Fire Museum shows an artful history

The Fire Museum in Manchester, Conn., is in a 1901 firehouse in the Cheney Brothers Historic District.
The Fire Museum in Manchester, Conn., is in a 1901 firehouse in the Cheney Brothers Historic District.

MANCHESTER, Conn. — I expected to find history at the Fire Museum, which traces firefighting’s transition from hand-drawn to horse-drawn to motorized apparatus. What surprised me was the art — intricately designed badges and trumpets, varnished and painted parade hats, and elegant ceremonial vehicles with tooled leather, airy metalwork, and finely etched glass.

The Fire Museum is housed in a 1901 fire station, built to protect the mills and houses that belonged to the Cheney brothers, owners of the largest silk manufacturing plant in the country at the time. It operated as a firehouse until 1964, when the town built a new station.

It was facing a wrecking ball when the Connecticut Firemen’s Historical Society leased the building from the town, renovated the inside, installed the fascinating collection of Clarence Baldwin, and opened a museum in 1983.


Most of the apparatus has been donated by units in the state. One of the most unusual pieces is a Hartford hand pumper from the 1860s; it took 36 men, 18 on each side, to operate the hand pump, and each stroke produced 1.5 gallons of water. Another highlight is one of the first motorized pieces of apparatus ever used in Manchester, a 1921 Ahrens Fox.

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The elegant Crescent is a parade hose reel, originally built for the New York City Fire Department. Used purely for ceremonial purposes, parade reels featured the finest decorations: leaded glass and etched lamps, carved flowers and figures, engraved metalwork, and painted wood. The Alert Hose Co. No. 3, with its swirling metalwork, is another striking ceremonial reel.

The imposing Seamstress from Bridgeport was one of the first vehicles to use steam to run the pump. It could pump 700 gallons a minute. Built around 1864-65 for the Wheeler & Wilson Sewing Machine Factory, which later became Singer Sewing Machine Co., it features an etched image of a seamstress at her machine on the lamp.

Many Connecticut fire companies sent steam engines to Boston to help battle the Great Fire of 1872, said Wayne Crossman, president of the society. In return the city sent gifts, such as ceremonial speaking trumpets, replicas of the large metal horns, similar to megaphones, that officers and chiefs used to give orders at a fire. Several of these trumpets are on display, along with Philadelphia-style parade hats, decorated felt top hats associated with Benjamin Franklin.

There are two floors of apparatus, connected by a spiral staircase. The third floor was originally the day room, where firefighters ate, slept, and played pool or cards. Now called the Connecticut Room, it houses special exhibits. This year’s featured exhibit will be a collection of photographs from the Connecticut Fire Photographers Association.


Also on the third floor is a working Gamewell Fire Alarm System. The clunky, space-hogging wall unit with its bells, meters, and marquee light bulbs was state of the art in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

A 1911 Hartford water tower, designed to apply water to higher floors of a building, was originally horse drawn and later converted to a gasoline-electric hybrid. The society still rolls out the 50-foot-plus-long apparatus once or twice a year and hooks it up to a pumper. Crossman said they hope to have it operating at the museum’s May 18 open house, along with the Ahrens Fox.

The Fire Museum  230 Pine St., Manchester, Conn. 860-649-9436, Fri- Sat noon-4 p.m., April 13-mid-November; suggested donation $4 adults, $2 seniors and ages 12-16, $1



Ellen Albanese can be reached at