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 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.