Features

Vintage Fire Truck Updates

By Ron Heal

In past features, we have introduced you to some vintage apparatus the go back to the horse-drawn era and move all the way up into the 1950s era. This may be a good time to fill you in on some of the progress that has been made on featured apparatus from past issues.

Recently we featured an Ahrens-Fox piston pumper that served Collinsville, Illinois. That rig has been fully restored by Doug Klink out in Estes Park, CO. Plans were underway to bring this rig back home for the big Italian Fest parade in September. Estes Park is one of the most beautiful locations that you will find in the USA. Unfortunately, some of that beauty was covered by floodwaters caused by heavy rainfall in September. While Klink’s home and museum sites were spared from floodwaters, many surrounding main roads were badly damaged to the extent that Doug was unable to make the trip. We know that was disappointing to event organizers, area fire buffs, and local historians that looked forward to seeing the now beautifully restored rig drive the streets of Collinsville. Maybe next year, Doug?

Several months ago we featured a 1951 American LaFrance 100-foot aerial ladder truck that was still on the roster at the Joliet (IL) Fire Department. It seemed that the department really needed the space the rig took up at fire station number 10. Joliet Chief Joseph Formals and Deputy Chief Ray Randich very much wanted to find a good home for the rig, which still was in good shape. The department had made several offers to area museums, and was getting the same answer—no room for the aerial ladder truck. The feature “No Room in the Barn” that we presented here had some interesting results. Some solid leads dissolved due to a number of reasons. Then there was good news. Alan Swirski, a fire apparatus enthusiast and collector in the greater Washington, D.C., area, read our feature from a link on ALFowners.org.

Swirski has been collecting fire apparatus since 2006. Currently his collection is all American LaFrance. A 1937 open cab pumper that served Wildwood, New Jersey is his oldest rig. Other pumpers include a 1952 700 series pumper, a 1963 900 series pumper, and a 1970 pumper. The Joliet aerial could be his first ladder truck. By late spring Alan and the Joliet Fire Department reached an agreement for the purchase/sale of the truck. It sounds like that could be the end of the story, but the devil is in the details.

People that get involved in the ownership of vintage fire apparatus often find that the vehicle was never titled or even licensed by the fire department that owned the rig. That was not that big a deal back in the 1950s—besides, the rig never left town. All too soon, Formals found himself in the middle of trying to satisfy the State of Illinois. A search by city of Joliet officials for a clear title came up empty. That led to a four-month saga to document the truck so that a title could be issued. The department had to show evidence of its right to acquire a title. It also had to obtain a written appraisal of the current value. That would come from a licensed new or used vehicle dealer. Many calls were made to Springfield, Illinois, and eventually the job got done.

The next important phase would be arranging shipping. Best Way Trucking was the carrier of choice. Remember, the rig had not been started or moved in several years. It was thought that the rig may have to be winched on to the trailer. Joliet’s Dave Druzik, director of motor maintenance, along with Joliet Fire Department mechanics Dan Budzinski and Mike Aimaro were able to get the rig started and running so the ladder truck could be driven onto the flatbed. Aimaro was the appointed driver to back the truck onto the trailer. There was little room for error with only six inches from the outside of the fire truck’s tires and the edge of the trailer—all this while backing up! Aimaro made it in just two tries—a tribute to his driving skills. The loading of the aerial ladder truck was a big event as it marked the end of a 62-year run. Retired Joliet Fire Department member Rick Doyle was on hand. Rick had the honor of driving the aerial when he was on the job. Local fire apparatus historian and retired Fermi Lab firefighter George Reichhardt was also on hand to see the vintage rig loaded and headed out.

The rig made the trip east without incident and arrived at the Culpeper County, Virginia, location where Swirski has built a “fire barn” that is large enough to house his entire collection. The truck was winched off the trailer, just to be safe.

In May 2013, I had the opportunity to see this apparatus in the Joliet fire station. It looked parade-ready as the rig had very limited use following a complete refurbishment. Looks are only a part of the story. After more than a decade of inactivity there are issues that need to be considered, and Swirski knew that from experiences with the other apparatus in his collection. Items such as having the carburetor rebuilt, new tires, brakes, and removing and cleaning out the gas tank head the list. In addition, there are a few items Swirski would like to add that will make the rig as complete as he would like it to be. He has located a 700 series bell and a Beacon Ray warning light. There is one item that remains on his list—a set of American LaFrance wooden ground ladders used on aerials. If you can be of assistance, please contact Swirski at [email protected].

What is ahead for the newly obtained aerial? Weather permitting, the debut parade for the truck will be the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Washington, D.C. That parade is some 65 miles away and is viewed by more than 200,000 people. What a great debut for the grand old rig! If the weather cooperates, just imagine the Joliet (IL) Fire Department lettered 1951 American LaFrance ladder truck rolling past the White House!

RON HEAL compiles the “Apparatus Showcase” and “Recent Orders” departments monthly in
Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment.