Two hand-drawn hose reels.

Two hand-drawn hose reels.

Long before the advent of self-propelled vehicles for fighting fires, equipment was hauled to a fire by manpower alone. This was fine for the large-wheeled hose reels and hand pumpers but, as fire equipment evolved and became heavier, this was more and more impractical. As horses were added and they became an integral part of every fire hall they were found to be indispensable as equipment had become even heavier and more complex — but with the development of steam pumpers everything changed!

Hand-pumped fire “engine”

Hand-pumped fire “engine”.

Before the first motorized fire engines took to the streets in the early years of the twentieth century, the most efficient fire fighting appliance was the horse-drawn steam pumper. This comprised a vertical water tube boiler providing steam for a pumping engine to force water through the hoses onto a fire. All this machinery was mounted on a horse-drawn sprung carriage with four steel-rimmed wooden wheels.

The steam fire engine was invented in 1829 by John Braithwaite, partner in the engineering firm of Brathwaite and Ericsson of London. This “steamer” included a boiler and two direct-acting steam pumps mounted on wheels and drawn by horses. The firebox was water-jacketed and was provided with a forced draught by a mechanical bellows, while the exhaust gas issued from a funnel behind the driver’s seat. The engine could throw 150 gallons (682 litres) of water per minute to a height of 90 feet (27.4 m).

At first the steamers were not popular due to their lack of power. The first British fire appliance maker to manufacture a “successful” steam pumper was Shand, Mason & Co, in 1858. After this, development occurred quickly and improved engines were devised which could pump at 200 strokes per minute — far more quickly than the fastest manual engine could be pumped.

Self Propelled Steam Pumper

Self Propelled Steam Pumper.

The era of the horse-drawn steam pumper fire engine lasted about 40 years, eventually developing compact lightweight equipment and boilers that could steam quickly. But as fire fighting methods and equipment evolved, the same problem arose for horses as it had for the men — the equipment was too heavy to pull by horses and soon, self-propelled models were introduced.

Until about 1910, the number of self-propelled, steam-powered engines gradually increased as the horse-drawn models decreased. It was not long after that commercially manufactured pumper engines were built that were powered by gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines. The steam pumper had seen its day.

Canadian Manufacturers: (courtesy of

The Canadian Fire Engine Company which built steam fire engines at London, Ontario in the early 1900s, but no further information has been found so far. The company’s engines are almost identical to those built by Ronald, so there may be some connection? Examples exist at: The Fort Erie LaFrance Association Museum, Fort Erie, Ontario; and The Port Colborne Volunteer Fire Co., Port Colborne, Ontario.

Ronald Steam Pumper

Ronald Steam Pumper

Ronald (Canada) Andrew Hyslop and John D. Ronald established an engineering and shipbuilding firm at Chatham, Ontario in the mid 19th century. In the 1860s they also turned their attention to building steam fire engines. However, financial difficulties, and an acrimonious dispute with the town of Chatham over their choice of steam fire engine to replace its hand-powered engines, led to the sale of the Hyslop & Ronald plant to engineer David Park in 1877. The following year, J.D. Ronald was approached by the town of Brussels, Ontario, with the offer of a loan of $20,000 to relocate his works there. In addition to steam fire engines, the newly-established Brussels Steam Fire Engine & Agricultural Works built separators and offered castings for implements such as reapers and mowers. From the 1880s the company began shipping steamers to western Canada, with engines being purchased by fire Departments at Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver. Ronald was still building steam fire engines in the mid 1890s, but the subsequent fate of the company is unclear; no doubt they eventually found it impossible to compete with cheaper engines being imported from the United States.

Waterous Steam Pumper

Waterous Steam Pumper.

Waterous (Canada/USA) Charles Horatio Waterous was born in Burlington, Vermont, USA in 1814 and at the age of fifteen he was apprenticed to a local blacksmith, Thomas Davenport. After subsequent work as a machinist and as an engineer on Great Lakes steamers, as well as an ill-fated partnership with Davenport building electric motors, he eventually accepted an offer to help reorganize a foundry business in Brantford, Ontario, Canada. Waterous transformed the foundry into a steam engine factory and soon found himself a partner in the firm. In 1864 he formed a new company, C. H. Waterous and Co. (later renamed Waterous Engine Works Co.) which achieved great success in producing sawmilling equipment, steam engines, and oil and water pumps. In the 1880s Waterous accepted an offer from the chamber of commerce in St. Paul, Minnesota (USA) to open a factory there, which was placed under the management of his son Frederick. The St. Paul works began to build steam fire engines from around 1886, and these were of an unusual appearance with the steam cylinders and pumps mounted horizontally on a tubular frame. Around 1898 Waterous steam fire engine production seems to have shifted to Brantford, Ontario, but is unclear whether there was any overlap. What is clear is that the Brantford-built engines were of a completely different design, with a crane-neck frame and the twin cylinders and pumps mounted vertically in front of the boiler. Waterous dominated the Canadian market with these engines as a result of their efficiency and reliability, and also achieved some sales success in South America. In 1898 they also introduced their first petrol-powered horse-drawn fire engine, and these went on to prove even more popular than the steamers. The first Waterous automobile fire engine appeared in 1906 and these were built until 1929, when the decision was made to specialize in pumps, hydrants, valves and accessories, an area which the company remains active in to this day.