Past Treasure of the Month – November 2009

Antique Miniature Fire Pumper

Donated by: The Galveston Fire Department Central Fire Station.

Antique miniature fire pumper


The Rosenberg Library’s Museum featured a miniature model of an antique hand-pumper fire engine as its November “Treasure of the Month.” Hand pumpers, early fire engines that pumped water from underground water sources or cisterns, were first invented in the 2nd century B.C. and were revived in the Colonial period to protect wooden metropolitan areas from the destructive forces of fire. Constructed of wood, metal, and chord, the Rosenberg Library’s “Number 8” pumper, built in 1912, was donated in 1935 by the Galveston Fire Department’s Central Fire Station, located at 20th and Avenue D.

Before the convenience of modern firefighting equipment, volunteer fire fighters organized bucket brigades to watch and respond to early signs of smoke or fire. Bucket brigades consisted of two lines of fire fighters who passed buckets of water to and from a water source to put out flames. Colonial laws in America required that every household keep buckets of water available on the front stoop at night should the brigades have to fight a fire in the nearby vicinity. The number of buckets a home or business was required to own was determined by its potential risk of fire.

Early hand pumper

The first fire apparatus in America was built in 1743, beginning the era of hand pumpers. These early fire engines were designed to spray water with more force and accuracy than the bucket brigades. Firemen had to pull these early hand pumpers manually from the fire houses to the buildings ablaze. Firefighters operated hand-pumped fire engines with duel pumping arms that when pushed up and down, would draw water out of the tub into a pressure chamber and then out through the hose. The addition of pressure allowed the water to keep a continuous flow. With this design, bucket brigades were still used to continuously supply the tubs with water. The action of pumping the arms was known as “working on the brakes.” It required eight men or more to operate the arms on early equipment, and in a matter of minutes the men would succumb to exhaustion.

Galveston’s Fire Department began in 1843 as a bucket brigade with a small group of volunteer fire fighters when the city was still young. Known as the Galveston Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, this bucket brigade used water from the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston Bay, as well as the underground and overhead cisterns to serve the community. The firemen wore red shirts and white belts and often marched in town parades. The Firemen’s Grand Parade was held on San Jacinto Day with a large parade through downtown Galveston. (Click the newspaper clipping below to view a portion of the Galveston Daily News coverage of the fire companies in the parade.)

Click here to view a portion of news coverage of the fire companies in the parade.

The invention of pressurized fire hydrants allowed hand-pumpers to withdraw water straight from a source, which no longer required the help of the bucket brigades. The addition of horses to lead the heavy fire engines also enabled quicker response times and less fatigue on the part of the firemen. With the help of the fire house Dalmatian, horses were trained to respond to the sound of the fire bell and stand ready at the front of the hand pumper. Horses and Dalmatians remained a beloved part of fire services all over the country through the mid-19th century. Galveston later organized other volunteer companies including Washington No. 1 (1847); Island City No. 2 (1856); Star State No. 3 (1859); Young America No.1 (1866); Eagle No. 7 (1869); and Hook and Ladder Company No. 2 (1870). In 1885 after the Great Fire that destroyed 40 blocks of residential homes and businesses, the first paid fire department was established. Thirty men and six hand pumpers, all horse-drawn, made up this first official Galveston fire department.

Galveston firefighters then and today are known for their superb abilities in fighting fires in historic buildings and working through horrific storms. A memorial in remembrance of past firemen is located at the Central Fire Station at 2514 Sealy.