Boise’s first steam fire engine was a major event

Boise’s fire department poses proudly with its new engine and new uniforms in 1879.
Boise’s fire department poses proudly with its new engine and new uniforms in 1879. Provided by Arthur Hart

Boise organized its first fire department in 1876, centennial year of the Declaration of Independence. Three years later, on July 15, 1879, the city’s first steam fire engine arrived from the east, 17 days after leaving Kelton, Utah, where it had been delivered by the Union Pacific Railroad. It was pulled across the sagebrush plains to Boise by draft animals as part of a string of freight wagons. The driver of that train was G.M. Mitchell. He told the Idaho Statesman that he had dealt with two main problems: “It stood so near the ground between the wheels” and “it would not track after the other wagons very well.” Mitchell did a good job getting the big engine to Boise in one piece, considering its weight and the roughness of the Kelton Road.

Boise’s fire engine was built in Seneca Falls, N.Y., by the Silsby Manufacturing Company, the most prolific maker of steam fire engines in the country in the 19th century. Between 1856 and 1891, when it merged with the Ahrens Co., Clapp & Jones Co. and Button Co. to form the American Fire Engine Co., it built more than 1,000 machines.

The function of a steam fire engine was to pump water out of a cistern, a river or a lake with enough force to reach the top of the tallest building. Boise had the Grove Street irrigation ditch to draw on most of the year and built cisterns under Main Street as well.

The Silsby, “bright as a new silver dollar,” was viewed with pride and delight by the whole community. It was labeled “Boise City” on a handsome scroll sign and was hailed as being “a model of workmanship, as good as any in San Francisco of the same size.”

At 6 p.m. on July 17, 1879, the new fire engine was run down to Grove Street for its first official public demonstration. The hose was strung out 500 feet “opposite C. Jacobs’ residence” (a landmark building still there). Blacksmith M.L. Lockwood, a former San Francisco fireman “with considerable experience in running fire engines,” had the honor of supervising the first demonstration. A light note on the historic occasion was furnished when “there was some carelessness in throwing the water where ladies and gentlemen were standing that caused an occasional scattering of the crowd. It was fun to some, noted the Idaho Statesman, “but unpleasant to those who got wet, especially the ladies who came elegantly dressed.”

The full power of the new engine was demonstrated on Tuesday, July 22, when water from the Grove Street ditch was pumped three blocks through 900 feet of hose 20 feet over the top of the new Methodist Church. That evening “the elite of the city” danced “until the small hours of the night” in celebration of Boise’s arrival as a modern city with a steam fire engine of its very own.

In May 1881, the first real test of the new machine revealed a fundamental problem that apparently had not been anticipated. Nearly a dozen buildings of wood-frame construction on the south side of Main Street between 7th and 8th streets were destroyed by a fire that started in the middle of the night in Orric Cole’s Palace Restaurant. “The firemen responded as quickly as the late hour would permit, but before they could get up steam and bring their stream to bear on the raging element, the whole building was a sheet of fire and the flames had already communicated to adjoining buildings.” Unless fire under the engine’s steam boiler was kept up around the clock, the delay in getting up steam could allow a fire to get out of control, as it had in this case.

The Statesman observed on May 11, 1881, “Stone cutters, brick layers and carpenters will now be in demand to build up the burnt district. This is, fortunately, the right season for doing such work, and it is to be hoped that none but substantial brick structures will be suffered to take the place of the rookeries destroyed.”

Several Washington state cities suffered severe fire damage in 1889: Seattle, June 6; Spokane, Aug. 4; Ellensburg, July 4; Palouse, May 17; and Roslyn, June 24. Vancouver and Goldendale also had destructive fires.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.