Alexandria History

Celebrate at the Friendship Firehouse Festival

(Photos courtesy of OHA)

Alexandria, VA – The Friendship Firehouse Festival is Saturday, August 6. Come to the Friendship Firehouse Museum on the 100 block of South Alfred Street from 9 am to 2 pm to celebrate Friendship’s 248th year. It will be the last time to see the Friendship Fire Company’s hand-operated suction fire engine before it goes out for conservation treatment.

The festival is an excellent opportunity to learn about fire safety today and yesterday and to see city firefighting equipment up close. There will be fun for all with music, displays by community organizations, craft vendors, and food and beverages available. Children will receive free toy firefighting helmets sporting the Friendship shield.

In addition to the hand-operated suction fire engine, Friendship’s newly restored 1858 hose reel carriage will be on exhibit. Local craftsman Robert F. Prettyman made this ornate and colorful piece. The festival is presented by the Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Association and Historic Alexandria.

The Friendship Firehouse Museum’s recently restored 1858 hose-reel carriage. (Photo: Jim Holloway)
Friendship’s 1851 hand-operated suction fire engine. (Photo: Anna Frame)

The Friendship Fire Company, established in 1774, was the first fire company in Alexandria. The company purchased the hand-operated suction fire engine in 1851 for $1,100. It is a Philadelphia-type engine made by John Rodgers in Baltimore. He was an Irish immigrant who began building firefighting apparatus in the mid to late 1820s. In the 1840s and 50s, he was one of the country’s most prominent builders of Philadelphia-style fire engines. About a dozen of his engines survive today.

Friendship member and secretary John Muir described the company’s new hand suction engine as being of “the most substantial construction, having a mahogany box, balloon-shaped air vessel, levers and arms of the best style, and wheels of unusual strength, as best suited to a rapid movement over our rough streets – the whole constituting an engine of decided beauty and efficiency.” When the company tested the engine, it threw water 155 feet.

Firefighters pulled the suction engine from place to place by hand. It has a two-cylinder brass piston pump mounted in a wooden water reservoir designed to suction water from a hose on one side and then force it out through a hose on the other. Running the engine was very hard work. A team of 22 men was needed to operate the pumping levers and provide a constant output of even water pressure. They had to rest every two to three minutes! Replacement firefighters stood ready to take their place.

The mid-19th century marked the height of volunteer firefighting in the United States. Thanks to technological developments, sophisticated fire equipment was produced, and firefighting was no longer dependent on bucket brigades. Friendship’s hand-operated suction fire engine was developed in Philadelphia around the last quarter of the 18th century as an improvement on earlier British engine designs. Philadelphia-style fire engines were highly favored in mid-Atlantic communities from Philadelphia to Richmond, popular in New York City and San Francisco, and found to some extent in cities throughout the rest of the country. Powerful machines for firefighting, they were also ornate with carved moldings and sculptures, making them suitable for parades. On Friendship’s engine, you can see the company’s carved clasped-hand symbol on each side and other decorative touches.

The restoration of Friendship’s hand suction engine is possible thanks to the generous support of the Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Association, Alexandria Association, Historic Alexandria Foundation, and many individual donors. While the pumper is in good structural condition, repairs are needed and degrading surfaces need treatment. For displaying and telling the story of the engine’s history, a historic paint scheme from when the engine was in service will be replicated on top of the existing paint. The conservator will also identify, document, and preserve the appearance of every layer of paint.

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