Fire Engine Builders

The first fire engines were built
one at a time.

After the War of Independence, fire engines were no longer imported from England. At first American wagon builders made simple hand pulled vehicles to bring a pump to a fire scene. Each new engine would have slight improvements over the previous design. Within a few years the engines took on many new features, such as spoked wheels replacing solid wood wheels. Pumps also improved and became larger, requiring stronger and larger tub bodies. Some shops only built the pump and had the body constructed by a local wagon shop. What started as a sideline item became a full-time product for a few builders.

Hand engines are an early high point of the Industrial Revolution. Yankee ingenuity moved wood and wrought iron technology to their limits as fire engine design advanced. Any mechanical improvement was gladly accepted by builders. The painted decoration remained tied to its roots for 200 years. The early hand engines set a standard in style that was interpreted and personalized by each painter through the years.

Buckets were still needed to fill the tubs of the early fire engines. Leather hose was yet to be perfected. Fire buckets were decorated in colonial times when the engines were one plain color, perhaps two-tone. The new engine builders began offering decoration on their engines, similar to the buckets already in use.

Early 19th century fire engine stripes resembled the coach painting style of that day. Public coaches were the main mode of overland travel between towns. The coaches were painted in bold colors with eye catching stripes and painted ornaments. The hand engine builders took that look from coaches and refined it. By 1820 fire engines had gold leaf ornaments, oil paintings, exotic colored backgrounds and yards of intricate stripes.

The above photo shows the Cowing & Co. shop on the Seneca River, using water power to run its equipment. Many engine builders congregated in Seneca Falls, where a series of waterfalls connected two of the Finger Lakes in New York. This was where the first metal pumps in America were built. Fire engine factories in the mid 1800s were located on rivers. Water power was used to run the foundries and milling machines needed for the ever-advancing pump technology. A new engine could be shipped from the factory by barge, down the river and on to the Erie Canal. From there it could go down the Hudson River and out to any coastal city or town. Later in the century factories were built near railroad lines and used steam power to run equipment.

Below is a fire engine built by the Cowing Company.

When hose became dependable, the tub part of a hand engine no longer needed to be filled with water. A pump on wheels could pull water from a source and send it out to the fire. Old style wood tubs were still built around new technology pumps to make the apparatus look like a fire engine. The steam fire engines were a whole new design with no side panels to decorate.

Steam fire engines required a large crew with many skills to construct. The metal working of iron, steel, brass, bronze, copper, nickel and gold on a steamer was impressive. Each engine was made to a custom order and hand painted. Factory paint shops had specialists in gilding, oil painting, striping, glazing and other techniques. A hand pumper was decorated by one or two people. A steamer or motorized engine was decorated by a crew of painters.

Steam fire engines were one of the few large heavy vehicles that needed to go fast. The limits of new technology were often tested first by fire engine manufacturers.

One job of the ornamentor was to make the engine look lighter. A steam fire engine without stripes looked more massive than the same engine veiled in gold stripes. This was especially true of the large wooden wheels. Every spoke had multiple stripes on the front and sides. Complimenting colors and reflective gold break the surface up. The large pieces are visually broken into thinner parts.

Amoskeag hand painted and gilded decoration on steam fire engine wheel.

Early motorized fire engines were built like the autos shown above, with sheet metal on a wood frame. The bodies had a lot of space for the painters to fill with gilded ornaments and stripes. Factories had become quite large and engines were built in groups. Each factory had a full time crew of painters. The paint jobs became standardized over time with only the hood lettering and body color customized on many engines.