By Ron Heal
“Jumbo” is the Commonwealth of Virginia’s oldest piece of motorized fire apparatus. A large fire in March 1911 wiped out much of the Wharf area in Staunton, Virginia. That fire started the wheels in motion that would lead to the purchase of a 1911 Robinson 750-gpm piston pumper.
The Robinson Fire Apparatus Manufacturing Company was based in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1910 the company had introduced its first automobile pumping engine assembled on a chassis of its own design—built from the ground up to withstand rough use while performing fire duty. The Robinson “Jumbo” was a 750-gpm Robinson triple piston pump, powered by a Buffalo Marine RQ 109 150-hp engine. Some of America’s largest cities were early Robinson users. Detroit, Michigan; Boston, Massachusetts; Cleveland, Ohio; Los Angeles, California; and St. Louis, Missouri were early Robinson customers.
There was much anticipation in March 1912 when a 1911 Robinson pumper arrived in Staunton. The engine was big, sleek, and powerful for that time. Before a sale could be completed, the rig would have to perform as well as it had been advertised. Imagine a test run where 14 men and a ton of equipment were added for the test. The rig mastered Staunton’s hills and, on several occasions, was stopped at a hydrant to demonstrate good pumping ability. The pumper performed well. Despite some minor issues that were corrected by the manufacturer, the pumper was purchased for $8,500. “Jumbo” remained in working order until 1971.
The city leaders determined that the vintage pumper should be sold. The Staunton (VA) Volunteer Fire Department was able to purchase the pumper. The purchase of the pumper would be the start of several fund-raisers held over the next decade to start the process of a complete restoration. In 1979, the Robinson went to Billy Thompson’s White Post Restorations in nearby White Post, Virginia. For the next five years Billy Thompson and his crew would work on and off on the project, pausing from time to time to allow the Staunton volunteers time to organize another fund raiser to complete the restoration. The finished project in 1985 was awesome. It is difficult to realize now that the restoration was completed thirty years ago.
Today the big pumper is proudly displayed in a small fire museum located in the City of Staunton Fire & Rescue Station 1, 500 N. Augusta Street, Staunton, Virginia. It is thought that “Jumbo” is one of only two vintage Robinsons on display in America. A second 1915 “Jumbo” that served Globe, Arizona, is displayed at the Hall of Flame Museum in Papago Park in Phoenix, Arizona.
Staunton Fire & Rescue is staffed by 34 career fire fighters, a fire chief, two deputy fire chiefs, a deputy fire marshal, and 20 part-time personnel. It operates out of two fire stations, serving a community of approximately 25,000 in a 19.7-square-mile area. The department provides automatic aid to a large portion of Augusta County. The all-hazards department responded to nearly 4,000 calls last year. EMS, ALS, regional and state technical rescue, and hazmat make up their personnel. The current apparatus roster has three Sutphen pumpers, a Pierce tower, a Hackney/Ford squad, a brush unit, a 6×6 Gator, and several SUV command vehicles. Chief Scott Garber invites visitors to the museum at 500 N. Augusta Street in Staunton. Hours are daily from 8:00 A.M. until 9:00 P.M. as long as members of the department are in quarters. There is no admission to see “Jumbo” and other fire service memorabilia that date back prior to the Civil War.
Staunton has its own connection with the Hall of Flame Museum in Arizona. A 1938 Seagrave Junior aerial that served Staunton for almost 30-years is displayed in nearly original condition. Only the seat has been reupholstered. The 65-foot aerial ladder was the first all-steel aerial ladder built by Seagrave. The ladder was driven entirely by hydraulic power and featured hydraulic outriggers. The rig was powered with a Seagrave V-12 250-hp engine. This rig is featured in the Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting 50-year commemorative edition published in 2011.
Garber points out that Staunton is the birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson. Staunton is also known as the birthplace of the city manager form of government, having adopted that system in 1908—four years before the arrival of the Robinson “Jumbo”.
James Mullenax is a retired member of the Staunton Volunteer Fire Department. He well recalls the time when the volunteers purchased the pumper from the city and all the fund raisers held to fund the restoration all those years ago. It is interesting to note that the Staunton Volunteer Fire Company was founded in 1790 and is the oldest volunteer fire company in Virginia, with more than 224-years of tradition. While the company is no longer active, it does maintain its charter. Thank you, James, for sharing “Jumbo” with our readers. Our thanks also to Chief Scott Garber for finding a great selection of “Jumbo” pictures on a rare occasion when the big rig was out of the museum. A stop in Staunton, Virginia to visit the fire museum should be on any vintage fire apparatus enthusiasts list!