Friday, 27 May 2011 14:18

Pulling Miss Daisy & the New York State Liberty Fire of 1911

Written by  Craig R. Braack, Allegany County (New York) Historian
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 In March 29, 1911, the cold, calm, early morning darkness of Albany, New York, was pierced by the desperate ringing of fire bells throughout the city. Part of the State Capitol housing the Assembly Chamber was ablaze. Quickly responding was the entire 150-man Albany Fire Department and their equipment consisting solely of hook and ladder trucks and horse-drawn steam pumpers (Albany's first fire truck didn't arrive until 1912). While the building suffered several million dollars' worth of damage, the most devastating loss was the majority of the contents of the State Library housed on the third and fourth floors. At that time, there were no State Archives, per se, as the Library served in this capacity. This disaster would later be called the greatest library and archives loss of modern times. Lost were census records, 450,000 books and 270,000 manuscripts, including priceless and irreplaceable documents of New York’s early Dutch and English History and colonial times.

The fire started in the Assembly Library and quickly spread to the State Library. Finding immeasurable amounts of fuel from towering shelves crammed with priceless paper artifacts, the fire quickly became a raging conflagration and engulfed the fourth and fifth floors. A March 2011 article in the Albany Times Union Newspaper described it as such: “The fire burned so intensely it melted the stairway’s carved sandstone filigree into a molten slurry. At the top of the 'million-dollar staircase,' 10,000 of the State Museum’s most prized archaeological and ethnographic objects stored in tall glass cases, including its world-famous Iroquois Indian collection, were consumed in a flaming corsage.”

The 1911 fire that ravaged the New York State Capitol for several days was fought using only steam fire pumpers and ladder wagons.

The newspaper further stated: “The landmark structure–constructed with blocks of granite as thick as a man’s chest, a building that state officials had insisted was 'fireproof'–shuddered with percussive booms as large sections of walls and acres of heavy wooden bookshelves caved and fell in to the pulsating throat of the fiery volcano.”

Fighting this massive fire was the entire Albany Fire Department with at least the following amount of equipment: nine 2-horse steamers, one 3-horse steamer (eight were Amoskeag steamers, two were Clapp and Jones) and three 70-foot ladder wagons (one was an American La France; two were Gleason and Bailey). Sadly, the first fire alarm box was not pulled until the fire had gained at least a 30-minute head start.

In the fall of 2010, Public Broadcasting Service affiliate station WMHT-TV in Albany, began work on a one-hour documentary of the 1911 fire with plans to air the show near the anniversary date. During their research, they learned that of the over 1,000 steam-powered pumpers manufactured by the Silsby Manufacturing Company of Seneca Falls, New York, only two late 1800s-era Silsby pumpers were still in existence and operating. They are reminiscent of the pumpers used by the Albany Fire Department that fateful night. One is in Chariton, Iowa (see "Old Betsy Gets An Extreme Makeover," Winter 2005-'06 DHJ), while the second is in Friendship (Allegany County), New York (see "Modern Day Fire Horses," Spring 2009 DHJ). The latter is owned and operated by members of the Friendship Volunteer Fire Department and its steam crew. The Silsby Company named each pumper when it left the plant and they named Friendship’s “Miss Daisy.”

In 1881, the Friendship Fire Department consisted of a hook and ladder wagon and bucket brigade, a typically sad reality for most small towns. The vast majority of the buildings in Friendship at this time were wooden and prone to fire. Many of the businesses housed in these structures were minimally insured, at best, and the possibility of fire weighed heavily on the minds of the owners. The Friendship “powers that be” debated on purchasing a steam pumper for some time until just such a fire prompted them to allocate funds to purchase one. This fire that convinced them destroyed 13 buildings in the center of town. In March of 1881, a pumper was ordered from Silsby.

Spewing smoke in the night sky, Miss Daisy was a star.

The April 21, 1881, issue of The Friendship Weekly Register described Daisy’s arrival as: “Everybody's Happy! The beautiful new Silsby steamer for the Friendship Fire Department arrived on (Erie Railroad) Train 35 this morning. All the 'boys' have been inspecting its majesty and everybody acts as happy and pleased as the average school girl with her first lover. The engine is a beauty in every respect, is strong, durable, and built for service, and the finish and fine work is really grand.”

The bright orange pictured under Miss Daisy is the water ring in operation. It creates a backdraft which makes for a hotter fire.










The Silsby pumpers came in five sizes and Miss Daisy is a 5th size, the smallest available. This pumper was pulled by two horses and was capable of emitting water from two 2-1/2 inch hoses. The largest, a size 1 pumper needed at least three horses to pull it and could accommodate four. Miss Daisy weighs 4,560 pounds empty and has a water capacity of 175-200 gallons and can pump up to 450 gallons per minute. The first two decades of the 20th century saw the arrival of motorized fire equipment, which replaced Miss Daisy. For many decades she was safely stored in a variety of locations around Friendship. In 2003, she made her first appearance in almost 80 years in a parade on Friendship’s Main Street.

The next year, the Allegany County Volunteer Firemen’s Convention was hosted by Friendship. It was here that Miss Daisy came up Main Street in full gallop with smoke and sparks belching from her stack. The success of this event prompted a full restoration project resulting in her grand debut as a fully, legally operating steam pumper during the 2006 Friendship Freedom Fair Parade, which also marked the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Friendship Volunteer Fire Department (FVFD).

Dan Swinton, a producer, writer and director at WMHT-TV began a nationwide search for a steamer to appear in the documentary commemorating the Capitol fire. In early December, his search was concluded in Friendship, where he found all that he needed. Not only did Miss Daisy operate, the FVFD Steamer Company #2 includes a qualified teamster with appropriate horses and an experienced team led by Doug Lawrence.

The day of the filming, February 12, 2011, dawned clear and cold and by mid-afternoon, a cold front blew in from the northwest. Temperatures dropped from the mid-20s to the single digits. The front bay of the Victorian-era Friendship Volunteer Ambulance Company building, built in 1881 as Friendship’s first fire hall, served as the setting for the firehouse. The FVFD set up their Silsby preheater (the only one known to exist), the steamer was backed in and the attachments to the preheater were made. The team was backed in and then the filming began. All parts of the response to the fire bell were recreated, from lighting the steamer, to hooking the horses, loading the crew onto the steamer, the charge out the door, the run up Main Street to the fire scene, unhooking the steamer, setting up the steamer, hooking the hard suction hoses and discharge lines, and putting water on the fire–all as the windchill dropped to minus 20!

The bitter cold weather was similar to the conditions faced by the men of the 1911 Albany Fire Department. I tried to envision the scene that disastrous night in Albany 100 years ago. While the equipment the men used was the best of the era, the helmets they wore were very thin, offering minimal protection and the fire coats were nothing more than glorified raincoats. The emotional strain of watching part of their Capitol and State records burn must have exacted an unforgettable toll on all involved.

Striving for historical accuracy, the station furnished reproduction fire coats and helmets of the 1911 era used by all members being filmed on that very cold night. The largest part of the nine-hour project was recording the six trips Miss Daisy and the horses made up and down Friendship’s Main Street. Additional time was spent recording the pumper shooting a stream of water at least 40 feet high from a 2-1/2-inch hose. The water was directed into the brick shell of a building lost in a tragic fire which occurred on December, 21, 2008, in the heart of Friendship’s Main Street. All the scenes recorded by Swinton’s crew were digitally manipulated to resemble the way the equipment looked and operated on March 29, 1911.

Filming for WMHT-TV's documentary of the fire included footage in the Friendship Ambulance Co. Building, which was the town's first fire hall.
For the reenactment, Doug and his mares did their jobs beyond expectations. Dan Swinton wrapped up his experience in Friendship by saying, “We at PBS were thrilled to work with such a dedicated group of enthusiasts and were blown away by the restoration work they did on their steamer. It is an incredible addition to the film and completely sets the tone of the era of the New York Capitol fire. I felt myself transported back in time when I saw it in operation. I've never seen anything like it."

The ultimate compliment was given to the FVFD Steamer Company #2 at the premier of the documentary in the New York State Library on March 29, 2011. Swinton concluded his remarks with: “Finally, I also want to thank another special lady named Miss Daisy. Miss Daisy is a horse-drawn 1881 Silsby fire engine that appears in the film. Miss Daisy hails from a small town in Western New York, appropriately named 'Friendship.' And we have two of the crew members here today–Tom Cannon and Dennis Bunnell. They are members of the group that lovingly restored Miss Daisy to full working order.

"They poured countless hours into the task and the result is absolutely beautiful and nearly one of a kind. I'm shocked that they not only allowed us to film it, but they also towed it at high speed down the icy main street behind a pair of huge Belgian horses, at night, in eight-degree weather, with 20 below windchill. Uphill. Both ways! I can tell you it was absolutely miserable, but they didn't complain once. They clearly love their piece of history and want to share it with the public and I hope the film will help them do so. This summer they'll be driving Miss Daisy to Rochester to an event called Smoke, Flames and Courage and also to the Walnut Hill Farm Driving Competition. So if you can't get enough of the steamer, I suggest you check them out.”

As for me, it was a great experience watching the steam crew of the FVFD flawlessly pump water from Miss Daisy. This “trip in a rumble seat of a time machine” gave me additional respect for the firefighters of years past. Even more importantly, it made all involved very thankful for the equipment, training and dedication of our volunteer and paid firefighters of today.

(The author is a life member of the Almond, New York Volunteer Fire Department, having served actively for 37 years in addition to being an EMT for 20.) Title photo: Jeff Luckey. Albany Fire images courtesy of Dan Swinton, WMHT PBS TV, unless otherwise noted. Albany horse images courtesy of Warren Abriel, Deputy Fire Chief, Albany Fire Dept.



Jeff Luckey photo
Friendship Fire Department Teamster
Doug Lawrence has served as the Friendship Volunteer Fire Department's (FVFD) teamster for the past 10 years. This third-generation teamster was inspired in horsemanship by his grandfather, Charlie Lawrence (The Draft Horse Journal, Spring 1979). Doug lives in Arkport, New York, and uses his horses in the woods, for hayrides, weddings, funerals, etc. and each spring he enters local plowing contests. His horses are very calm, level-headed, experienced and well-behaved.


In 2003, Doug also became a “consultant” to the FVFD. Discussions to run the department’s 1881 Silsby steamer up the Main Street of Friendship began that year. In 2004, Daisy's tongue was taken to Doug. He used his skills as a heavy equipment mechanic to modify and extend it to accommodate the extended stride of his Belgian mares at a full gallop. As a surprise to the community during the 2004 Allegany County Firemen’s Convention, the FVFD ran Miss Daisy up Main Street at a full gallop, with a full fire. It became the cornerstone of the national award-winning Silsby Restoration Project. A picture of it became the cover photograph on the book, 1797 to 1987 A Survey of Fire Apparatus in Western New York.

Just two years later, Silsby 657, Miss Daisy, was fully restored as a tribute to the 125th anniversary of the founding of the FVFD. At the Friendship Freedom Fair (a traditional community celebration) she was revealed to the community of Friendship. Doug shuttled the FFD steamer along with an 1835 12-man Wright Brothers hand brake (pumper) up and down Main Street using his mares, Kate and Maggie. The steamer, now fully-operational, and the hand pumper both pumped water over the steeple of the Baptist church, the tallest structure in town, a traditional requirement
of fire departments purchasing new pumpers before
World War I.

In 2007, FVFD was invited to the 1st Smoke, Flames and Courage Muster in Rochester, New York. The organizing committee decided to include an 1880 fire fighting re-enactment as the feature of the show. Working with the FVFD Steamer Company #2, the steering committee developed a script for this first ever fire-fighting event combining a bucket brigade, a 12-man hand pumper and a steam fire pumper into an educational event about the evolution of fire fighting. The event was described by a former chief as, “the best illustration of the changes in fire fighting he had ever seen.” FVFD has participated in the Smoke, Flames and Courage Muster every year since.

A DVD of the PBS special described in this article is available from the Friendship Fire Department. For your copy, send $25 to Friendship Fire Department, P.O. Box 503, Friendship, NY 14739. Make checks out to "Friendship Fire Department" and please put "Daisy" on the memo line.

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