other two steamers were a fourth-size 1879 Silby (#604) operated by the Atlantic Steam Fire Engine Company, and a fourth-size 1884 Button (#155) operated by the Button Fire Company. The 1879 and 1884 steamers were still in service in 1913, but had been removed from the roster by 1924. Both are displayed at the New Bern Firemen's Museum.

New Bern Steam Fire Engine Company #1 was formed on January 1, 1865. The company was comprised of Union soldiers, with equipment sent and donated from the North. The company continued after the Civil War with soldiers who stayed behind. Members also had a heated rivalry with New Bern's Atlantic Hook and Ladder Company that lasted for decades.

The Amoskeage steamer was hand-pulled for the first several months and was considered of sufficient size until a large fire destroyed a portion of downtown New Bern. The Amoskeage was traded for the Button steamer in 1884 and the fire company adopted the name of the Button Manufacturing Company of Waterford, NY.

Raleigh's first steamer was a second-size 1870 Gould delivered in April of that year. It was operated by the newly formed Rescue Steam Fire Engine Company and soon housed in a new station on the county courthouse lot.

The engine was hand-drawn for the first seven years. Its use dropped dramatically after the installation of fire hydrants in 1887. The steamer's last public appearance was at a fireman's tournament in Raleigh on July 1902. It was still owned by the fire department in 1908.

A replacement steamer was purchased three years later, a third-size 1905 American LaFrance Metropolitan (#3061). Operated by the newly formed L.A. Mahler Fire Company, the $5,000 steamer was delivered in July of that year. It was needed to supply sufficient pressure for firefighting in taller buildings.

By the time of the formation of a fully-paid Raleigh Fire Department in 1912, the steamer was a special-called unit. Motor-drawn in 1915, it remained a reserve unit until at least 1931. The steamer later served as an auxiliary fire pump at the State Fairgrounds and was returned to the fire department in the late 1940s. It was mounted on a trailer in the late 1970s and is presently parked at a fire station.

Reidsville operated a fourth-size* 1883 Silsby (#763). The steamer was still in service by 1914, but had disappeared from the roster by 1922. The fire department had both a motor pumper and a motor hose truck by 1922.

Rocky Mount's Steam Fire Engine Company operated a fifth-size* 1896 Silsby (#2471), purchased for $2,600 along with a $111 hand hose reel. Its first fire station was at the corner of Sunset Avenue and Sorsby's Alley. The steamer was mule-drawn by 1912, and motor-pulled as a reserve unit by 1917. It was restored in recent years and is displayed at the Rocky Mount Fire Museum.

Salem operated two steamers, a fifth-size 1886 Button (#190) and a fourth-size 1905 LaFrance (#512). The Button steamer was a reserve unit by 1907. Both steamers were still on the roster in 1912, the year before the town merged with Winston.

Salisbury operated a second-size 1907 American LaFrance Metropolitan (#3216). The steamer cost $5,500 and was supplemented with a motorized hose wagon four years later. Motor-drawn by 1922, it was a reserve unit by 1931. The steamer was scrapped in 1942 during the metal drives of World War II.

Statesville operated an 1882 LaFrance of unknown size. The $3,880 steamer was delivered on January 20, 1882. The steamer disappeared from the roster by 1900, one year after the installation of fire hydrants.

Washington's Ocean Steam Fire Engine Company operated a fifth-size* 1888 Silsby (#899). The horse-drawn apparatus was first operated by Ed Stewart. Washington also had a hook and ladder company at the time.

The steamer was rebuilt in 1902 after fighting a large waterfront fire. With flames about to overrun the engine, firemen pushed it into the sound. The steamer stayed on the bottom of the river for a week before being sent to Seneca Falls, NY for repairs.

The rebuilt steamer served for many years. It was placed in reserve by 1924, last fought fire at the Tayloe Hospital in 1937, and was subsequently used to steam oysters at department events.

Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina through the turn of the century and operated at least eight steamers, a second-size 1868 Silsby (#192), a third-size 1871 Gould, an 1873 Button (#61) of unknown size, a fifth-size 1874 Silsby (#481), an 1885 third-size Button (#161), a third-size 1886 Silsby (#857), an 1887 fourth-size Silsby (#886), and a first-size Nott steamer by 1910. Two of the steamers, the 1885 Button and the 1887 Silsby, were rebuilt with Nott boilers by 1910.

The fire companies operating the steamers included Steam Fire Engine Company #1, Howard Relief Steam Fire Engine Company #1, the Atlantic Fire Company and their engine named "Elijah Ellis", and the colored Cape Fear Steam Fire Company.

Cape Fear was the first all-black steam fire engine company in the United States. Their first engine was the 1871 Gould, delivered on November 6 of that year. The company was disbanded in November 1897 after the Wilmington Fire Department became fully paid.

Wilson operated a fifth-size 1887 Silsby (#914). The horse-drawn apparatus was supplied by cisterns located in the streets. The first cistern was located on North Goldsboro Street, in front of the present Woodard Building. The steamer was still in service in 1913.

Winston operated three LaFrance steamers, a fourth-size* 1882 (#39), a third-size 1893 (#252), and a third-size 1903 (#487). One of the older steamers was a reserve unit by 1907 and had disappeared from the roster by 1912. The newest steamer was also operated by the Winston-Salem Fire Department after the two towns merged in 1913. It was still in service in 1917.

* Denotes a discrepancy between the steamer size as cited, drawn from the builder list, and the steamer size as referenced in Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps.
      

Charlotte's 1902 steamer "Old Sue" circa 1935. Photograph appears courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room - Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County.



Durham's 1912 American LaFrance Metropolitan. Photograph appears courtesy the North Carolina Collection - Durham County Public Library.



Monroe Fire Department and their
1886 Silsby steamer at the Union County Courthouse, circa 1900. Photograph appears courtesy of the North Carolina State Archives.



Raleigh's 1905 American LaFrance Metropolitan pictured in 1940. Photograph appears courtesy of the North Carolina State Archives.



Salisbury's 1907 American LaFrance Metropolitan before being scrapped during World War II. Photograph appears courtesy of the Salisbury Fire Department.



Wilmington Engine No. 4 in action, circa 1910. Photograph appears courtesy of the North Carolina State Archives.

Steamer Sizes

Size Capacity Height Length Weight
Extra First Size 1100 GPM 9 ft. 6 in. 25 ft. 8500 lbs.
First Size 900 GPM 9 ft. 6 in. 24 ft. 6 in. 7300 lbs.
Second Size 750 GPM 9 ft. 6 in. 24 ft. 3 in. 6500 lbs.
Third Size 650 GPM 9 ft. 4 in. 24 ft. 6000 lbs.
Fourth Size 550 GPM 9 ft. 2 in 24 ft. 5500 lbs.
Fifth Size 450 GPM 9 ft. 22 ft. 4700 lbs.
Sixth Size 375 GPM 9 ft. 22 ft. 4000 lbs.

Today

Left to right, top to bottom: Charlotte, Fayetteville, New Bern, Salem. Mike Legeros photos. See more.

Left to right, top to bottom: Elizabeth City, New Bern, Raleigh, Washington. Mike Legeros photos. See more.

Note

A version of this article was published in Carolina Fire Rescue EMS Journal in April 2007, and in the Winter 2011 issue of the Fire and Rescue Journal from the North Carolina Office of State Fire Marshal.

Updated August 15, 2019. Change log:
Corrected Elizabeth City information and Kinston information.
Corrected Charlotte information, with newer information. Also updated other steamers with sundry corrections of newer historical information.
Removed reference to Clapp & Jones steamer for New Bern. That was a misread reference, from an Amoskeag delivery list.


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