By Candace Brown
On the shore of Commencement Bay, in Tacoma, Washington, the city’s old Fire Boat No. 1 sits dry-berthed next to a restaurant’s parking lot, where it has rested since the late 1980s. With patches welded onto its riveted steel hull, and in need of fresh paint, it seems morbidly still amidst the congestion and noise of pedestrians, cyclists, and car traffic on busy Ruston Way.
It was the pride of the city when put into service in 1929, newly built by Coastline Shipbuilding Co. of Tacoma for $148,000. Unlike any other fire boat in the history of the United States, it worked alone, protecting a major port city for more than a half-century—54 years, to be exact. It is also a National Historic Landmark, one of only five fire boats so honored.
The dozens of sawmills, wharfs, and warehouses that once dominated this stretch of waterfront—now home to a string of parks and restaurants—are long gone. So are all the members of the boat’s original crew. Only a few who ever served on it remain to share the memories.
One is William “Bill” Roberts, who began his fire boat career as a deckhand in early 1967, two years after becoming a member of the Tacoma Fire Dept. Roberts worked on this boat, as well as the two modern SES fire boats that replaced it in 1983. Only the death or retirement of a higher-ranking member of a three-man crew (which each shift had) could create an opportunity for promotion. Roberts received his promotion to pilot in 1974, making him one of only three on the department. He retired from that full-time position in 1995. During his years on the boat, he also did all the cooking for his shift.
“I never went to work one day without wanting to go to work,” Roberts said. “I really loved my job. It was dangerous if you didn’t know what you were doing, but we had a good time. I think everybody who worked on the fire boat felt the same way.”
Fire Boat No. 1 is 96 feet, 6 inches long, with a 21-foot, 6-inch beam and a 6-foot draft. Each of its four pumps moved 2,500 gallons of water per minute at 150 pounds of pressure. All seven “monitors” (water cannons), blasting at once, shot out an impressive 10,000 gallons of water in a minute’s time. Some say the largest monitor, nicknamed “Big Bertha,” was capable of more than 6,500 gallons per minute, but it was more like 6,000 in Roberts’ estimation.
“The amount of water coming out of it was amazing!” he exclaimed. “People didn’t realize, so you had to be careful. One time we had a big snowfall, and they wanted us to wash the snow off some boathouses. I said, ‘I don’t think we should do that,’ but they said to go ahead. Well, we put water up there and sank the boathouses.”
The boat’s five Sterling Viking engines included three 8-cylinder, 600hp, drive engines and two 6-cylinder, 450hp pump engines that were identical (except in size), with interchangeable heads. The boat also carried two gasoline generators and a 2,200-gallon gas tank the crew would fill about once a month, adding perhaps 1,000 gallons.
“It handled well,” Roberts recalled. “It was a triple-screw boat, three propellers. There were not many triple-screw boats out there. It had one rudder. It probably went a maximum of 14 knots, and it put up a heck of a wake. You had to watch out for that.”
Roberts admitted that when he thinks about the old boat, he thinks of tragedies, because there were so many. He prefers to look back and remember the funny stories, rather than the sad ones.
Of all the funny incidents Roberts related, the funniest occurred in the late 1970s and involved officials and dignitaries who were not only from Tacoma, but also from New York and other cities. This “Who’s Who” had gathered for a salmon bake at Owen’s Beach in Point Defiance Park, and Fire Boat No. 1 was supposed to do a big water display off shore. In addition to Pilot Roberts, it carried the engineer and a young lieutenant who was unfamiliar with the boat. Roberts told the lieutenant that, after the display, he would beach the boat, and then someone would come aboard to bring them their salmon dinners.
“Well, I guess I miscalculated or the wind changed, because, all of a sudden, the big monitor was sweeping the beach!” Roberts recalled with a chuckle. “It was putting out the barbecue fires and going over the picnic tables, soaking the pies and everyone around.
“The lieutenant didn’t realize what was going on, but the engineer did,” Roberts continued. “He went back down in the engine room. I shut down and started backing off and getting out of there, and the lieutenant said, ‘What’s the matter? Where’s our salmon dinner?’ And I said, ‘We have to get back. We have an emergency.’”
According to Roberts, when they returned to their small fire station next to the boat’s moorage under the Eleventh Street bridge (renamed the Murray Morgan Bridge in 1997), the telephone was ringing, and the young lieutenant answered. A city councilman on the other end ranted and raved.
“He was chewing this lieutenant out real bad,” Roberts said. “He was on the phone a long time and came out white-faced. I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ Well, I knew what was wrong, but he started telling us.”
About 20-30 minutes after the phone call, the station door opened, and in walked the fire chief and his wife, a beautiful redhead with her dripping-wet hair hanging down.
“He threw his wet sweater across and hit me right in the face with it,” Roberts recalled. “He said, ‘Roberts, you’re in trouble!’ And I asked, ‘What?’”
More fire department officers and an array of other officials arrived, including Tacoma’s city manager, who happened to be Roberts’ friend and neighbor. In the end, a nice ride on the fire boat calmed everyone down, and Roberts kept his job.
That memory contrasts with others of terrible fires, stormy waters, daring rescues, and tragedies. Occasionally, people committed suicide by jumping off the bridge above their moorage. One of them, an 18-year-old boy, did not land in the water. There was even a time when Roberts’ thoroughness saved the boat from sinking right in the middle of fighting an arson fire that ultimately destroyed the city’s iconic Top of the Ocean Restaurant.
“When our shift took over,” Roberts said, “I ran down to the engine room just to look around, and it was flooding. There was a hole in one of the pipes, and water was being pumped into the engine room. So, we had to stop and quickly fix that situation.”
The tragic Pier 7 fire, the largest and most destructive any the crew of Fire boat No. 1 ever fought, happened on the afternoon of Sunday, July 14, 1963, before Roberts joined the department. According to court documents from a subsequent lawsuit, a malfunctioning reel caused electrical cable to unwind onto the dock where it became pinched under the wheels of a crane and arced. The electrical arcing caught fire to the newly-constructed pier, made of wooden planks heavily soaked with creosote, creating black smoke. Tacoma Fire Dept.’s Battalion Chief, Arthur Strong, arrived with the first unit on the scene. He was attempting to free ships tied to the pier when the flames surrounded him. At the same time, his son, Pilot Harold Strong, fought the inferno from Fire boat No. 1, not realizing his own father was about to die a horrible death on the burning pier.
“We had a lot of big fires after Pier 7,” Roberts said. “Like a big one in a warehouse full of paper rolls, of all things. They were burning through the floor and falling into the bay, but their tops were still burning while they were floating off. We had to have a crew gather those up so they didn’t start other docks on fire.”
Roberts told enough stories to fill a book, remembering a sailboat losing its mast in a storm, the near-sinking of a vessel carrying a million dollars worth of salmon, and a bridge tender who slept through his whistle blasts. Fire boat No. 1 was always ready.
“It was cantankerous, because it was old,” he reminisced. “You had to really get used to it. You had to know what you were doing, but it was a good boat. You could maneuver it around. We used to take it into places you’d probably never believe.”
Now, only seagulls board the old fire boat, and near the keel that once cut through cold waters toward hot flames, children play while their mothers use cell phones. Suddenly, preserving Roberts’ stories seems to matter more than ever.
Vintage Fire Truck & Equipment thanks Ralph Decker for providing photos and information. He is considered an expert on the history of the Tacoma Fire Dept. and is an honorary member of Local 31 of the International Assoc. of Fire Fighters, in Tacoma. Brian Kamens and Jody Gripp, of the Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room, also provided valuable assistance