by Candace Brown
Doug Blackburn feels a personal connection with the past each time he rereads a certain article from the Sunday, Dec. 23, 1900, edition of the San Francisco Call newspaper. It tells how the San Francisco Fire Dept.’s Engine Co. No. 17 responded to an alarm from its firehouse at 34 Mint Alley (now called Jesse Street) and how, under the power of three excited horses, a “First Size” 1899 Metropolitan steam fire engine led the way.
The fire itself turned out to be minor but nonetheless thrilling for journalist Nan Byxbee, the newspaper’s vivacious young female reporter. Her full-page story, titled “With the Firemen to a Fire,” detailed her wild ride on the back of a hook and ladder truck that accompanied the steamer that night. Blackburn, a retired firefighter who lives in the state of Washington, is captivated, because he now owns that very same Metropolitan steam fire engine—built by the American Fire Engine Co. and registered as No. 2653.
“The idea of knowing where it came from and that it’s still around and running is impressive,” he said. “American Fire Engine Co. started in 1891. Mine was made in Seneca Falls, New York. They were made in Cincinnati [Ohio], Seneca Falls, and Elmira [New York]. They called them ‘Metropolitan’ because that represents a professional fire department.”
After obtaining official permission from Fire Chief Dennis T. Sullivan, reporter Byxbee waited at the firehouse through three straight evenings for a chance to ride along. On the fourth evening, as she listened to the firemen discussing new helmets, the alarm suddenly sounded. In less than a minute, they were off, with Byxbee clinging to the iron rail of the hook and ladder as it flew down the street to the scene of the fire, following what is now Blackburn’s steamer.
“Ahead of us, the great engine dashed on,” she wrote. “Sparks were flying from the fire underneath it, and every second the steam pressure in the boiler was increasing.”
That original boiler now sits in the grass under a tree on Blackburn’s farm. Its replacement constitutes a story within a story of an engine that survived the earthquake and fires that nearly destroyed San Francisco in 1906. It later appeared in three Hollywood movies, ended up in a roadside museum, and was sold at auction twice. Now this 117-year-old apparatus looks as handsome as when the city of San Francisco bought it new in 1899 and assigned it to Engine Co. 17, quartered near the U.S. Mint building on Mission street, as mentioned in Byxbee’s account, when she wrote, “Around the Mint building, across Fifth Street and down Mission we dashed, Engine 17 cutting a wide swath.”
The city of San Francisco bought another Metropolitan, No. 2652, at the same time Blackburn’s was purchased, paying just under $5,000 for each. That expenditure represented a major investment in the latest firefighting technology and a small victory for Fire Chief Sullivan, who had relentlessly fought City Hall for improved funding, cisterns, facilities, equipment, and more since being appointed chief engineer on March 30, 1893. He had a premonition about the potential for disaster. Every engine helped, but much more were needed.
According to both Dean Of Steam Fire Engine Builders by Ed Hass and First Water: The History of American LaFrance, Builder of Fire Engines 1832-1972 by American LaFrance, the American Fire Engine Co. introduced the Metropolitan steam fire engine in 1898, available in several sizes. The Double Extra Size, with 1,400gpm pumping capacity, was the largest, followed by the 1,200gpm Extra First Size, and the 900gpm First Size (such as our featured apparatus). The company also offered a 750gpm Second Size and 600gpm Third Size.
Blackburn said the two Metropolitans ordered for San Francisco in 1899 were delivered as horsedrawn steam fire engines with triple Continental hitches for three horses each because of the weight. For parades, Blackburn uses the original hitch, a model nicknamed “the Metro,” which continued in production as the company’s most popular and successful product until 1917.
In 1918, the San Francisco Fire Dept. classified Metro No. 2653 as surplus and sold it to Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp. According to Blackburn, it appeared in three movies—Old Chicago (1937), Hangover Square (1945), and Hello, Dolly! (1969). For Hello, Dolly!, the studio painted “F.D.N.Y.” on the engine, to represent the Fire Dept. of New York. Its Hollywood career ended shortly thereafter.
“In 1971, Twentieth Century-Fox put the engine, a hand tub, a hose cart, and a Hayes horsedrawn ladder truck up for auction through Sotheby’s, and they sold it to Sam’s Town,” Blackburn said.
Sam’s Town was an Old West-themed landmark created by entrepreneur Sam Gordon east of Sacramento on Highway 50. Gordon was famous for his Sam’s Hof Brau restaurant chain. Blackburn described Sam’s Town as “a little oasis.” Visitors could shop at the general store, buy gas, have a meal, be entertained or visit the arcades or the museum, where the engine was put on display. When Sam’s Town was demolished in the mid-1970s, the Metropolitan went on the auction block again. Fred Conway, a fire apparatus collector and author from Albany, Indiana, placed the winning bid. He soon sold it to Blackburn, who became the fourth owner. In 1997, Blackburn began the long process of making this piece of history operational once again.
“I went to the head of the boiler inspecting group and said, ‘Tell me what to do with this boiler of mine. I want to get it going. I know I can fix it,’” he said. “The State of Washington told me I couldn’t use the old boiler because it had a lapped seam. They said the only way I could pump that steamer was in private on my own property, but as far as in public, they wouldn’t give me any kind of certification.”
In order to make his fire engine legally operational in Washington, he needed to have a new boiler designed by engineers and built to the proper thickness and specifications. Everett Engineering in Everett, Washington, did the job. By the end of June 2000, in front of the Everett Engineering employees and the state boiler inspectors, the reassembled Metropolitan passed its test, pumping water at 120 psi of steam gauge pressure. He has pumped water with it in demonstrations at public events every year since, and it undergoes annual testing.
Blackburn described the inspection: “He [the inspector] looks at everything with me, the whole steamer and that boiler, and asks me questions. Then he makes me run it. He watches everything I do to make sure I’m competent to do it—how I fire it up, how fast I bring it up, how I feed my feed pumps on the engine, everything about it. And then he asks me some more questions.”
The most recent testing occurred in May 2016. The old engine and its operator came through again, but Blackburn never tires of tinkering with it.
“I’m the only one in the state of Washington that can run a steamer,” Blackburn said. “And that’s the only steamer fire engine in this state certified to pump.”
No information can be found on No. 2653’s role during the fires following the earthquake that hit San Francisco on April 18, 1906, but Blackburn’s steamer was definitely assigned to Engine Co. 17 at the time. In fact, he says it was the only steam fire engine in San Francisco that stayed at the same station where it was originally assigned for the duration of its use. He wonders exactly what that use was during the terrible disaster.
On April 28, 1906, a short article titled “Thrilling Escape in San Francisco” appeared in the Albuquerque Citizen, describing the fate of reporter Nan Byxbee, who rode with Engine Co. 17 six years before. A hasty departure from her burning apartment would later surely fuel her pen. The article stated that she escaped with nothing but “… her life and a sheet, not knowing where to go or where to procure clothing.”
Chief Dennis Sullivan, who had granted permission for Byxbee’s ride back in 1900, was not so lucky. He died of multiple fractures and other injuries sustained during a two-story fall while trying to rescue his wife after the destruction of their home—the Chief’s Quarters above the station at 410 Bush Street, adjoining the California Hotel. After more than a century, S.F.F.D. still remembers Chief Sullivan with the greatest admiration, affection, and respect. Thanks to Blackburn, the Metropolitan No. 2653 remains a gleaming memorial to Sullivan and his brave men.
Special thanks to Bill Koenig, director emeritus of the San Francisco Fire Dept. Museum, as well as fire apparatus expert and author Walter M.P. McCall for all the help and information they graciously provided. The museum is located at 655 Presidio Ave., San Francisco, CA 94115. You can visit its website at www.guardiansofthecity.org.