Thursday, April 24th, 2014

140-year-old fire engine back at station for a while

Messenger photo by Kristy Zurbrick
Posing with the old London Belle are London fire fighters: (from left) Jeremiah Bates, Bryan Daley, Chad Lawhun, Mike Chamberlain and Lt. Jim Penix; (in front) Jake 911, the station dalmatian.

The London Belle is back in familiar surroundings—just for a short while, but that works out just fine for all parties involved.

The antique fire engine was moved on a flatbed in early December from its permanent display space, the Madison County Historical Society Museum, to its temporary home through April, the London Fire Station.

The reason for the move, said museum director Dorothy Richmond, is the Historical Societys need for space for the upcoming Smithsonian exhibit,Between Fences. The national touring exhibit will be open to the public March 5-April 5. Not only is space needed for the displays, the museum also needs room to accommodate the large crowds the show is expected to attract.
The London Fire Department is more than happy to put up the London Belle, which was purchased by the City of London in 1871, because it gives the fire fighters a chance to spruce up a bit of their history.

“A couple of years ago, we were out at the museum for a malfunctioning alarm and we got to looking around. We noticed the Belle was pretty tarnished, said Chief Todd Eades.We offered to shine it up and polish the nickel-plated smokestack.

Logistics, time and staffing kept the cleaning project from getting off the ground right away.

“We keep the London Belle in the barn on the museum grounds, but it wouldve been too cold to work on out there, plus the fire fighters would be away from the station, Richmond said.

When the space issue arose with the start of preparations for the Smithsonian exhibit, relocation of the London Belle solved two problems at one time.

The timing is perfect, said London Fire Chief Todd Eades, because the stations training, walk-throughs and code enforcement duties slow down in the winter, leaving time for projects like this one.

“The London Belle is a piece of our history and, no matter where it is, we need to maintain it, said Eades, who remembers as a boy seeing the old turbine-powered steam engine on display at the Madison County Fair.

While the department doesnt have money to fix the Belles broken boiler, it does have elbow grease and cleaning products to give it a proper shine.

“We should embrace tradition and our heritage, and what better way to do that than to take care of (the tangible) reminders of the past, Eades said.

The London Belle isnt the only old piece of London fire equipment still around. The station owns and stores the 1929 American La France triple combo pumper that once served the city.

Many years ago, the station coordinated a major overhaul of the La France, working on it themselves, enlisting one of the prisons community work crews to paint it, soliciting donations to purchase parts, and getting union help to offset some of the repair costs. The effort got the pumper running again. It appeared in car shows and parades. Right now, its sidelined due to a water pump issue that causes it to overheat in idle, Eades said.

“That thing is a chore to drive. Theres no power steering, no cab, no power brakes, he said of the La France.Those guys who drove that were mens men.

The La France and the London Belle are noble relics of fire fighting done the old-fashioned way.

When the museums Smithsonian exhibit is over, so will be the London Belles stay at the fire station. While the La France will stay put, the Belle will return to the museum, shinier for the absence.


Mt. Sterling and Newport home to old fire apparatus, too
In addition to Londons antique apparatus, two other fire departments in Madison County possess equipment from the early days.

• Tri-County Joint Fire District owns Mount Sterlings first motorized pumper, a 1936 Seagraves, which the fire fighters began restoring in 2008. So far, they have sanded and varnished the ladders, found original replacements on eBay for a missing lantern and flashlight, polished the chrome, and got the engine running smoothly. Last year, the Seagraves was part of a couple of local parades. This year, the fire fighters plan to replace the pumpers seat cover and cracked windshield, as well as fix an engine oil leak.

• The Central Townships Fire District owns a 1934 Seagraves pumper, which is stored at the Newport station.

Capt. Joe Wiggins, 43, remembers seeing the old engine at the station from the time he was little, when his father, Bennie Wiggins, was a fire fighter there.

“Theyd get it out for picnics and give kids rides on it, he said.

When Joe joined the fire department in 1988, the Seagraves was stored in a barn and in disrepair. He and other fire fighters got it running and 10 years ago gave it a new coat of paint.

Last year, Joe coordinated a big push to thoroughly restore the pumpers mechanicals. Inmates at London Correctional Institution got the motor, brakes and electrical system in working order. As a result, the fire station was able to display the Seagraves at the Madison County Fire Expo and drive it in the South Vienna Corn Festival parade. The apparatus also was part of the funeral procession for Stokes Township/South Solon Fire Department Chief Charles R. Bauer Jr.

The plan, Joe said, is to continually seek out original replacement parts and drive the pumper in as many special events as possible. It will be back at the Fire Expo this year.


Remember When: Fire engine disappeared

In 1871, the City of London purchased a turbine-powered steam fire engine from the Silsby Fire Apparatus Co. for $7,200. The engine was named theBelle of London, as was the new fire company the city formed the same summer.

Around 1940, the Belle of London disappeared. In the 1960s, local historians conducted research that led to the Belles recovery in 1968.

The historians discovered that the City of London loaned the Belle to the Columbus Fire Department for use in a parade. The Belle wasnt returned, but rather donated by the Columbus Fire Department to the Ohio Historical Society, historians said. It was stored at the Ohio Exposition Center in Columbus, later declared surplus, then sent home with the Ohio fairgrounds caretaker who displayed it in Sunbury, Ohios sesquicentennial celebration in 1965 before storing it in a barn on his property.

When the London historians traveled to Sunbury for a look, they found an engine with American Fire Apparatus wheels and a boiler patented in 1889. The names and dates didnt match what they knew about the original London Belle.

With more research, they learned that, in 1899, the City of London contracted with a Cincinnati company to convert the London Belle into a horse-drawn apparatus. Further details confirmed that the engine in Sunbury was indeed the London Belle.

Armed with this information, the Madison County Historical Society, which was a relatively new organization in 1968, negotiated the Belles return to London. The cost: just the $450 the Sunbury caretaker put into partially restoring the apparatus.

The last fire the London Belle fought was in January 1929 when the entire city block that contains the State Theater burned to the ground. The 1917 American La France pumper blew a rod, so the Belle was pulled out of storage.

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