The history of transportation would be incomplete without the story of vehicles designed to make life safer. Fire, inevitable because of the preponderance of wooden buildings that were heated with wood and coal, inspired the development of fire engines. At its most basic, fire fighting consisted of a line of people passing buckets of water to each other or using wet burlap bags to beat down the flame. The purchase of an “engine pumper” by a community was a really big deal. At first firemen manually pumped water (hence the name) from the reservoirs into the pumper. Pumpers were taken by human or horse power to the fires, where hoses then could deliver a steady stream of water toward the fire. The introduction of a steam pumper was a giant leap forward, while the telegraph, and later the phone, made it possible for towns to summon fire departments from other villages to help fight a large fire. Often their pumpers were loaded on trains to avoid the rutted dirt roads that connected towns. 

 The Alley behind main in Reading after the fire

The Alley behind main in Reading after the fire

In 1899 a devastating fire described by the Reading Hustler as "The Fire Fiend," started in one of the liveries behind the stores on Main Street in Reading. Aided by a high wind, it quickly jumped the alley and ignited the buildings on the west side of the street. Although the Reading Fire Department owned an engine pumper, they couldn’t get it to work, and the townspeople rushed to help dump 20 barrels of salt on the flames. Once the pumper was fixed, five reservoirs in the village were quickly drained, after which thousands of buckets of water from private wells were passed from hand to hand. The Hillsdale and Jonesville fire departments were called for help. The Hillsdale fire engine was disabled, but the Jonesville pumper and several firemen made it to Reading in 17 minutes on the train—just as a sudden heavy rainstorm helped quench the flames. 

The less-than-reliable engine pumper of the 1800s evolved into dependable fire vehicles that arrived at fires in minutes—racing along smooth-surfaced roads—to save lives and property.

JoAnne P. Miller   2015