Michigamme’s steamer comes home, by Bill Van Kosky

In May 2007, Michigamme’s 1900 horse-drawn steam fire engine came home. When the old steamer was sold in the early 1960s, it was regarded as an obsolete relic and was begrudged the space it occupied in a back corner of the village fire hall.
Over the years, this perception changed. When the steamer was eased down a ramp at the end of a flatbed truck to touch the pavement of Michigamme’s Barnum Street after a forty-five-year absence, a jubilant crowd cheered the return of a precious community heirloom.
Marquette County’s westernmost community, named after nearby Lake Michigamme, was obliterated by a forest fire only a year after the first settlers built homes and businesses there in 1872. Bedraggled men and women with wet towels and rags around their heads emerged shivering from the lake, salvaged what they could from the ashes and set about rebuilding.
Another calamity followed. The Panic of 1873, a severe nationwide economic contraction, caused shutdowns, reduced hours, layoffs and wage cuts at iron mines in the vicinity. Spending for fire protection and other services had to be postponed. Toward the end of the decade, however, the village board authorized formation of a volunteer fire department and the purchase of a chemical fire engine.
This apparatus consisted essentially of two horizontal metal tanks, resembling present-day propane or oxygen vessels, mounted side-by-side on a wagon chassis small enough to be pulled by two men.
The tanks contained a mixture of water and bicarbonate of soda. At the fire, sulfuric acid was mixed with the contents of one tank, generating carbon dioxide gas that built up pressure inside the tank. Foam poured through a hose and out its nozzle. When one tank was nearly depleted, acid was added to the other tank. By recharging and alternating tanks, firemen could maintain a constant flow of pressurized carbon dioxide to smother the fire.
After giving several years of good service, Michigamme’s chemical engine made its last run in the summer of 1881. The death of the fireman who had operated the engine for years left the device in the hands of others whose self-confidence exceeded their expertise. When an alarm sounded on July 28, the chemical apparatus was taken from the fire hall and set up in front of a burning house. While the firemen tinkered with valves and levers and argued with one another about what to do, eight houses burned to the ground. This fiasco was blamed on the chemical engine, which, according to an article in the Mining Journal, “was thrown aside and never used again.”
The same newspaper article mentioned that Michigamme replaced the chemical engine with a hand engine, commonly referred to as a “pumper.” Such machines had been obsolete for thirty years, but for small towns with buildings no higher than two stories, pumpers were adequate in most situations they were likely to face. Like the chemical engine, Michigamme’s pumper was light enough in weight to be pulled by two men. Once in place, eight men operated it.
Two long horizontal handles on opposite sides of the hand engine moved up and down in seesaw fashion by human muscle power, activated the pump. At least sixty strokes per minute were needed to provide sufficient suction to draw water into the pump and force it out through the attached hose and nozzle. This was exhausting work, requiring frequent relief.
A Mining Journal reporter was present at one fire where “every man and boy in Michigamme” helped keep the pump going. During an 1896 conflagration when three business places burned, “nearly everyone, including some of the women” took multiple turns at the pump handles.
After this fire, there was some talk of upgrading the fire equipment. Michigamme’s hand engine was, after all, little different than those used to douse flames after British troops set fire to Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812. On the other hand the pumper, although antiquated, still could put out fires. Lack of pumping capacity was its major shortcoming. There was much discussion, but no action was taken.
Four years later, with the population of the village approaching 1,200, fire risk had increased and the pumper’s inadequacy was of greater concern to the township board. Fire protection at last moved to the top of the priority list. Beginning in February 1900, several articles in the Mining Journal and Ishpeming’s newspaper, the Iron Ore, documented action taken to reduce Michigamme’s vulnerability to fire.
By unanimous vote, the township board decided to replace the hand-operated pump with a fire engine of the most advanced design available. Township supervisor Gordon Murray sent away for catalogs of several steam fire engine manufacturers. He also visited Upper Peninsula towns that were about the same size as Michigamme, where steamers were being used.
The board ordered a steamer from the American Fire Engine Company of Cincinnati (Ohio). Several sizes were available, differing in the volume of water they could pump. A “Fifth Size” machine with a capacity of about 300 gallons per minute, was chosen. At that time, large cities were likely to be using “Double Extra First Size” engines capable of pumping 1,300 gallons per minute.
A choice of models was offered, ranging from aesthetically plain and mechanically adequate at the lower end, to ornate and powerful at the top. Michigamme’s board opted for the $3,500 “Metropolitan” model, which one fire apparatus historian described as, “the Cadillac of steamers,” primarily because of its mechanical excellence. The Metropolitan featured gleaming nickel-plated furnishings, and decorative pinstripes and scrollwork resembling that on the most elegant circus wagons. There was no chance this engine would be mistaken for another in parades or at Upper Peninsula Firemen’s Association tournaments due to a large cast nameplate curved around the front of the smokestack with bold letters reading MICHIGAMME.
Late in July, the new steam fire engine completed its journey by rail from Cincinnati to Michigamme. An engineer from the factory accompanied the machine, so he could show firemen how to use and maintain it.
Michigamme’s correspondent to the Mining Journal wrote, “The steamer was unloaded in the morning, and given a trial down by the lake in the afternoon. About 1,500 feet of hose was laid. The test was witnessed by a large number of the people here, and was pronounced a success.”
Steam power operated the pump on the new fire engine, but could not move the 5,000-pound machine. Two draft horses were needed for that. Several months earlier, the township board had decided to improve fire response time by using a team of horses to replace the firemen who had until then pulled the hand engine.
As an article in the Iron Ore put it, “The idea of firemen hauling their own engine is and always was preposterous.”
Since a volunteer fire department could not feed and care for horses, and because many households in Michigamme kept draft animals, an incentive was announced. The first person to show up at the fire hall after an alarm had been sounded with a team of horses in harness would be paid $3.50.
This practice proved to be successful, and was continued when the steamer replaced its hand-powered predecessor. Years later, the fee was upped to $5. Persistent stories around town say there was some abuse of the “first team harnessed” policy during the 1920s. It seems there were several fires of suspicious origin, when decrepit barns and ramshackle outbuildings mysteriously caught fire late at night.
According to an elderly resident, it was common knowledge that someone would harness his team and then light a fire someplace.
“As soon as he heard the (alarm) bell he’d be at the fire hall and get his team hitched to the engine before anyone else had a chance to throw their legs over the side of the bed and pull on their pants,” the resident said.
If a fire broke out at night, the village night watchman was responsible for summoning volunteers by ringing the bell that hung in the fire hall belfry. During the day, anyone who spotted a fire could ring the bell. Firemen would converge on the hall, while nearby homeowners rushed to harness their teams and vie for the hitch-up fee.
One fireman, the designated engineer of the steamer, kept shavings and kindling in the firebox ready for ignition at all times when the steamer was at the hall. As soon as the machine was hauled outside, he lit the fire. Firebox, boiler and smokestack were designed to minimize the time it took to build up steam pressure. Sparks and smoke poured from the stack, and coal was shoveled atop the flaming kindling. Intense heat was transmitted to boiler tubes filled with water, producing steam. Michigamme’s steamer, like the other Metropolitan models of the American Fire Engine Company, could accomplish this—from a cold firebox to steam—in an amazing two minutes.
With the engineer riding on the rear platform and the driver on the front seat guiding the galloping horses, the steamer left a trail of black smoke as it rumbled through the streets. A short rod under the driver’s footrest, when stomped on, rang a bell to clear the way. Meanwhile, other firemen pulled a two-wheeled hose cart or hitched a team of horses to a larger four-wheeled hose cart. For house fires, a horse-drawn, hook-and-ladder wagon also would be taken from the fire hall. Ladders might be needed for rescue work, or to gain height for a better hose angle. Hooks on the end of long poles were for pulling down burning walls if flames threatened nearby buildings.
At the fire, a twenty-foot suction hose four inches in diameter was coupled onto the steamer’s pump intake and lowered into a water source. Within the village limits five cisterns and the inexhaustible natural reservoir—Lake Michigamme—served this purpose. Out in the township, various lakes, rivers and ponds provided water, depending on where the fire happened to be. The steamer thus had to be within twenty feet of the water supply, but could push water through hundreds of feet of hose from there.
While firemen sprayed water on the fire, the engineer tended the controls and kept boiler pressure in the proper range. When necessary, he added coal to the fire, from bags or boxes stored on the rear platform. After the steamer was returned to the hall, the engineer cleaned and lubricated it, and laid the “fixings” for the next fire.
This scenario was repeated whenever the village fire bell clanged. Old calendars were discarded and new ones tacked up. Fire engine technology advanced. America’s first gasoline-powered pumper was built on an Oldsmobile chassis by the Webb Motor Fire Apparatus Company of Vincennes (Indiana), in 1906. It was sold to the City of Lansing for $6,500. This fire truck and numerous successors had gasoline engines that both propelled the vehicles and powered their pumps. Steamer production ceased in 1917, and by the mid-1920s most major cities had scrapped their horse-drawn engines or sold them to small towns. The Detroit fire department closed its fire-horse college and put its faith in internal combustion fire engines during this era.
In Michigamme, history was repeating itself. A hand engine, although outmoded, had served the community’s fire protection needs from the 1870s to 1900. Now the steamer that replaced the hand-engine was itself obsolete, but still in service. In 1928, the township bought a Ford AA fire truck, which was in effect a pickup truck with a front-mounted pump powered by the truck engine.
The steamer still could be used on its own (by 1928, horsepower was assured through a contract with a man who lived across the alley from the fire hall and had a team of horses), or it could be towed behind the truck. For house fires or other large blazes, steamer and truck could both pump water, increasing the number of hose streams available to firemen.
Together and separately, these two engines responded to fire alarms for well over twenty years after the purchase of the Ford truck. Michigamme’s firefighting arsenal at this time also included an improved chemical engine towed behind the truck.
The township bought a new Chevrolet pump truck in 1942. Its high-capacity pump demoted the 1900 steamer and 1928 fire truck from front line service to standby and ceremonial status. Except for rare occasions when two engines were needed simultaneously, they sat idle in the fire hall.
In 1962, a collector of antique vehicles offered to pay the township $1,100 for the two old engines. His offer was accepted, and the engines were hauled away.
There was little turnover in the Michigamme fire department, so most firemen serving during the 1960s and ’70s had first-hand knowledge of the steamer. Memorable experiences involving the steamer were told and retold at the fire hall. Toward the end of the 1970s, two new volunteers—Charlie Gardner and John Leaf—joined the department. Hearing the stories, especially as told by the steamer’s last engineer, Ed Olson, inspired the young men. They conceived the idea of locating the steamer and bringing it back to Michigamme.
Unfortunately, by then no one could remember who the purchaser had been. Nevertheless, a search began for the American Metropolitan steamer with “MICHIGAMME” on its nameplate, bought by an unidentified man from somewhere below the Mackinac Bridge in 1962.
Gardner and Leaf inquired about the steamer at fire departments along the way every time they went to the Lower Peninsula. One after another, leads that seemed promising fizzled. Another twenty years elapsed. Then, in 2000, the Leaf family bought a computer and used it to establish contact with Ken Soderbeck of Jackson (Michigan) a restorer of antique fire apparatus. He directed Leaf to a book that listed the Michigamme steamer and identified its owner.
Following up on this, Gardner and Leaf learned that the listed owner had died. His collection had been moved to the home of a daughter, Sheila Payea, in Tawas City. She confirmed that the long-sought steamer was in one of her pole barns, along with all the other antique vehicles and parts left to her by her father. She was sympathetic to the idea of seeing the steamer go back to Michigamme, but the estate was embroiled in a legal wrangle that prevented sale of any part of the inherited collection.
Payea readily granted permission for Gardner and Leaf to visit the steamer they regarded as a long-lost friend. Among other items crammed into Payea’s barns was the Ford fire engine that had been sold at the same time as the steamer.
In June 2004, as a result of a court order, the collection was put up for auction. A delegation from Michigamme was there, with $12,000 raised from local donations and fundraising activities, and a $60,000 interest-free loan from the township. Before the auction, they circulated through the crowd, telling people why they were there and asking them not to bid on the steamer. This had some remarkable results.
Some potential bidders refrained from entering the competition. A man whom they had met only a few hours earlier, wrote out a check for $1,000 to add to the Michigamme kitty toward purchase of the steamer. Another stranger said, “Don’t lose it by $500. I’ll write you a check for that much if you need it.”
The most extraordinary show of support came from Payea, who declared that she wanted Michigamme to reclaim its historic steamer and would match the township dollar for dollar with her own money. This created a pool of more than $130,000, but it wasn’t enough. A bidder from Cripple Creek (Colorado) who was unmoved by sentimental considerations, also wanted the steamer. Seeing their bids relentlessly topped, Michigamme and Payea dropped out at $139,000. The next bid, $140,000, won the steamer. The new owner said that he and some other investors intended to display the old engine at a theme park they planned to build in Arizona.
Although dejected at having failed in their attempt to buy the steamer, the Michigamme delegation still had a fighting chance of taking home the 1928 Ford fire engine. The bidding for it began a few minutes after the steamer had been sold. With all hopes and plans directed at winning the steamer, the group had not discussed what to do in this situation. An impromptu decision was made to join in the bidding for the truck, using the $12,000 acquired from donations and fundraisers. Gardner, representing Michigamme, entered the fray. As the bids escalated, he looked at township supervisor John Olson and mouthed, “What do you want me to do?”
Gardner later said, “The look on John’s face told me not to allow us to be beaten twice in one day.” The loan of township funds secured for the steamer would cover any excess beyond $12,000. The truck was hammered down to Gardner for $15,000. Within a few weeks, donations paid off the $3,000 loan from the township. The truck, unencumbered by debt, was added to the Michigamme museum’s collection of local artifacts.
Shortly after returning from the auction, Gardner wrote a report to the community, tracing the saga of the steamer search and its sad outcome. The final paragraph read, “It was heartwarming to have been involved with such good people from Michigamme and to experience the generosity of others who did not know us before the auction. This shall always be a bittersweet experience for me. I have hope, but think it unlikely that we will ever see our steamer back in Michigamme where it belongs.”
It took a few more years, but, against odds, Gardner’s hopes were realized. The theme park deal fell through, and by 2007 the owner had decided to sell the steamer.
No one in Michigamme was aware of this until the steamer appeared for sale on an Internet auction site with a $160,000 minimum bid, in April, 2007. A week later, having attracted no bids, the auction closed. Fireman Leaf talked with Gardner, township supervisor Olson and others who been instrumental in the steamer recovery effort. Then he called the owner, who agreed to sell the steamer to Michigamme for $150,000.
The township board showed its commitment to preserving village heritage by advancing another interest-free loan, this time for the entire purchase price. A fundraising committee, chaired by Gardner and calling itself The Steam Team, was immediately formed. Gardner, now chief of the Michigamme-Spurr Volunteer Fire Department, noted, “This is a huge challenge, but every dollar of the township loan must be, and will be, repaid.”
As of July 20, through a variety of appeals, activities and events, $3,500 has been raised toward paying off the $150,000 obligation.
Michigamme’s steamer, in better original condition than most others that avoided scrap drives and junkyards, has returned home to stay. Community pride in this achievement was perhaps best expressed in an understatement by museum president Don Moore while showing off the steamer and truck to a group of visitors. Patting the steamer’s smokestack, he grinned and quipped, “Not bad for a dot on the map with a population of 377.”
—Bill Van Kosky
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