by Candace Brown
At Station 1 in Centralia, Washington, the air vibrates with sounds of the fire alarm and the big doors rising. Members of the Riverside Fire Authority roar off in their modern apparatus, as sirens clear the way. Left behind in the building, veteran Hose Truck No. 1 stands alone.
The 1920 White served the city well for 24 years. Stories of both its creation and its restoration reflect the teamwork and ingenuity of local firemen. It also stands as a reminder of an early tragedy that struck what was then the Centralia Fire Dept.
On the day of our photo shoot, Captain Scott Weinert invited retired fireman Bob Shirer to join us. Shirer is one of the Centralia firemen who rescued, then restored, the White. He talked about the truck’s dramatic initiation.
“On its first major fire, we lost the fire chief,” Shirer said of the June 25, 1920, call that would ultimately claim the life of Fire Chief Thomas Cunningham.
“It was the Hope Block building, right downtown. The story has it that he was in the upstairs, and they had the old oxygen breathing apparatus. He busted a window out and [the glass] cut his hose. He died of smoke inhalation.”
According to a front-page article in the Oregon Daily Journal on the day of the incident, the commercial Hope Block building had mysteriously caught fire in the early hours of the morning. Cunningham went upstairs, broke a window in the door of the Centralia Business College, then crawled along the floor, “…in an effort to get nearer the seat of the fire.” His damaged breathing apparatus doomed him. Too much time passed before other firemen found him, unconscious but alive, and got him out of the building. He died shortly after 5 a.m.
Even on that tragic last morning in Cunningham’s life, he had probably been proud of his department’s new hose truck when it arrived on the scene. White Motor Car Co. had a good name. Established in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1906, White made steam automobiles at first, but began producing gasoline-powered versions by 1909. A decade later, White’s focus shifted to trucks, and the company became a marketplace leader before the Great Depression changed its fate. In the case of this 1920 White, Centralia Fire Dept. members incorporated what they already had to create a new apparatus.
“When they first got it, it was just a cab and chassis,” Shirer said. “It was purchased by the City of Centralia, from J.R. Hickey Motor Co. in Tacoma and brought down. There’s a foundry over on the east side of town, and the firemen took the bed off an old horse-drawn hose wagon and put it on this.”
That original horse-drawn hose wagon served alongside a horse-drawn steam pumper before Centralia Fire Dept. bought its first motorized apparatus, a 1911 Seagrave Model AC chemical and hose car. The White, purchased in May 1920, came next. Over the years, two more Seagraves—a 1925 and a 1939—were acquired, followed by other makes and models. Out of them all, the 1920 White is unique in that it was homegrown from the beginning.
“They took the horse-drawn hose wagon apart and put the hose bed onto the White chassis, but they had to fabricate the rear fenders out of a couple of barrels,” Weinert said.
Outfitted with a 60-gallon soda acid chemical tank, the new truck quickly proved valuable. After 18 days on the job, it went out on its first call, a brush fire at the Eastern Railway and Lumber Co. The Hope Block conflagration occurred about a month later, with several more to follow. Its last call was on Oct. 4, 1944, a brush fire at the same location as its first, 24 years earlier.
By the 1940s, Hose Truck No. 1 rarely responded to calls. After the department bought the 1939 Seagrave, the White was placed on reserve status before the Centralia Lions Club bought it for $100. The club used it in parades and to promote its events. Unfortunately, the truck sat outside, subject to vandalism and weather. Although fully equipped when sold, much of that equipment disappeared over time.
“In 1968, Terry Whipple, one of our fire guys, went to the Lions Club and asked if we could borrow it for the Pioneer Days parade,” Shirer said. “By that time, the chemical tank was gone. The truck had no ladders on it. Somebody had shot holes in the brass headlights and busted the glass out of them.”
“It was pretty bad,” Whipple said. “It was just sitting there rotting and falling apart, and that got everybody thinking, ‘Why should we let this old thing go to pieces on us?’”
Whipple asked the Lions Club to consider donating the hose truck. The club did give it to the International Assoc. of Fire Fighters Local 451, and by 1969 it was back at the fire station. The restoration took about two years. Virtually all the members contributed to this group effort in multiple ways. Having the necessary experience, Shirer, Al Gray, and Warren Cobb, did bodywork.
“When we got it back, it was pretty dilapidated and rusty,” Shirer said. “There were areas where it was rusted out. We sandblasted the whole frame, the body, the whole doggone works, in the alley behind the fire hall on a weekend.”
Whipple, Lloyd Zadina, and Dana Williams did mechanical repairs. Fortunately, they found few problems.
“We didn’t have to do a lot,” Whipple said. “I checked the engine. We pulled the pan off and cleaned everything up. We changed the oil and put some new spark plugs in, but other than that, it was in pretty good shape mechanically.”
Simon Street, an experienced woodworker, repaired the wooden cowl and dash. Everyone helped sand the hose bed. Williams built and upholstered the seat by himself. His talented friend, Daryl Nedwicke, spent countless hours creating a beautiful new wooden steering wheel. What Williams remembers as the most painstaking job of all, however, was refinishing the wood spokes on the wheels, which he did with Cobb. Since the parts would only go together in a certain way, they had to number each one during the disassembly. Then, in a move no department would allow today, they used gasoline to take off the paint.
“They had about a quarter-inch of gray Navy paint put on over the oak, and then red paint,” Williams said. “So we spent a whole winter in the shop cleaning those. We scraped the paint off with broken glass, dumped gas on them, then sanded. I recall distinctly many hours, working into the early morning, when we were down at the station on duty. We were firemen, and we used gas.”
When the time came to add equipment, the restorers found much of what they needed right at the station. Some pieces had been saved from other old apparatus the department had owned. Items like the bell, foam eductor, an old siren, Seagrave fire axes, and Seagrave battle lanterns came from stored equipment. One member found some Cadillac headlights at an old car swap meet. Clark County Fire District 5 donated the vintage wooden ladder.
This White has always had an electric starter, as well as a hand crank. Weinert, the rare person today who knows how to drive the old rig, explained that on this truck, you turn the power on, then you step on a plunger switch, which turns the starter that cranks over the engine.
One day, when the finished truck was to appear in a parade in Clackamas, Oregon, that hand crank surprised Shirer in a painful way. He was alone, and when he wanted to start the truck to get it positioned in line, it would not start.
“There was this little compression lever,” his story began. “You’ve got to flip that lever, and then you can crank the engine. So I flipped the lever down. When I was cranking the engine, the lever automatically flipped up by itself, putting compression on the crank. Then, when I cranked down—BANG—the crank came back and broke my arm.”
Some of the retirees who originally helped restore this 1920 White are deceased, including Zadina and Cobb. Several gathered at Station 1 recently to admire their project once again and relive the fun memories. They appreciate the fact that Weinert, a generation behind them, cares so much about preserving the past.
“We have a history of more than 100 years of fire service here, and that history deserves to be respected and treasured,” Weinert said. “I want people to know it. I guess that’s primarily why I’m involved.”
He sees himself as a facilitator and torch bearer who will keep the history alive. He asks the questions and listens to the answers. The old White matters a great deal to him.
“To me, this truck is a small but important part of our history,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for all those guys who came before me who put all that work into it, to get it back to where it is today.”