May 18 is the anniversary of Richmond’s first motorized fire truck run, which was extremely hazardous but not because of a fire.
Late in the afternoon on May 18, 1912, a roof fire broke out near North 13th and H streets. Alarm bells sounded at the No. 2 Fire Company at the city building as Richmond’s finest were alerted quickly.
Firemen leaped onto their shiny Robinson motorized truck and crouched bravely on the running boards as Richmond’s first-ever combustion engine firetruck raced up Fort Wayne Avenue, surging to the rescue as the new pride of the force.
The firm’s representative drove because local firemen had not yet been taught how to steer the vehicle.
As the new truck sped to the rescue and swerved from Fort Wayne Avenue onto North E Street at an estimated 60 miles per hour, it immediately began sliding wildly. The vehicle wriggled out of control back and forth. The driver gripped the steering wheel and pumped the brakes.
The engine sideswiped a horse and buggy rig driven by John Forbes, smashing forward onto the sidewalk where pedestrians walked. The driver was unable to stop the vehicle’s massive carom. He hit the brakes, which only made it worse as the vehicle plowed on, crashing into everything.
A 69-year-old retired businessman named Isaac Parry tumbled from Shannon’s Saloon (now Foster’s E Street Antique Gallery). The truck struck him and swerved again, glancing off a telephone pole, careening wildly in a screwball comedy, Keystone cops-like manner. The telephone pole split, the transformer bonked the fire chief’s head and the pole struck the captain in the stomach.
The vehicle skidded wildly into the Pennsylvania Depot wall between Eighth and Ninth streets. The driver wrenched the steering wheel, causing the vehicle to sluice back onto North E in front of the Adam H. Bartel building (now Joe’s Pizza) where it slid to a screeching halt.
Dazed firemen gathered up hoses and dashed — all elbows and knees — to the fire mere blocks away, tramping quickly in their gear, emphasizing displeasure hotly.
The fire chief and captain were incapacitated.
The truck got started again and rumbled to the fire, but not before a horse-drawn vehicle and its equipment put the fire out.
It was not until the truck returned to the station that the men learned Parry had been killed, which cast a pall on the entire crew.
The injured firemen recovered, and so did the driver of the horse and rig.
The depot wall was hardly scratched, but the egos of the firemen were deflated, especially since a horse-drawn vehicle got to the fire first.
The city stopped payment on the engine, and the firm in St. Louis that made it was notified. The truck was shipped back for repairs at the company’s expense.
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