With talented inventor Nehemiah S. Bean supervising design and production, within a short time the manufacture of steam fire engines and hose carriages became the major focus of the machine shop of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company.
Mechanics were hired to meet increasing demand, and soon an engine could be built within two months of the receipt of an order.
The company became known for its personal service.
According to historian George Waldo Browne, “Every engine sent out was warranted to be of the best material and workmanship, and a competent engineer was sent to put the machine in complete running order.”
The machine shop built a variety of fire engines. The biggest demand was for the double-pump “harp” type. On these, the hexagonal cast brass frame was bolted to the pump and steam cylinder, which made it look like the frame of a harp. The first-class harp engine weighed 6,000 pounds when loaded with fuel (wood or coal) and water, and was pulled by three horses. According to Browne, this engine “…was often put to severe test at firemen's musters and parades, and won many prizes, becoming a general favorite.”
The second-class harp engine weighed 5,300 pounds when fully equipped, and could be pulled either by two horses or by men. The company also made a compact 4,000 pound single-pump engine that could be pulled by either by one horse or by men. It was used by small-town departments.
In 1867 the company began producing “self-propellers.” These “horseless carriages” used steam power for locomotion as well as for pumping water. They worked quite well in some cities, but there were some difficulties to overcome. The machines could reach a speed of 10-12 miles per hour, but could only travel easily over flat surfaces. They functioned poorly on snow and ice, and they were so loud they terrified any horses in the vicinity.
These machines are recorded in the annals of motor vehicle history as being some of the first vehicles to use a modern differential gear. This allowed the four wheels to move at different speeds, which made turning sharp corners possible. This improvement was first tried in 1873 on an engine destined for Detroit, Mich., the “Lafayette 1”.
How good were the Amoskeag fire engines? The record for the longest distance ever recorded for a steam fire engine to throw a stream of water horizontally was reportedly set when a newly built Amoskeag steamer, Engine Six of Cambridge, Mass., was tested at Fresh Pond in that city in March 1891. The astounding record was 381 feet, 4 ½ inches.
By 1876 the Amoskeag's Agent, Ezekiel Straw, had grown disenchanted with the steam fire engine business. The Amoskeag had built 550 engines since 1859, all under the intelligent direction of Nehemiah S. Bean. These sold well, but the division was not as profitable as Straw would have liked it to be. Its main purpose seemed to be to spread the fame of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company rather than to make money. Straw decided to sell the patents to the Manchester Locomotive Works, and at age 58, Bean willingly took the opportunity to retire. The Locomotive Works continued to manufacture the Amoskeag steamers for several more decades. This company was bought by the American Locomotive Company in 1901, and the last Amoskeag engines were produced in 1907 or 1908.
The famous Amoskeag steam fire engines were known for their effectiveness in fighting fires, and were also appreciated for their beauty. Small towns from Maine to Oregon bought the machines, as well as large cities including New York, Boston, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, Albany and San Francisco.
The Amoskeag engines were a significant factor in saving lives and property at the Great Boston Fire of November 1872 and the San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 1906. Many were acquired by the U.S. government to be used at Navy yards and at arsenals. They were sold around the world including in Canada, Russia, China, Australia, Peru and Chile. The city of London bought two, which were named “Queen Victoria” and “Princess Alexandra.” Today these engines can be seen in museums across the United States, and many are held in private collections.
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