Enter a world of antique parade pumpers, long ladder trucks, and reverential memorials at the Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting in Phoenix, Arizona.
By Richard Bauman
You’ve heard that you can’t judge a book by its cover, and that can be said for the Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting in Phoenix, Arizona. It is housed in a rather plain, single-story building, but its simplicity belies what’s inside — nearly 300 years of mechanized firefighting history.
The Hall of Flame contains one of the largest collections of antique fire engines, firefighting gear, and auxiliary equipment in the United States. Most of the equipment is in pristine condition. You won’t find a lot of nicks and gouges or chipped or peeling paint on the more than 125 pieces of apparatus on display.
A Wide Range Of Equipment
Mechanical firefighting inventions can be traced to the early 1700s. In fact, one of the first pieces of equipment you’ll see at the Hall of Flame is a Newsham Hand Pumper, built in 1725 in England. The Newsham pumper could spray 80 gallons of water onto a fire at the rate of 60 strokes per minute, about five times the rate of a modern garden hose. That doesn’t sound like much, but before its arrival, bucket brigades were the only resort.
The museum has more than a dozen examples of early pumpers; it’s evident that as they proliferated, they grew in size and capacity. Pump and wagon configurations differed from company to company, but their objective was the same: to spray a lot of water on a fire in a short period of time. Some hand pumpers could move 200 to 400 gallons of water per minute.
To achieve such volumes, typically two rows of men, one on each side of the pumper, vigorously pushed down and pulled up on the pump’s handles. On each upstroke, water was pulled into one pump chamber, and on the corresponding downstroke, water was forced from the pump’s other chamber. It was energy-sapping work. A crew could pump for only a few minutes before giving way to a fresh team of men. Fire companies had to have numerous pump teams.
The aisles of the museum follow the evolution of early firefighting equipment, from small hand-drawn pumpers to more efficient horse-drawn chemical wagons and large, steam-powered pumpers. An example of the latter is a “Metropolitan” steam fire engine that was used by the city of Reno, Nevada, into the early 1900s. Two horses pulled it, and its steam-powered pump spewed water onto a fire at a rate of 750 gallons per minute.
One of the largest pieces of equipment in any modern fire department is its aerial ladder truck. The concept dates to the 1880s, and the collection includes a Babcock aerial ladder truck. The similarities between it and a modern version are plain to see, but this unit has a seat and steering wheel on the trailer, so a second driver can turn the rear wheels. This was necessary to maneuver through narrow city streets and turn sharp corners.
Ever see a fire engine without wheels? Watch for the “pung,” or sled, as you go through Gallery One. It’s from Negaunee, Michigan. Built from a large Studebaker wagon, its wheels were replaced with sled runners around 1890. The horse-drawn sleigh carried ladders, hoses, and firefighters through snowdrifts and blizzards to burning buildings.
Volunteer Fire Departments
Cincinnati, Ohio, became the first town with a professional municipal fire department of paid, full-time employees in 1853. At the time, however, volunteer fire brigades were still the norm. They functioned independently, and it was common for larger cities to have a dozen or more fire departments.
Volunteer fire departments were proud of their equipment and often decorated pumpers with attractive artwork. The museum displays a Pawtucket, Rhode Island, pumper’s “condenser box” loaded with several paintings. One depicts the Biblical Rebecca, the wife of Isaac, at a well. Another is of St. Euphemia, a patron saint of firemen. The Rhode Island state seal and state motto also are inscribed. Examples of décor from other fire companies and manufacturers feature intricate paint schemes, as well as images of flowers.
Volunteer fire departments often had hose carriages used exclusively in parades; these fancy pieces were only for show, and not for firefighting. Several elaborate hose carriages are displayed at the museum, including the Buckley & Merritt hand-drawn parade carriage. Built in the 1870s for the Hotchkiss Hose Company of Derby, Connecticut, its drum-shaped body has mirrored panels that rotated as the carriage moved down the street. The mirrors reflected light from the carriage’s lanterns, giving the whole thing a shimmering appearance. At the front of the carriage, engraved on a brass decorative piece, is the Hotchkiss Hose Company’s motto: “To Do Good Is Our Intent.”
Hall Of Flame’s Origin
George F. Getz Jr., founder of the Hall of Flame, was in his mid-40s and a successful businessman when his fascination with fire engines and firefighting equipment began. On Christmas morning, 1955, his present wasn’t under the family Christmas tree. Instead it was sitting in his driveway: a 1924 Type 12 American LaFrance pumper fire engine. His wife, Olive, bought it for him.
Getz really got a kick out of that fire engine. He gave neighborhood kids rides on it. He proudly drove it in local parades and at civic events in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where he lived. Eventually he started acquiring other antique and historic pieces of firefighting equipment, and by 1961 he needed a warehouse to store it all.
The Getz family moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1970, and so did the collection of firefighting equipment. In 1974 the Hall of Flame opened at its current location and has grown to include fire engines and equipment from the United States, Japan, and Europe. It is still run by the Getz family, with George’s grandson, also named George, at the helm.
The Motorized Gallery
In Gallery Two, visitors see motorized fire equipment from the early 1900s to the mid-1950s. The vehicles range in size from the tiny to the titanic. Getz’s first fire engine is there. Originally owned by the Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Fire Department, it sports the town’s name painted in gold block letters on its hood, and its glistening red paint is trimmed in gold striping.
One of the oddities in this gallery is the Mack/Holloway Ladder and Chemical Truck. It’s a singular combination that uses horse power and a motor. The Baltimore Fire Department created it by matching a 1918 Type AC Mack truck with its 1885 Holloway horse-drawn ladder/chemical wagon. The unit went into service in 1923 and was retired in 1952. No doubt it provided a bone-jarring ride, with its hard rubber tires and solid steel disk wheels.
Virtually all the engines and trucks in the motorized galleries are showroom quality. A prime example is the American LaFrance triple combination fire engine used in Norfolk, Nebraska, from 1935 until the 1960s. It looks ready to roll, should the station-house alarm sound. It was American LaFrance’s largest fire engine. Painted snow white, its long, majestic hood brings to mind the styling of large touring cars from the 1930s. Its V-12 engine could get it rolling at more than 60 mph. Only 170 of these were built, because most departments couldn’t afford them.
On one wall in the gallery are a dozen huge frames, each containing patch collections. Nearly every fire department in the United States is represented, in surprisingly different designs and colors. You don’t have to search each frame to find your city’s patch; just refer to the alphabetical listing of cities.
How are firefighters and other emergency personnel dispatched to where they are needed? In Gallery Three, the Phoenix Fire Department alarm system, used by the department from 1955 to 1975, is installed. As you look over the equipment, you also will hear recordings of actual emergency dispatch broadcasts.
Numerous displays depict the evolution of other equipment used by firefighters, from axes to wrenches, breathing apparatus to garb, and gloves to helmets — even speaking trumpets, once used by fire chiefs to direct firefighters at fires.
Despite the progression in firefighting equipment that’s evident at the Hall of Flame, one aspect of firefighting remains unchanged: It’s still a dangerous profession.
The National Firefighting Hall of Heroes recognizes firefighters decorated for acts of heroism and remembers those firefighters who have died in the line of duty since 1981. The 2001 attack on the World Trade Center is specially memorialized in a depiction of an American Quarter Horse with boots turned backward in its saddle’s stirrups. The name and photo of each officer and firefighter killed is displayed, as is a piece of steel from one of the World Trade Center buildings.
It has often been said that necessity is the mother of invention. The truth of that adage is evident at the Hall of Flame. The need to more effectively fight fires, save lives, and reduce property damage is plain to see in the history of firefighting.
Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting
6101 E. Van Buren St.
Phoenix, AZ 85008
The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4:00 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, $5 for students ages 6 to 17, $2 for children 3 to 5, and free for children 2 and under. Ample free RV parking is available.