Alexandria’s Historic Fire-Fighting Vehicles Desperate for Restoration

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By Bill Kehoe

The “Prettyman Hose Reel”, made in Alexandria VA, in 1858. This hand-drawn carriage hauled leather hoses to fire scenes which supplied water to hand-pumper fire engines from wells, primitive fire hydrants, and cisterns. This vehicle is mostly devoid of its original paint, and has structural damage needing restoration. (Photo:Friendship Fire Museum)
The “Prettyman Hose Reel”, made in Alexandria VA, in 1858. This hand-drawn carriage hauled leather hoses to fire scenes which supplied water to hand-pumper fire engines from wells, primitive fire hydrants, and cisterns. This vehicle is mostly devoid of its original paint, and has structural damage needing restoration. (Photo:Friendship Fire Museum)

For about the first century in Alexandria, most residents lived in wooden buildings with open flames providing light and heat for warmth and cooking.  Fire was a constant danger.  In the beginning, water to fight fires had to be carried in buckets from nearby wells, and from the Potomac River or Hunting Creek.   Then came the hand-pulled hose reels and the early fire engines, which considerably quelled the spread of many fires because water could be sprayed into a building or onto its roof.

The Suction wheel fire pumper was made in Baltimore MD, in 1851. This hand-drawn vehicle was the mainstay of fire fighting in Alexandria for decades. It has been repainted several times but not in the original colors. Additionally, the wheel hubs are cracked and need full restoration. (Photo: Friendship Fire Museum)
The Suction wheel fire pumper was made in Baltimore MD, in 1851. This hand-drawn vehicle was the mainstay of fire fighting in Alexandria for decades. It has been repainted several times but not in the original colors. Additionally, the wheel hubs are cracked and need full restoration. (Photo: Friendship Fire Museum)

Two vehicles in the collection of the Alexandria Firehouse Museum, located at 107 South Alfred Street, were of primary importance during this era – a suction pumper made in 1851 and a hose reel carriage made in 1858. Visitors can see them, both still housed at the same firehouse, built in1855.  The pair, however, need extensive conservation and restoration. The original paint on one vehicle has almost flaked away, while frequent repainting now masks the original colors and gilding on the other.  The goal is to restore the 19th century machines and preserve them for future generations.

Established in 1774, Friendship Fire Company is Alexandria’s first fire department and it used these very vehicles until the Civil War broke out, and then the Union Army used them and provided fire protection to the city.  The Friendship company continued in existence after the war, but a decline in membership saw the establishment of the career Alexandria Fire Department in 1866.

Today, the Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Association is the modern-day version of the old Friendship Fire Company and it serves as an advocate for fire and life safety within the city. It is also the museum’s friends group and is leading the way to conserve the pumper and hose reel.

A conservation company has been retained to perform the restorations which will require almost a year per vehicle.  And, the cost reflects the painstaking time and talent needed to do the job using historical accuracy.  The estimate to refurbish both vehicles $300,000.  The Friendship Veterans need the community’s help to realize the project’s success.

Donations are being accepted now to add to the conservation fund.  Now would be an excellent time to make a tax deductible donation before the end of the 2016 tax year.  The Association is a non-profit organization (501(c)3) Tax ID: 23-7034338.  Checks should be made payable to Friendship Conservation Fund, and sent to P.O. Box 22505, Alexandria VA 22304.  All donations will be acknowledged, and those donations of $100 and above will become a Friendship fire-fighter with a complimentary membership in the Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Association.