Rare opportunity to see 1879 steam fire engine fired up, pumping
A circa-1879 Clapp & Jones steam-powered fire engine will be fired up as part of this weekend’s firemen’s muster activities in Virginia City, offering a unique opportunity to see a rare piece of fire history in operation.
The firemen’s muster today and Sunday is hosted by the nonprofit Comstock Firemen’s Museum and is free and open to the public.
A parade at 9 a.m. today on C Street will start the muster activities, with two days of competition sanctioned by the California Firemen’s Muster Association. Competition simulates firefighting evolutions and will include contests between 19th-century hand-pumped fire engines, motorized pumpers and hosewagons built between1900-1986, hose cart races and bucket brigade contests.
More information on the muster and a link to the CFMA website can be found on the muster website, virginiacitymuster.tlcurtis.com.
The 1879 Clapp & Jones, a double-vertical piston driven steam fire engine, will be fired up for a demonstration of its firefighting capabilities today following the motorized fire apparatus competition. It was manufactured in Hudson, N.Y., by the same company that supplied one of the five steam fire engines that helped protect Virginia City and Gold Hill from the ravages of fire during the mining boom days of the 1870s.
Approximately 5,000 steam-powered fire engines were manufactured in the United States between 1852 and 1917. It has been estimated that fewer than 400 exist today. The Clapp & Jones Manufacturing Co. built more than 600 steamers over a 30-year period beginning in 1862.
Virginia City’s steamer bears manufacturer’s number 313, but little else of its history is known including its exact year of manufacture because the Clapp & Jones factory suffered a major fire that destroyed a large portion of its manufacturing records. What is known that the steamer was once part of the 20th Century Fox Studio’s property holdings and that it was used in the 1937 production of “In Old Chicago,” with Tyrone Power, Don Ameche and Alice Faye, which featured an extensive portrayal of the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. It was also featured in the closing scenes of the Fox movie “Hangover Square,” in 1946, starring Linda Darnell and George Sanders, although modified to resemble an English “Metropolitan” style fire engine.
The steamer is part of the collection of the Comstock Firemen’s Museum, which undertook a 2 1/2-year restoration of the engine under the supervision of Museum Trustee Jack Greenhalgh and steam power consultant Tom Gray, who operates the Virginia & Truckee Railroad and is also a long-time museum member and past member of the fire department.
The museum acquired the steamer on loan from a Southern California man and later purchased it for about $25,000. Restoration of the steamer cost about $55,000 including a $45,000 grant from the E.L. Weigand Foundation of Reno that helped cover construction and installation of a new boiler to put it into operating condition.
The Comstock Firemen’s Museum opened on July 4, 1979, with the ringing of the old fire bell and signaling a traditional “housing” of the historic fire equipment that is now displayed. The museum, on Virginia City’s main street, is open daily from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. from May through October.
The museum has hosted several firemen’s musters in Virginia City in conjunction with CFMA beginning in 1981.