In 1917 the Catholic Church in Livermore burned to the ground. Afterward, the town fathers thought that maybe it would be a good idea if the town had a fire engine.
But, Livermore only had $750 in the bank and the fire engine they wanted cost $10,750. The citizens voted for a bond issue to raise $10,000 and Livermore got its first fire engine, a 1920 Seagrave. The price was about equal to the price of three houses at that time, and probably a good way to justify the cost of the vehicle.
Fredrick Seagrave entered the firefighting business in 1881 in Detroit, first building sturdy ladders. Later he was asked by a volunteer fire department to build a hand-drawn wagon and, as they say, the rest is history. The company moved to Columbus, Ohio and now is the oldest continuously operating fire engine manufacturer in the country.
The 1920 model was the first time Seagrave built its own engine. The six-cylinder motor generated 90 HP and used a three-speed manual transmission requiring double clutching. Two very large chains, like bicycle chains, transfer the power from the engine to the drive wheels.
The tires on Livermore's engine were originally hard rubber but were changed to inflatable tires about 1939. The odometer got disconnected with the tire change, but after 19 years of service, the odometer showed 329 miles.
Since the engine also drives the pump on the truck, the actual engine usage is greater than the chassis mileage.
The brakes are mechanical but work too slow and stop the chains, not the wheels directly. Since there are no brakes to the front wheels, and we know front brakes do most of the braking, the driver had to think ahead before stopping. The old Seagrave has right-hand drive, as that was considered the safest so the driver could better see the edge of the road.
This Seagrave fire engine served Livermore from 1920 until 1951 before it was retired. It was moved to the Livermore City Water Treatment grounds and parked outside for about 25 years. In 1976 it was towed to the historic Duarte Garage in Livermore where the deteriorated vehicle rested, largely forgotten.
"Then about four years ago," volunteer Jim Boehmke said," a couple of us got together and decided we needed to do something about this old fire engine. Stuff had been stolen off of it and damage happened but thanks to eBay, we found all the missing parts."
A volunteer group was formed. One may not need a rocket scientist to restore an old fire truck, but included in the volunteer group were at least three retired Ph.D.s.
The volunteers would meet at the Duarte Garage every Saturday morning to work on the Seagrave. Many utilized time at home to work on their particular assignment. There was electrical work, mechanical work, upholstery work, body work, paint work and wood work.
"It turned out that the skills and the knowledge of a nucleus group of six or eight guys was exactly what we needed to do this job," Boehmke told me. "So it went much quicker than I thought."
"Originally I thought this would be about a 10-year project," he said, "but we completed the project in just four years. We aren't too sure as to the number of hours invested, but we do know it is in excess of 10,000 hours."
Many local businesses contributed to the restoration, including Lance Cavalieri Jewelers giving 23-karat gold leaf that Ralph Newman painted free hand on the Seagrave. Ned's Auto Body Supply donated the red paint and Tri-Valley Body Shop painted the vehicle.
In all, over $30,000 was donated to complete it. The vehicle is officially owned by the Livermore Heritage Guild.
After learning about this 92-year-old fire engine, I was offered a ride. More eager than a Dalmatian dog, I climbed up to the "shotgun" seat, which is on the left. The antique engine responded almost immediately and we were on our way.
Jim Boehmke was driving and that is no easy task. The accelerator is between the clutch and brake. There was a spark advance level to manipulate. A volunteer stood on each side running board and acted as a combination GPS, lookout, and turn signal. He got the old fire engine up to 26 mph. That's a lot of breeze with no doors, or windshield. People pointed and stared.
Down the road a bit, we saw a big modern Livermore Fire Department fire engine coming toward us. I cranked the manual siren, and Boehmke clanged the big silver bell that could test the hard of hearing. They did the same. We saluted each other.
Have an interesting vehicle? Contact David Krumboltz at MOBopoly@yahoo.com