| Van Buren Engine
Builder: James Smith, 1820
San Francisco's first major fire occurred early in the morning of December 24, 1849, burning a quarter of the young city. At the time, there was not yet a fire department in the City. Some quick thinking citizens remembered that there were three small fire engines on the wharf awaiting shipment to the gold fields, where they were to be used to pump out the mines. These fire engines were rushed to the fire.
That afternoon, the Town Council held a special meeting and by resolution formed a fire department. The three engines were commandeered and became the basis of the forming of the fire department. They were assigned to the newly organized companies of the Empire, the Protection and the San Francisco.
The Protection engine was built by Mr. James Smith of New York City. Mr. Smith began his business of building fire engines in 1809. This engine is one of his earliest. There is only one outlet which is located at the top of the air chamber case. A rotating gooseneck swivel fitting allows the fixture of a nozzle onto the outlet. This engine was built before the advent of quality fire hose. It was thus necessary to place this engine close to the fire building in order to put a stream of water on the fire. Later Smith engines of the same size have a technical improvement of one outlet at the front of the engine wash box. This would allow a fireman to place a hose line into the engine while standing on the ground rather than standing on the engine itself.
Amazingly, two of the City's first engines are still in existence. In 1878, San Francisco sold the Empire engine to the East Bay city of Hayward. It is now on display in their main firehouse. This engine, now known as Hayward No. 1, has the outlet in the front of the wash box, thus it was built later than the Protection. The third of the City's first engines was a small machine originally used as a garden appliance to water the lawns on the New York estate of President Martin Van Buren. This engine was lost in the 1906 Fire when it was housed in the Veteran Fireman's firehouse at Portsmouth Square.
The Protection engine was in service with the Fire Department of New York for more than thirty-five years before it was shipped around the horn to California in 1849. When larger hand engines were received from the east coast in the early 1850's, this engine was sold to Barron, Boltob & Company for fire protection in the quicksilver mines at Almaden, Santa Clara County. The engine was returned to San Francisco in 1914 through the efforts of Captain William J. Kenealey of Engine 14, who went to Almaden and purchased it for the Veteran Firemen's Association. The engine is unquestionably the oldest in California.
The engine was restored by the SFFD Museum at the California Correctional Institute at Tehachapi in 1979. Uncovering seven layers of paint the current colors of blue and yellow were found. When the engine was down to its bare wood, it was also found that there were several char marks showing how close the engine was to several of its many working fires.
This engine has won numerous restoration, parade and working competition awards in California and Nevada. It is the 1982 Class II State Champion Hand Engine as presented by the California Firemen's Muster Association. After restoration in 1979, it has pumped a best distance of 137 feet 10 inches.
The Protection engine is now part of the collection of the San Francisco Fire Department Museum.
Back to the Top