Story & Photos by Jacqueline Bennett

Satish and Saraniya Murugavel of Cromwell visited the Fire Musseum in located in the heart of Manchester, Connecticut's Cheney Historic District.

Satish and Saraniya Murugavel of Cromwell, visited the Fire Museum in the heart of Manchester, Connecticut’s Cheney Historic District on June 14 – the 100th anniversary of Homeland/Heritage Day.

Before fire response could be measured in the mere minutes powerful red trucks with sirens blasting are able to to soar to the scene,  muscular men slid down firehouse poles and literally, themselves pulled 5,000 pound apparatus responding to a blaze.

Fascinating facts such as this and much more can be found at the The Fire Museum in Manchester, Connecticut – an unsung gem. A wealth of information about the interesting history of firefighting in the state awaits visitors here, along with up close views of apparatus and memorabilia that trace the transition of firefighting from man pulled apparatus to horse drawn and then motorized – including a rare coal burning steam engine, one of only two of its model still in existence.

Located in a turn of the 20th Century firehouse built in 1901 on the corner of Pine Street and Hartford Road, the museum can be found “in the heart of the Cheney Historic District.” Adjacent to the former Cheney silk mills, the location reflects the close association between the history of mills and development of professional firefighting in the United States.028


On Saturday, June 14 the Fire Museum was among the attractions open to the public with free admission during the 100th anniversary of Manchester’s Homeland/Heritage Day.

Gary Pinkham, a member of the board of directors for the Connecticut Firemen’s Historical Society, was on hand to man the “watch desk” just inside the front entrance.026

“Watch desks were usually at all firehouses,” he explained.


It was at the watch desk that critical information was logged-in, such as the time and location of fire alarms, the names of responding firefighters, what equipment was utilized, and – hay deliveries. At one time, horses were stabled in the firehouses and had to be fed.


Some contemporary firefighting phrases have their origin in the earliest days of professional firefighters in the U.S., according to Pinkham. The expression a fire “run” he said, dates back to the time when some firefighters pulled an apparatus while others ran alongside it. The term “quick hitches” used by modern day firefighters to refer to suspenders hitched to their bunker pants actually stems from hitches once attached to apparatus, ready and waiting to be joined with horses.

Gary Pinkham mans the Fire Museum watch desk.

Gary Pinkham mans the Fire Museum watch desk.

And, the term “buff” that is part of  everyday vocabulary describing someone who follows a topic with fascination, began when businessmen rushed to fires wearing expensive buffalo coats. They would stay to watch, concerned the fires might spread to nearby property they owned and were tagged “buffs”, according to Pinkham.034032

Leather buckets.

Leather buckets.

This steam engine is one of two of its model still in existence.

The Steamstress, a coal burning steam engine, is one of two of its model still in existence.


Because American factory owners had the money to buy high priced fire equipment, the history of firefighting can be closely associated with mills, Pinkham said.


For example, the steam engine on display at the museum was ordered for $4,000 from Portland Machine Works of Maine in 1858 by Nathaniel Wheeler, owner of Wheeler and Wilson Company, a sewing machine maker later acquired by the Singer Co.  With a pumping capacity of 700 gallons, when  ready to go it weighed 4,900 pounds and was designed to be pulled by firemen. It was delivered in 1860 for use in Bridgeport, East Side.

Named “the Seamstress” it is said to have protected the factory and surrounding neighborhood into the early 1900s. A synopsis of the engine’s history further notes that the Fire Brigade “continued” to be used until after World War I.


During the winter, the wheels were removed and replaced with sled runners. Until the arrival of spring, portions of wooden planks in the firehouse floor were replaced with rollers to make it easier to get the engine out of the firehouse and back inside.


Early on, Pinkham said, firemen were reluctant to switch from horse drawn to motorized apparatus because the horses were so well trained that initially they provided a faster response.


In an interesting anecdote shared by Pinkham,  he said it was not uncommon for fire horses that were retired to become milk wagon horses, to start running with a fire horse team if it passed by.


The Pine Street firehouse has a downstairs bowling alley which is not open to the public. Although the original Pine Street firehouse did not have a watch desk, one was constructed incorporating a few short pieces of wood from the bowling alley. The museum boasts of a working Gamewell Fire Alarm System. A demonstration fire alarm box is situated near the front entrance. When a fire box lever was pulled, the number of the alarm box was transmitted to the firehouse and would appear atop a large alarm to alert the firemen.


The Fire Museum, 230 Pine Street, opened for the 2014 season in April and will remain open through October. Hours are Friday and Saturday 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Call ahead to arrange school field trips, 860-649-9436 or 203-268-0603. Reduced group rates are available. As well, the museum staff encourages fire explorer or cadet’s groups to visit and learn more about the proud history of firefighting.