Return of Engine 1 is like reconnecting with a ‘lost love’
The brilliant red American LaFrance fire engine that now sits at Jamestown’s fire station made its last service call in 1973. Although no one remembers what the call involved, everyone – Jamestown Fire Department volunteers, past and present – remembers the American LaFrance. Its unmemorable ending was in contrast to its 26 years of service and its heralded beginning.
Purchased in 1946 by the town, the American LaFrance was the first motorized engine the town had bought brand new.
“It was the first that wasn’t a hand-medown,” said Bob Bryer, a former Jamestown fire chief who was part of the fire department when Engine 1 went into service. With its V12 engine, dual distributor and 24 plugs, the LaFrance was “top of the line.”
Soon after its final return to the station in 1972, Engine 1 was sold to Leviton, a manufacturing company in Warwick. Today, 37 years later, the American LaFrance has returned to Jamestown as a permanent feature of the Jamestown Fire Museum.
The LaFrance’s return after more than three decades was tempered when it became evident that years of sporadic care had taken its toll. With no brakes, a dented front end and other infirmities, the LaFrance was now more Daewoo than Cadillac.
“It was in rough shape,” said Ken Caswell, a volunteer firefighter and unofficial head of the museum.
The much hoped-for return of Engine 1 to Jamestown took patience and generosity. Even after its sale to Leviton, locals kept tabs on the engine. In the 1990s, someone noticed that the LaFrance was not being used by the manufacturer and had been relegated to a spot behind one of the company’s plants. These observations and reports of the engine’s whereabouts went on for years until, finally, the museum was able to buy the LaFrance and bring it back to Jamestown.
But the homecoming was short-lived. Roughly a year after the purchase, Engine 1 was sold to a private party that promised to take good care of it.
“We again gave it up,” said Bryer, explaining that at the time, the museum had no space to house the engine (The addition had not yet been built). Rather than park the engine outside, exposing it to more damage, the museum team decided to sell it.
Now that the museum has enough space to store and restore the LaFrance, local resident Bill Murphy purchased Engine 1 in September 2009 and donated it to the museum. To the local volunteer fire-fighting force – present and past – the return of the LaFrance was like reconnecting with a lost love.
“You have to understand,” Caswell said. “The volunteers work on these trucks for 20 to 25 years – polishing, working, saving lives and property.” Their attachment to their engines, he said, “lasts more than most marriages.”
This spark was evident as Bud Waltz inspected the LaFrance, recounted service runs and near collisions, and reminisced about his fire department service, which began during World War II when he would help open and close hydrants. As Waltz gazed at the LaFrance, he noticed that the grill of the engine was not the original.
“I don’t like this one,” he remarked. Caswell quickly assured him that a grill in the original style would eventually be installed.
Caswell, who has 30 years of service with the fire department, has his memories as well. “As a kid I would slide down the fender of the engine,” he said.
Born in Jamestown, Caswell’s fire department roots go back generations. His father was a member of the fire department, one of his grandfathers was fire chief in the 1940s and another grandfather ran the steam engine (now housed in the museum) in the 1900s.
Such tradition is not unusual among the volunteers, and it explains the affinity – and the affection – they harbor for engines like the LaFrance. It’s also what makes the museum a vital piece of their lives.
“It’s astonishing what we have here,” said Bryer, who has served the department for 43 years. His son, Jim, is the current fire chief and his granddaughter is a volunteer.
Both Caswell and Bryer believe the museum is important because it honors residents who have served on the force and documents the history of the Jamestown Fire Department.
“These old trucks are all pretty special,” Caswell said. Preserving them is “very important to Jamestown, and for the people these volunteers helped.”