the Steam Era


Firefighting with steam power.

Steam powered technology moved the industrial revolution into high gear. It was as strong as water power and could be taken anywhere. A steam engine was a heavy piece of equipment. The first steam fire engines were hand pulled by the firemen. Once at the fire, only a few men were needed to operate the equipment. Fire departments reduced the number of firemen and added horses to pull the engine. A steam engine could run continually for a day or two if necessary. Hand engines needed dozens of men to power the pump, and it was exhausting work in a short amount of time. Hand engines continued to be used by small towns right through the steam era. All large cities switched to steam power soon after the Civil War.

The first steam powered engines in England were used to pump water out of mines. They were stationary and ran continuously. They were not called steam engines, but rather they were called "fire engines".



Steam power was used to power vehicles from wagons to locomotives. It could also drive belts that were hooked up to machinery on farms and in factories. One steam engine could run a shaft near the ceiling of a factory. From this turning shaft many belts could transfer the energy to a row of machines. The same process had be used earlier in the industrial revolution with water power running the main shaft. The steam engine made it possible to bring this technology away from rivers.

The image above shows the Manchester Locomotive Works in New Hampshire. Once this factory was well established, they diversified their production to also manufacture steam fire engines. Locomotives were highly decorated at that time. The earliest ones were designed like classical architecture with fluting, scrolls and columns. They were also gilded and striped similar to hand powered fire engines.

Amoskeag fire engines were painted in great detail at the locomotive paint shop. Few steam fire engines (or locomotives) survive with their elaborate original paint jobs.

Amoskeag was one manufacturer to leave the Renaissance and Classical decoration in the 1870s and follow the "Eastlake" or Arts & Crafts style. Scrolls became flat medallions with pastel centers. Geometric shapes and stripes filled the surfaces. This new style was seen on their locomotives and their fire engines. The Eastlake style was adopted by more locomotive builders than by fire engine manufacturers.



Steamer decoration may look too busy to contemporary viewers. We have been schooled to favor a "clean" modern look. These engines were about energy and invention. It was exciting to watch a steam engine working. The mechanical parts were right out there to be seen and heard. Fire was being harnessed to boil water to make steam to pump water to put out a fire. It was seen as a wondrous bit of alchemy and a triumphant piece of technology. Huge crowds would show up to see an engine in a parade or pumping at a fire scene.

The Dalmatian dog breed came into the fire service as a worker in the age of steam. Today they are mascots and symbols of the firefighting tradition. In the early 1800s Dalmatians were called "coach dogs". They had an instinctual rapport with horses and often ran alongside horse drawn vehicles. When steam fire engines became too heavy for the firemen to pull, horses were used. The horses lived right in the firehouse and Dalmatians came along with the horses.

The dogs calmed the horses and kept them company. On the way to a fire the dogs ran at the horses feet and kept onlookers at a distance. At the fire the horses were unhooked from the engine and brought to a quieter location. The Dalmatians kept people away from the horses and also at a distance from the working engine. The Dalmatian's coloring made it a living ornament running next to the gilded engine.