Unsolved mystery

Fate unknown of 1917 Bedford fire truck

Texas researcher on quest to find out

By Ruth Wright
Staff Writer

BEDFORD, Ky. (January 2004) – A search for the whereabouts of a 1917 American LaFrance fire engine has come to a dead-end in Bedford, Ky., leaving the man behind the quest wondering exactly what became of the old engine.
James Longmire, 43, of Austin, Texas, has since the early 1980s been on a quest to locate as many as possible of the piston-pump type fire trucks manufactured by ALF in the early 1900s. Through his search, Longmire uncovered records about such an engine that was purchased by the city of Bedford in 1937. Thereafter, the trail mysteriously ends.

1918 fire truck

Photo provided by James Longmire

The fate of a truck like this one is unknown.

A former fireman, Longmire became interested in ALF piston pumpers after he restored one owned by the Orange, Texas, fire department, where he began working in 1979. The fire engine, circa 1917, had been stored for several years in a side bay at the department’s central firehouse when, for fun, Longmire took on the task of restoring it.
“My mom instilled in me an appreciation for antiques,” said Longmire. “The idea of bringing history back to life was really big for me.”
In his spare time, Longmire scrubbed from the truck’s nickel and chrome surfaces layers of gray paint. The truck had been painted in the 1940s during the war in order to prevent its shiny surfaces from reflecting light, according to Longmire.
Longmire not only restored the outside of the fire truck, but also, with the help of a retired mechanic, got the engine going in time for a trip to ALF’s 150th anniversary celebration in Elmira, N.Y., where he drove the restored piston pumper in a parade. Not long after, Longmire began what has turned into a more than 20-year search for the remaining ALF piston pumpers of the same era as the Orange, Texas, truck. “I have sort of taken it on as my mission in life to locate as many of these as possible and document their history as best as possible,” Longmire said.
Through Internet searches and a letter-writing campaign, Longmire has uncovered empirical evidence of only two other ALF piston pumpers still in existence. The Indianapolis Fire Department, he discovered, purchased another such engine in 1917. Longmire has traced the ALF engine to Bedford, Ky., where the trail goes cold.
ALF technical services coordinator Rob Haldeman confirmed that a brand new Type 37 American LaFrance pumper with a piston-type fire pump was shipped to the Indianapolis Fire Department on Feb. 10, 1917.
“My notes tell me that it was the first Type 37 produced and that the motor was nickel plated, not painted. The piston type fire pumps used a large pressure tank, which would have been mounted behind the seat,” Haldeman responded to an email inquiry.
The ALF Type 37, factory No. 1446, was in service with the Indianapolis Fire Department until 1927, when it was sent to the repair shop where it was used as a reserve engine, according to fire department historian Greg Roembke. After a brief assignment as Engine 16, the ALF engine was once again put in reserve service, Roembke said.
When the Ohio River left its banks during the great flood of 1937, many river cities, including Madison, requested assistance. When possible, the Indianapolis Fire Department and other of the state’s fire departments sent pump trucks to aid in the pumping of floodwater.
“On Jan. 27, Engine 20 was sent to Madison. Engine 20 broke down en route, and was replaced by Engine 6. On Jan. 28, Engine 6 was replaced by a reserve engine, the American LaFrance,” said Roembke.
The ALF engine remained in use in Madison until Feb. 9, 1937, when the chief of the Indianapolis Fire Department repair shop was sent to pick it up. At that time, “They were requested to demonstrate the pumper at Bedford, Ky., and after checking with the chief back in Indianapolis, it was sold to Bedford for $500,” confirmed Roembke.
Instituted in 1832, as the LaFrance Manufacturing Co. of Elmira, American LaFrance Corp. has since secured a sterling reputation among the world’s leading fire apparatus manufacturers. American LaFrance fire engines could be expected to last many years, according to retired fire chief Gordon Whitney of Madison. “American LaFrance was like the Cadillac (of fire engines),” Whitney said. Accordingly, it was not unusual for used engines to be re-sold. When Bedford purchased the 1917 American LaFrance in 1937, it became the town’s first automated fire engine.
Former Bedford mayor and a member of the town’s second volunteer fire department, James Black, 80, recalled the city’s acquisition of the engine. The late Joe Frost, former water department head, was responsible for the purchase, Black said.
Bedford used the fire engine for several years before it was retired from service for the last time, according to Black. He recalled that for many years, the engine sat in a field beside what is now Culton’s Auction House on Hwy. 42 in Bedford. “It sat out in an open field until it rusted and fell away,” Black said. “Weeds grew up around it, the tires all fell off of it and the wooden spokes deteriorated,” he said. Then, one day the old engine was gone.
Black said he did not know what became of the engine after it was removed from the field. The most likely fate seems to have been the junkyard, he said.
A search of the Trimble County Public Library and Trimble County Historical Society records has offered no clue as to the final fate of the old engine. Longmire has spoken with several people in the area, including Trimble County resident Joshua Olds, whom he said seemed to remember seeing the remains of the old engine somewhere in the woods. To date, no evidence of the engine’s whereabouts have been confirmed.
Longmire said he continues to hope that someone will come forward who can offer a definitive answer about what happened to the 1917 ALF, No. 1446. In the meantime, he continues to look for other ALF engines and hope to have a website dedicated to his search up soon.

• Anyone with information concerning the 1917 ALF fire engine No. 1446 is welcome to contact the RoundAbout Entertainment Guide at 1-800-343-3005 or info@roundabout.bz.

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