Unit 3: Chatham’s 1941 Pirsch-International Aerial Ladder Truck

By Anthony G. Buono, Photos by Jack Harrison

Many fire departments in the United States and Canada maintain antique fire apparatus. These provide a colorful connection to the past and typically are used for parades, public relations, and education. One of the most unusual and beloved of these is a 1941 Pirsch-International Harvester service aerial ladder truck that is owned by the Chatham-Kent Fire & Emergency Services in Chatham, Ontario, Canada.

The former city of Chatham sits on the Thames River in southwestern Ontario, about 50 miles east of Detroit, Michigan. In 1998, the county of Kent and the city of Chatham were amalgamated to form the Municipality of Chatham-Kent. Chatham-Kent is protected by a combination fire department consisting of 19 volunteer and three career stations.

Although the city of Chatham is no more, Chatham’s 1941 Pirsch-International ladder truck still is owned by the fire department and is housed at Fire Station 1. The truck is known as “Unit 3, its original designation.

The man responsible for Unit 3 today is Acting Captain Curtis Williams. Williams joined the Chatham Fire Dept. (CFD) in 1993. He displayed enough mechanical ability and interest in Unit 3 that Captain Elmer Moore designated Williams to be the new keeper of Unit 3. Two decades later, Williams continues as Unit 3’s handler—a job that gives him great pride

Most custom fire trucks are considered “one-of-a-kind” machines only in that they have minor variations from other similar trucks built by the same manufacturer. However, Unit 3 truly is one-of-a-kind, with its uniqueness and history interwoven. It is not only a piece of the local fire service history; it also is a piece of local industrial history.

 

International Harvester Co.

The International Harvester factory in Chatham, Ontario, opened in 1921 and was a major employer for the area. The next year, when the Chatham Fire Dept. purchased a piece of motor fire apparatus, it was a hose wagon built on a locally manufactured International Harvester truck chassis.

The company that would become International Harvester Co. was born in 1830, when Cyrus Hall McCormick invented a horse-drawn reaper for which he received a patent in 1834. In 1847, he and his brother Leander moved to Chicago and founded the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. In 1902, the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. and the Deering Harvester Co., along with three smaller agricultural equipment companies, merged to create the International Harvester Co. The company had factories in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, as well as Hamilton, Ontario.

This merger was one of hundreds, if not thousands, of mergers of smaller companies during the twentieth century that formed larger national and international firms with greater capital and more sophisticated business models. Some of these mergers were attempts to monopolize a market. For example, four makers of steam fire engines merged to form the American Fire Engine Co. in 1891. Then, in 1900, the American Fire Engine Co. merged with five other firms to form the International Fire Engine Co., thereby creating a short-lived monopoly in the production of steam fire engines.

The merger that formed International Harvester did not give the new firm a monopoly, but it did allow it to diversify and expand its product line. IH would go on to build much more than just farm equipment and tractors. In 1907, IH introduced its “Auto Wagon”—a forerunner of the modern pickup truck. IH later offered a line of light- and medium-duty commercial trucks. When the Chatham, Ontario, plant opened in 1921, among the products built there were IH trucks.

In 1936, IH introduced its first cab-over-engine (or “COE”) model of truck, the C-300. The C Series was followed in 1938 by the D Series COE design. The D Series would be built until 1941.

In 1940, the CFD was replacing its aging 1918 American-LaFrance Type 14-6 city service ladder truck. Using an IH truck chassis was a logical choice. After the deprivation of the Great Depression, supporting a local business was a natural decision. For the CFD, the IH factory built a special D-500 COE truck with a 209-inch wheelbase. The roof and doors of the D series cab were removed, but IH could not supply the aerial ladder. For that, the CFD would have to look elsewhere.

 

Peter Pirsch and Sons Co.

While the choice of an IH chassis was not surprising, the selection of a Pirsch aerial ladder was rather unusual. According to Walt McCall’s article “Pirsches in Canada” (which was published in the November-December 2012 issue of Third Alarm, the journal of the Ontario Fire Buff Associates), the first Pirsch aerial sold in Canada was a horse-drawn, 75-foot, spring-raised two-section wooden aerial delivered to Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1911. In 1915, the Toronto Fire Dept. purchased three combination chemical and hose wagons built by Pirsch on White truck chassis.

Peter Pirsch was born in 1866 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He was the son of a German immigrant and wagon maker. When he came of age, Pirsch worked for his father and became a volunteer fireman in Kenosha. In 1900, Pirsch formed his own company to build ladders of his own design. Soon after, the Peter Pirsch Co. began building horse- and hand-drawn ladder wagons and trucks from its factory in Kenosha. In 1908, the Peter Pirsch Co. built its first piece of motorized fire apparatus. In 1916, Pirsch built its first motorized pumping engine. In 1919, the firm’s name was changed to the Peter Pirsch and Sons Co. The firm steadily expanded its product line through the 1920s.

In the 1930s, Pirsch became one of the leading builders of aerial ladders in the United States through the introduction of many pioneering products. In 1931, Pirsch introduced the first aerial ladder with a hydro-mechanical hoist. In 1932, Pirsch introduced its Junior aerial ladder, which inexpensively could turn a standard city service ladder truck into an aerial ladder truck. The Junior had a two-section, 55-foot aerial ladder with an electric-powered hoist and a manually operated fly section. In 1936, Pirsch delivered the first fully powered, 100-foot, all-metal aerial ladder to Melrose, Massachusetts.

The next year, Pirsch introduced its distinctive lattice-girder, aluminum-alloy, aerial ladder. These ladders comprised three sections and were offered in 65-, 75-, 85- and 100-foot lengths. These were used for service aerial ladder trucks as well as tractor-drawn aerial ladder trucks.

Pirsch aerial ladders were grouped into three classes. The Junior aerials were service aerials, or “mid-mount aerials,” as they are called today. These came in lengths of 50 and 55 feet. Intermediate aerials were 65-, 75-, and 85-foot service aerials and tractor-drawn aerials. Senior aerials were tractor-drawn, three-section aerials with 85- and 100-foot aerial ladders. In the 1970s, Pirsch began to offer rear-mount aerials and reconfigured its 100-foot aerial into a more compact, four-section design. The basic Pirsch lattice-girder, aluminum-alloy, aerial ladder was built until 1984.

When Pirsch was awarded the contract for a 65-foot aerial ladder truck for Chatham, the contract required that the truck be built on a locally manufactured IH chassis. This would become the only Pirsch aerial built on an IH chassis. This also would be the first of only three complete Pirsch aerial ladder trucks to be delivered in Canada. All would serve within a 50-mile radius in southwestern Ontario. Pirsch later sold three aerial ladder assemblies to Canadian fire apparatus firms—two in 1955 and one in 1963. Overall, compared with other major fire apparatus manufacturers in the United States, very few pieces of Pirsch fire apparatus were delivered to Canada.

 

Unit 3

Unit 3 would spend its entire active firefighting career in Chatham. It served as a reserve before its active firefighting days came to an end. Fortunately, the CFD appreciated the uniqueness of its old aerial ladder truck and did not dispose of Unit 3.

The truck was repainted and refurbished in the late 1970s. Aside from the new paint, Unit 3 looks almost exactly as it did while it was in service. Some mechanical changes have been made over the years. For example, at some point the original engine was replaced.

Unit 3 has a single-speed rear axle and a three-speed transmission, which is geared low. According to Williams, Unit 3 is capable of the breakneck speed of 30 miles per hour. It is believed that the reason for Unit 3’s lack of speed is its transmission was designed for, or taken from, a half-track. Adding flavor to the story is the unusual reversed shift pattern for the transmission. To shift from first to second, one must shift forward, instead of backward, as is typical on manual truck transmissions. The truck also has two reverse gears—one being a creeper gear—as well as a forward creeper gear. These are features that one might expect on a piece of earth-moving equipment rather than an aerial ladder truck.

Williams is the only member of the department who drives Unit 3. He reports that, despite the wide-open, doorless cab, he gets very warm driving the truck during summer months. Heat from the engine comes right up through the floor. This feature also makes driving Unit 3 in the Downtown Chatham Santa Claus Parade bearable each December. During the warmer months of the year, Williams also takes Unit 3 out for public relations events, fire prevention programs, the Canada Day Parade, and other local parades, as well as an occasional wedding.

Williams enjoys taking Unit 3 to these events and sharing it with the people in the community. He loves its history and how it brings smiles to people’s faces. People often tell him stories about Unit 3, such as how they remember it in service or how a family member worked at the IH plant in Chatham. The factory workers were proud of their ladder truck.

The IH plant closed in 2011, but its legacy lives on in Unit 3. On occasions when Williams does not take Unit 3 to a parade, people ask where it is and why it was not in the parade.

The connection between Unit 3 and the Chatham community is apparent. This connection reminds us that antique fire trucks are much more than just machines. They are tangible and important pieces of our history.

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Centralia and Chehalis, Washington

In 1970, I moved from Eastern Washington with my parents to the Olympia area for my senior year of high school. I became familiar with the Centralia-Chehalis area while attending Centralia Community College for two years.

The two towns are located about five miles apart along Interstate 5 and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway main line. Centralia was founded in 1850, starting as a stagecoach stop along what later became Highway 99. Logging and wood products were early mainstays of the local economy. Centralia College, the oldest continuously operating two-year public college in Washington, was founded in 1925. The population in 1980 was about 11,500.

Chehalis began as a railroad switching center in 1873 and became the Lewis County Seat soon afterward. Coal mines, farming, and manufacturing were important local industries, together with logging. Population was about 6,100 in 1980.

Centralia and Chehalis eventually grew together but have always retained separate city governments. Both towns evolved to having combination paid/volunteer fire departments during the early 1900s. Each operated from its own single fire station. Surrounding unincorporated areas were protected by county fire districts.

The Centralia Fire Dept. has operated from a handsome, single-story fire station, built during World War II. Many years after my visit, the Centralia Fire Dept. merged with Lewis County District No. 6. This new entity was named Riverside Fire Authority. Until recently, Centralia had been reliant on Seagrave Fire Apparatus, starting with an early AC model.

 

1939 Seagrave model 66-E (serial no. A-1665), 600gpm pump, 200-gallon water tank.

 

Centralia’s near-original 1939 Seagrave pumper was still an active reserve rig when I visited in 1980. The only non-original feature was a post-mounted Federal Beacon Ray added in the 1950s. Note the B&M siren and the tiny single rear-view mirror above the driver’s side of the windshield.

 

1951 Seagrave model 900-B (serial no. F-4000), 1,250gpm pump, 300-gallon water tank, 268hp “J” V-12
The second rig that I shot was a 1951 Seagrave—a top-of-the-line 900 model powered by the big Seagrave 268hp V-12 gas engine. With a high-capacity 1,250gpm pump, this rig was equipped like a big-city pumper. The only non-original features included high compartments on the left side and a post-mounted Beacon like the one on the 1939 model.

 

1966 Seagrave model 900-KB (serial no. Q-1965), 1,000gpm pump, 500-gallon water tank, 268hp “J” V-12

 

In 1966, although the classic 70th anniversary conventional model was still available, Centralia elected to order a modern K-series pumper. The better forward visibility and greater maneuverability of the cab-forward style were safety features. High side compartments and a powerful Federal Q-Siren in the nose were also modern accessories. The power plant was again a big J-model gas V-12. Diesel engines were just starting to become popular in fire rigs. By the early 1970s, it would be a rarity to find a new custom-chassis rig with a gas engine.

 

1976 Seagrave model PB-25068 (serial no. G-73581), 1,500gpm pump, 500-gallon water tank

Centralia’s newest engine was a 1976 Seagrave with the standard PB cab, a replacement for the 1959-era K cab. The newer cab was a few inches wider to allow for roomier jump seats. Seagrave always built great-looking rigs, and this one was no exception, the two-tone finish giving a deluxe touch.

 

1978 Seagrave model WR-20768, rear-mount 100-foot aerial (serial no. J-75228)

Like many mid-century stations, Centralia’s had relatively low overhead clearance. Since rear-mount aerials projected forward over the cab, this made the rigs higher but shorter than the older midship-mount rigs. Most of the custom manufacturers offered a low-cab design option to lower overall rig height. Seagrave offered the aptly named “W” cab, which was ordered for Centralia’s 1978 ladder truck.

The Chehalis Fire Dept. still operates from an obsolete, 1925-built, two-story building. The overhead clearance of the bay doors is so low that the rear tires of the ladder truck have to be backed up ramps to rest on 12-inch thick beams on the bay floor. This lowers the angle of the aerial device just enough to fit under the door opening. There are huge scuff marks on the header where the rig has bounced and struck the opening while being backed in over the years! Chehalis was traditionally an American LaFrance bastion, but this has changed over time.

1936 American LaFrance Scout (serial no. L-904), 500gpm pump, 150-gallon water tank.

Still on the roster in 1980 was a perfectly preserved 1936 ALF Scout, the manufacturer’s Depression-era competition for Seagrave’s Suburbanite pumper. Meticulously maintained by the firefighters, the Scout looked showroom new. The only option on the rig was a large spotlight for illuminating fire scenes.

1961 Westland Fireliner (serial no. 1457), 1,250gpm pump, 500-gallon water tank.

Westland Mfg. of Portland, Oregon, built a few dozen rigs for northwest departments during the early 1960s. Designs and tooling were developed by and purchased from Roney Fire Apparatus, also of Portland. Westland was a subsidiary of Convoy Corp., a Portland-based auto transporter. Westland built the lightweight transport trailers used by Convoy. The fire apparatus division of Westland was used primarily to keep the assembly workers employed during seasonal lulls in transport trailer orders. Most Westland fire apparatus was built on standard commercial chassis. In 1961, Westland, in partnership with Portland-based Freightliner, attempted to develop a custom fire chassis. Using cab sheetmetal and chassis from Freightliner, the 1091 Hall-Scott engine, and bodywork by Westland, the Fireliner was a distinctive rig. It is believed that no more than a half-dozen Fireliners were built in all. The Chehalis Fireliner pumper is a unique design. With soft suction hose trays built above the rear compartment and a retrofit light bar, it is a very unusual-looking rig. The front-end styling is streamlined, but seems to shout, “Who stole my grille?”

1961 Westland Fireliner 85-foot Snorkel.

Chehalis ran its odd-looking Snorkel as the only ladder truck from 1961 all the way up until 1997, when a tower-ladder was purchased. Chehalis must have had some brave firefighters to go up in that Snorkel basket when the rig was 30-plus years old! Looking like the pumper, the Fireliners both come under the “weird and wonderful” category.

1976 ALF Pioneer III (serial no. P-14-4630), 1,500gpm pump, 750-gallon water tank.

The Pioneer series from ALF was a lower-price, custom rig, with a cab using flat body panels instead of curved ones. The Pioneer l was introduced in 1964 and was produced through about 1972. The Pioneer l had single headlights and two wipers. The Pioneer ll looked similar, but had dual headlights and three windshield wipers. Around 1976, the Pioneer lll was introduced. The new model had a nose panel that extended a few inches ahead of the base of the windshield. The Pioneer lll model also had a black panel on each side of the front panel above the headlights that contained three round lights per side—two red flashers and one amber turn signal. Early Pioneers were usually gas-powered and plain. Later ones tended to be a bit fancier and diesel-powered. The “14” in the Chehalis’ Pioneer lll serial number indicated use of a Detroit Diesel 8V-71 with 350 horsepower.

1977 Ford C-Pierce (serial no. 9901-C), 750gpm pump, 500-gallon water tank.

The newest Chehalis rig was a painfully plain Ford C with a Pierce body. High compartments and a nice Crossly preconnect hose bed were the only visible upgrades.

The Centralia-Chehalis area sticks in my mind for several incidents. The one that comes to mind occurred after a big fire in downtown Centralia about five years back. A timber-heavy building burned to the ground. Gutsy, skillful firefighting is the only reason several blocks of the main business district were saved. The local newspaper printed a letter to the editor a few days later. It was from a citizen demanding that the fire department pay for the several million gallons of water used to prevent a major conflagration! Imagine the citizens in California complaining of this problem!

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