Truckee struggles with first steam-powered fire engine
August 26, 2004
Historic Downtown Truckee has seen a great number of changes since it was first founded in 1869. The birth of Truckee was directly related to the demise of its predecessor, Coburn’s Station. The station was located in the area now occupied by the roundabout and the upper portion of Brickelltown, west of downtown along Donner Pass Road. The stagecoach-era village burned in a large fire in July of 1868, one month after the Central Pacific Railroad reached the Truckee River.The new town of Truckee was built, and it too suffered many fires. For a decade the main method of firefighting was by using bucket brigades to suppress the flames. Firefighters tried to build fire cisterns and hydrants to control fires and used early primitive fire extinguishers. Volunteers used a fire hose cart, but it relied on an insufficient water system to quell fires. Fire still damaged major portions of the town at least seven times in its first decade.The Central Pacific Railroad suffered many fires in its wooden snowsheds and buildings. The first roundhouse burned in April of 1869, and other fires threatened its replacement several times. In May of 1872, the railroad responded by stationing the first fire train with the engine “Samson” in Truckee. For the next five decades, the railroad’s fire engine responded to fires on the tracks and in town. The townspeople were content with these arrangements until 1877.In March of 1877, the Truckee Republican cajoled the townspeople into donating enough money to buy Truckee’s first fire engine. A citizen’s meeting attracted roughly 100 people, principally businessmen and property owners, to discuss the most practical way to protect the town. Produce store owner Hamlet Davis was elected chairman, with newspaper editor William Edwards, Truckee Lumber Co. owner Edward Brickel, and tin shop owner Frank Stevens rounding out the executive committee.The next week the executive committee sent lumberman George Schaffer to Virginia City, Nev., to investigate a steam-powered fire engine that was for sale. The committee also worked on enlarging the spring feeding the water tank, thereby ensuring a better water supply.Schaffer reported to the committee that the engine was worth the price, and they decided to purchase the engine at once. Twelve citizens signed a joint promissory note for $4,000, and Justice of the Peace Thomas Plunkett was sent to bring it to Truckee.The engine arrivesThe steam powered engine, named Washoe No. 4, was unloaded off of a railroad flatcar on March 28, 1877, decked out with flags and banners. Several members of the old Virginia City Volunteer Fire Department came along to train the Truckee Hose Company members on the engine. The Washoe was notable because its bell was reported to be the same one that called the San Francisco Vigilantes together in 1856.
A large crowd gathered and they unloaded Washoe No. 4 and wheeled it up to Irwin and Rosseau’s stable at Bridge and Front streets. The railroad provided the use of its water cars, and after a great deal of preliminaries and speeches, a fire was lit.The engine was a wood-fired boiler producing steam to turn a water pump which pressurized the hose. It was light, so men rather than horses moved it to the fire.It took 15 minutes to get the steam going on Washoe No. 4, and a full stream of water flowed from the hoses. The crowd was disappointed that it took so long to get the steam up, but reports say it was because the wood fueling the engine was still green.Railroad engineer Thomas Forsythe was appointed chief engineer due to his experience in steam boilers. He pronounced that it was a first-class engine.The engine had 350 feet of carbonized hose, and it threw a stream 200 feet, which was considered a good showing. There was concern that the draft portion of the pump wasn’t working right, but the Virginia City firemen who accompanied the Washoe asked for patience and another trial. The cisterns on Front Street could not provide enough water at that time.A day later they tried a second time, with the Samson providing the water supply. A group of men and boys hauled the engine from the Irwin and Rosseau stable, and seven minutes after the boiler fire was lit, two streams of water, more than 150 feet long, were shooting skyward. After a half an hour, they took one hose off and they extended the other to double its length. From 200 feet of hose, came a 200 foot stream of water. Eventually, the hose broke at the engine because of all the pressure.The community’s general opinion was that it was a good fire engine, but the volunteers needed adequate training and good maintenance to keep it in top condition. It required plenty of good hard coal and pine pitch to keep optimum steam.Community members volunteered to train to be firemen and maintain the Washoe.
Paying for the WashoeThe problem of paying for Washoe No. 4 still remained. In another citizens’ meeting, they voted to tax the property owners, who would benefit the most from the increased fire protection. The Central Pacific Railroad allowed free use of its water system for fire suppression, provided that it would not be subject to the fire tax. Since Truckee was not yet an incorporated town, the tax was more voluntary than mandatory, but few property owners failed to pay their share. Charles F. Byrne, the tax collector and assessor, reported that Truckee would garner $250,000 in property taxes. The committee held fireman’s balls to defray cost of maintenance. In April, crews built a new engine house on the upper end of Front Street. It was one story and 18 by 52 feet. They constructed two new water tanks, as well. In May, the crew built a bonfire on High Street to test the speed of the Washoe and crew. As soon as they lit the fire, the Samson’s fire alarm shrieked and a dozen volunteer firemen men came running, pulled the engine up the hill with muscle and ropes, lit the boiler, and once steam was up, shot a 90-foot stream over houses and trees to douse the fire. A large crowd gathered to watch and were impressed with the speed and gave three cheers for the men.The men continued drilling to become as proficient as possible. The hose couplings burst a few times, the air chamber failed once, and one of wheels was damaged on a rock during the training sessions. The engine company included notable Truckee citizens, such as off-and-on lawman James Reed, Justice of the Peace Plunkett, railroad engineer Forsythe, lumbermen Schaffer, Warren Richardson, J.D. Parks, and Albert Brickel. A young Charles MacGlashan was a member, so was newspaperman W.F. Edwards. Other members included later Justice of the Peace C. F. Byrne, William Irwin, butcher Joe Marzen, lawyer Thomas F. Ford, and other businessmen and laborers. Members paid a $1 monthly fee.There were only a few small structure fires in Truckee for the rest of 1877.
Washoe put to the testThe Washoe’s first big fire was a March 1878 blaze that burned seven structures east of Bridge Street including Stewart McKay’s American Hotel (site of the present Truckee Hotel). The Washoe performed well, but a delay in the Samson’s fire alarm allowed the fire to get a head start.The Washoe was a four-season engine. When snow covered the streets, the crew put skis on their feet and pulled the engine to the fire.Washoe No. 4 wasn’t always a well-cared-for fire engine. In May of 1882, it lay idle and rusting in the engine house with only a few men to operate it. The Republican asked for more volunteers and slowly they restored the engine.The Washoe continued to perform her duties until it was taken out of service about 1905. The crew sold it to the Henry Ice Pond just east of downtown Truckee. Later, the ice pond owners sold it to Truckee Lumber Company to protect its sawmill. After that, James McIver bought it and used it for a pumping station at his dairy ranch just west of Brickelltown.The Washoe ended its days as a woodcutting machine for McIver, a far cry from its heroic battles with the demon fire. But one relic of the Washoe did survive much longer. The Truckee Fire Protection District kept the bell of the Washoe after the district formed in 1894. For years it was rang whenever fire threatened. One of Truckee’s mysteries is the location of that historic bell. It hasn’t been seen for decades.Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, and history information are always welcome. Visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Call 582-0893.