Engine Red: Vintage fire truck to be unveiled Saturday
A beautiful relic of Brownsville’s firefighting past is returning to downtown many, many years after fighting its last fire there.
A 1926 American LaFrance Type 31 ladder truck, brought back in fully restored condition after being sold to a Pennsylvania truck dealer in the late 1970s, will be unveiled at Vintage Days on May 4 at Market Square.
The ancient vehicle, fire-engine red with gold-leaf striping and lettering, was originally purchased by the city of Brownsville in 1927, a time of rapid growth for the city when the buildings were getting taller. It is 55 feet in length with a 75-foot wooden ladder in three sections, and came equipped with a folding “life net,” which resembles a trampoline, once used to rescue people from the upper stories of burning buildings.
The Type 31 was manufactured by the American LaFrance Fire Engine Company of Elmira, N.Y. It is a rare “tillered” ladder truck, meaning the front and rear both are steerable — essential to navigating the tight spaces of early downtown, said Eugene Fernandez, the Brownsville historian whose sleuthing led to the vehicle’s homecoming.
John W. Brown of Chambersburg, Penn., bought the truck from a private owner in Brownsville in the late 1970s, years after the city had sold it at auction, and painstakingly restored it to mint condition — no small task considering the vehicle’s advanced state of decay, Fernandez said.
“He took it and he absolutely brought it back,” he said.
Fernandez learned of the existence of the Type 31 in 2017 and traced it to Chambersburg. Brown, who restored the truck between 1998 and 2000, died in 2006, though Fernandez made contact with his son Ronald, who said it had always been his father’s wish that the vehicle would some day return to Brownsville, and that the city should be given the first opportunity to buy it back.
Last July, the city did just that, paying $50,000 for the rolling time capsule. Public Works Department personnel took delivery of the vehicle on a chilly day in February, building a dirt ramp to unload it from the flatbed trailer the truck had been transported on. Antique engine wizard Billy Maxwell got the machine running, then city personnel had to figure out how to drive it.
Fernandez said the hope was to have the truck ready in time for the Christmas Parade, though that didn’t happen. Probably the last time the Type 31 rolled through the streets of Brownsville was in late 1975, for a parade celebrating the nation’s bicentennial. Only half a century old then, it broke down in front of the Hotel El Jardin and required emergency repairs to get through the rest of the parade, Fernandez said.
Cesar Pedraza, BFD deputy fire chief, said it’s “pretty amazing” to have such a fascinating and important piece of the department’s and the city’s history back. BFD firefighters in the late 1920s were strictly devoted to putting out fires — no EMS, haz-mat or diving team — and they stayed busy, he said.
In those days, everybody burned coal and wood, most of the structures were heavy timber, there were no fire codes and so of course fires broke out all the time, Pedraza said. A fire could easily spread from one building to the next, which could quickly turn into a conflagration capable of destroying entire city blocks, he said.
City and BFD officials, therefore, showed foresight in purchasing the Type 31, one of the first tillered ladder trucks ever made, as necessary to safeguard the city’s newer, taller buildings, Pedraza said.
“That’s one of things that makes it so special,” he said. “It’s actually one of the first tillered trucks designed by an engine manufacturer. The need was here in Brownsville. We had multi-story buildings with very narrow streets.”
Incredibly, the Type 31 wasn’t put out to pasture until the 1960s, Pedraza said.
“It was really effective,” he said. “It was well built. It’s just an amazing piece of history. ... Our fire trucks now are so robust and have so many safety features. They’re built in such a way that they’re just huge. This thing is tiny in comparison but it had almost the same capabilities as we have nowadays.”
On Wednesday at the Public Works yard, the Type 31 was being spiffed up for its Vintage Days debut on Saturday, where it will be displayed in Market Square along with the BFD’s 1957 American LaFrance ladder truck. The unveiling takes place at 5 p.m.
Vintage Days caps three days of public events downtown, starting today with Gringo de Mayo from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. in Market Square, followed by First Friday on May 3, featuring live music at multiple downtown venues beginning at 7 p.m.
“If that fire truck could talk, the stories it could tell,” Pedraza said. “It’s exciting for us to see that piece of equipment out on the city streets again.”
Who at the BFD gets to drive it?
“Hopefully, I do,” Pedraza said.