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Antique fleet shows fire department history

The steam engine gleams, shiny silver and red in the North Charlotte garage where fire department mechanics used to work. It would be easy to look at this machine – as the department’s landmark 125th year draws to a close – and see only an antique, a vestige of the department in the early 20th century.

But on a recent Tuesday, the words of the firefighter who restored the 1903 model steam engine bring the horse-drawn machine to life.

“The horses would come out, get harnessed and, as they were pulling out of the door to the station, a flame shot up out of the floor that lit the tinder,” said firefighter Jeff Dixon, pointing out the engine’s various parts – a large steel boiler, the steam engine’s even larger wheels, the tinder box and pressure gauges. “Then the water’s already hot, so it’s pretty much ready to go.”

The steam engine, called “Old Sue” by firefighters, once put out fires when Charlotte’s population was one-thirtieth of what is today and only 30 men worked full time at the fire department.

Now, the steam engine is one of several restored vehicles that make up the department’s antique fleet, a collection of fire engines that all once operated in Charlotte. And, under Dixon’s care, the antique trucks still work today, functional reminders of the department’s long history.

That connection to the different chapters of fire department history is important to Chief Jon Hannan, especially as the organization continues to expand.

“The engines are a physical reminder to our current firefighters of the long line they’re a part of and the responsibilities we have to society,” the chief said. “They have a standing, too, in American history that’s hard to explain.”

Hannan launched the project that has become a passion for both him and Dixon: finding old engines that actually served in the city of Charlotte, restoring them and using them in demonstrations and parades around the city and even the state.

Each of the antique trucks tells a story about the department, the city of Charlotte, the fires that happened there and the people who put them out.

There is the restored 1959 ladder that firefighters took to the historic fire started by arson at Bryant Heating and Air Conditioning in 1981. Hannan remembers they had to lay the ladder across the flames as they tried to put them out.

Nearby, an old hand-pumper used in the late 1860s recalls the all-black fire company that served in Charlotte at that time: Its water tank is branded with the word “Neptune,” the name of that volunteer company

And there is the first motorized truck used by the department in the early 20th century, the 1928 American LaFrance that first got Dixon hooked on the restoration project in 2003.

“It took me seven months, basically, day and night to build it,” Dixon said. “And this is what we ended up with.”

This year, the department has paid tribute to its 125 years of history with the antique cars. They were featured in the Thanksgiving Day parade and in Raleigh at the annual conference of the North Carolina State Firemen’s Association. And officials commissioned commemorative anniversary coins, decorated with the likenesses of each of the antique vehicles.

But perhaps the connection between these old trucks, the firefighters who worked them and the Charlotte residents they served is best shown by a recent, spontaneous ride that Hannan took in a 1971 model.

As the chief drove the loud, shaking vehicle down a North Charlotte street, he gestured to people who watched.

“Look at those smiles,” he shouted over the guttering engine. “That’s what this is about.”

Steele: 704-358-5067
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