People frequently use phases such as “one of a kind”, “one in a million,” or “in a class by itself.” Too often those statements are mere hyperbole and highly inaccurate. Such is not the case for our featured apparatus. This truck, from its inception, was truly one of a kind. Later in its life, it went through three major re-fittings and alterations that made it… four of a kind?
In 1931, the City of Verdun, Quebec, selected American LaFrance of Toronto, Ontario, to manufacture its new 75-foot, spring-loaded, wooden aerial ladder truck. Verdun was situated on the St. Lawrence River on the southeastern tip of Montreal Island and eventually included Ile Des Soeurs, or “Nun’s Island.” Settled in 1671, it became a strategic fortification to fend off frequent Iroquois attacks in the 1600s. By the early 20th century, Verdun had become a destination for those wanting to leave the urban center of Montreal. The 9.68-square kilometers (3.74 square miles) became a city in 1911. On Jan. 1, 2002, Verdun merged with Montreal and became a borough.
First of a Kind
American LaFrance delivered its Type 331 single-chassis tiller to Verdun in February 1932. It was serial number 7445 and was the only truck of its kind ALF manufactured. Ladder 1 carried a 75-foot, clear-varnished, two-section aerial ladder made of Douglas fir. American LaFrance produced four similar trucks. One of the “close cousins” is a 1929 Type 231, which served Rapid City, South Dakota, and has since been restored. While this truck looks similar to Verdun’s Type 331, they are not the same. The 331 has dual ladder racks, which allow it to carry six ground ladders instead of three. According to noted fire truck historian Walter McCall, the Verdun ladder was powered by a 312A motor built by American LaFrance. The truck’s monster of an engine was a 740ci V-12 that generated 240 horsepower.
Something that ladder trucks of this type have in common is a tiller. Almost all conventional tiller trucks have an articulating tractor and trailer section. The driver steers the tractor and the tiller “weaves” the trailer through cars and around corners to make turns. On the Type 331, however, the tractor and the trailer are one unit and do not articulate. The truck essentially has two drivers, one at the front end and one at the rear, and an inattentive tillerman could wreak havoc on the driver by over-riding his steering commands.
Another interesting feature of the Type 331 tillerman’s position is the seat itself. On the original design, the seat was on top of the ladder, which extended far behind it. When the ladder needed to be raised, the tillerman would pull the pin on the right side of the seat, and the spring-loaded chair would pivot out of the way and lock in an “open” position on the driver’s side of the trailer. When the ladder was bedded, the tillerman would step on a button and the seat would release. It could then be rotated and locked into the driving position. The tillerman would also have to remove the steering wheel by means of a spring-loaded pin that would allow the wheel to lift off of the shaft splines. The wheel could then be hung on the side of the rig until needed. These features were retained on the tiller throughout its transformation, even though they were not needed.
Second of a Kind
The City of Verdun used the truck as supplied by American LaFrance for 16 years, and in 1948 they sent it to Pierre Thibault of Pierreville, Québec, for extreme modifications to modernize the rig. Thibault had a long history, dating back to 1908, of building Canadian fire equipment when Charles (Pierre’s father) Thibault began making hand pumps. The company continued growing and moved into motorized fire equipment in 1918. Thibault gained a reputation for reliable fire equipment and extremely strong aerial ladders. (In 1963, the company staged a demonstration where it hung a Volkswagen Beetle from the tip of one of its aerials.) Today, the Thibault name still exists in Canada, even through the trials and tribulations of family feuds and bankruptcy.
Once at the Thibault shops, the cantankerous front-wheel-drive section was removed from just behind the driver’s bench. This included the front wheel and structure below the turntable. A gooseneck was fashioned onto the trailer for preparation to be joined with the tractor’s fifth wheel. The open lower frame was also enclosed with cabinetry to provide additional storage for equipment. New outriggers were also fitted to provide better stability during ladder operation. Aside from the gooseneck, outriggers, and the cabinetry, the remainder of the truck was essentially unchanged, including the original ground ladder racks and the 75-foot, spring-loaded, wooden ladder.
To propel this newly transformed tillered trailer, a 1948 International KBS-8 tractor was manufactured at the International Harvester plant in Chatham, Ontario, Canada. The year 1948 was important for International in Chatham. Along with manufacturing this tractor, the company also built a new 300,000-square-foot plant on Richmond Street West. The International Harvester Co. of Chicago, Illinois, began a relationship with Chatham in 1904 when it started negotiations with the Chatham Wagon Co. International saw the need to produce equipment in the Great White North and eventually purchased the Chatham Wagon Co. in 1910. Chatham Wagon Works had been producing wagons, carts, trucks, and sleighs since 1882, when a charter was granted to D.R. Van Allen under Chatham Mfg. Co. In 1896, the name changed to Chatham Wagon Co.
The KBS-8 tractor (chassis no. 1112) was an open-cab design, which afforded no protection to the Verdun firefighters from the harsh Canadian winters. The tractor is powered by a Red Diamond 450 engine (serial no. 23639). Fuel is delivered to the inline 6-cylinder engine by means of a two-barrel carburetor. The 450ci engine develops 134 horsepower at 2600 rpm. The Red Diamond family of engines helped the effort to win World War II by being used to power military trucks and half-tracks. The naturally aspirated gasoline engine is housed under a center-hinged butterfly hood. Power from the International engine is transferred by way of a Fuller 5A430, 5-speed transmission that provides torque to the rear wheels. The International tractor was also fitted with a lever on the floor of the cab to lock out the rear suspension play during ladder operations.
Third of a Kind
The City of Verdun used the 1932/1948 American LaFrance/International in its second configuration until sometime in the early 1960s. Verdun, once again, sent the ladder truck to Pierre Thibault for a major refit. The spring-loaded 75-foot American LaFrance wooden ladder was removed and replaced with a new 75-foot ladder manufactured by Thibault. The new ladder was steel and operated through hydraulic cylinders and pumps. While the new ladder was the same length as the old when fully extended, it took up only about two-thirds of the bed when retracted. The previous aerial had been made in two sections that extended far beyond the rear of the trailer, while the new aerial was four sections and looked out of place when bedded. A windscreen was installed in front of the original tiller’s chair. Thibault finished off the modifications with a new paint job.
The tiller was more than 20 years old when it received yet another lease on life. The truck responded to scores of calls and fires, including the Richard Riot on Saint Patrick’s Day in 1955. The Richard Riot was the result of a National Hockey League (NHL) suspension of Maurice Richard. Richard was suspended for an on-ice incident where he violently struck an opposing player. Some felt the suspension was too severe and was motivated by Richard’s French Canadian background. The riot resulted in $100,000 in damage and 100 arrests. (The current owners of the truck are also quick to mention that it served in a firehouse near the childhood home of retired NHL coaching legend Scotty Bowman. Bowman holds the NHL record for the most wins in the regular season with 1,244 wins. Remember, this truck is from Canada, where hockey is king.)
In the mid-to-late 1970s the truck was more than 40 years old and already past a normal retirement. Like most fire apparatus nearing the end of useful service life, the rig was placed into reserve status. It is interesting to note that the original 1932 American LaFrance was probably Verdun’s first motorized ladder truck. This truck had been altered and improved to last until Feb. 3, 1977, when it responded to its last call. Verdun’s front-line apparatus had been dispatched to a major fire at a Canadian Tire Store. At the same time, the 45-year-old reserve ladder truck responded to an apartment fire on the corner of Lesage and Church streets. Soon after the embers from that fire were extinguished, Verdun received delivery of a 1977 Mack Aerialscope—an 85-foot platform and one of only three delivered to Canada.
Fourth of a Kind
To complete the purchase of the Mack Aerialscope, Verdun traded in the 1932/1948 American LaFrance/International to Thibault. Once at Thibault, the aerial ladder was removed, reconditioned, and reused on another piece of fire equipment. What could not be scavenged off the rig was left with it to rust and fade away in the Thibault boneyard. Like a dead elephant, it sat for several years and was even the habitat for a tree, which had grown up through it. The eventual demise of Thibault is complicated, but in the late 1980s Pierre Thibault declared bankruptcy. The enduring tiller looked as if it might actually be scrapped under the receivership’s axe.
Enter the Reg DeNure family. The DeNures of Chatham, Ontario, earned their livelihood providing a variety of bus services in and around the City of Chatham. On July 15, 1948, Ivan DeNure won a 10-year contract to provide bus service to Chatham under the name Chatham Coach Lines. The DeNures made the bus service a family legacy, which was passed on to sons Reg and Ken DeNure. They continued to grow the company and expanded into school bus, tour bus, and limousine services.
Reg DeNure bought the rig in 1985 for $500 and began the restoration process a few years later. Restoring the tiller was made easier by DeNure’s many years of experience working with commercial buses. Plus, the rig’s engine had fired after only minor repairs and a change of fluids. DeNure also had a full shop and experienced mechanics to complete the work. Once the truck was clear of the wrecker’s yard, DeNure had to fit a replacement aerial ladder. Luckily, a donor ladder was located at the same time he bought the tiller. It was a Toronto Fire Dept. 1952 American LaFrance 700 series, single-chassis 100-foot ladder truck.
A crane lifted the new aerial into place. The 100-foot length of the new ladder fit better on the long bed of the trailer. The salvaged ladder has never been made operational. The original windscreen for the tillerman had to be modified to swing clear of the longer ladder. DeNure is quick to point out that it took 26 gallons of red paint to cover the rig. John VanDube’s steady hands applied the gold leaf and pinstriping.
For the finishing touch, VanDube added the name “Really Big Red,” since DeNure has a 1950 Bickle Seagrave 85-foot ladder truck that he named “Big Red.” The DeNures have shared Really Big Red with the Chatham community for the past 25 years. It will be interesting to see what the future has in store for this enduring rig as it nears its 84th birthday.