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Bend's First Fire Engine Will Be Home For Christmas

OPB | Nov. 27, 2013 6 a.m. | Bend, Oregon

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Bend will hold its annual downtown Christmas parade December 7.  The star of that show, of course, will be Santa Claus.  But this year, St. Nick will be sharing the spotlight with a part of Bend’s history, the city’s first fire engine, which it purchased back in 1919.

Engine Number One, as it’s called, finally made it back to Bend this summer. A successful fundraising effort by The Bend Firefighters Foundation allowed for its purchase from Poulsbo Fire Department in the state of Washington.

Even though the engine is more than 15 feet long, it looks small compared to modern engines.

Scott Wyman is a captain with the Bend Fire.

“The engine in modern times, it’s really a rolling toolbox. We cover so many different types of emergencies that we have to be really ready for any of that.  Historically, especially, when that original engine was brought there to Bend, its primary purpose, when you look at it, there’s no compartments.  Really, all it is is a chassis with a pump and small water tank,” Wyman says.

But Bend auto-mechanic Wade Bryant says the 1919 American La France is also a classic.  He says about a dozen of these engines have survived over the years.  But this is the only engine that can be called Bend’s Engine Number 1.

“It’s just a great piece of history, it’s a piece of art, you know back then, the design of things.  A lot more care was taken in the way things were built.  It’s just a beautiful thing,” Bryant says.

Bryant has years of experience working on early automobiles, as a collector.  So when he heard about the purchase this summer, he volunteered his time to get this classic engine running again.

“What we have here is a 900 cubic inch, 14 liter - 6 cylinder engine that’s run on gasoline,” Bryant says as he opens the engine compartment.

Bryant set to work about a month ago, after learning all he could about the engine.  He says one of the first things he did was drain the oil, which in his words was “looking pretty bad”.  He then went to work repairing the water pump, fixing leaks and lubricating all the moving parts.

“It’s pretty exciting when you take something that’s this old and that first time that you start it up after it’s been sitting for so many years.  It cooperated quite well.  It started right up.”

As the engine begins to warm, a strange odor emerges.  Bryant says that’s the original gear oil, which was made from whale blubber.   While this engine probably has enough power for a cruise out on the highway, Bryant says he wouldn’t recommend it.

“The brakes were not very effective on these older vehicles, any of them.  Back then 20 miles an hour was moving along pretty good.  That was pretty much as fast as as most people would drive, so things moved a little bit slower back then.”

If the truck did have trouble stopping, firefighters had this hand cranked siren to give fair warning to others out on the road.

Twenty-miles-an-hour may not sound that fast. But Bend Fire’s Scott Wyman says you need to keep in mind that before this engine, the fire department had to harness a team of horses to pull the pumps and hoses every time there was a fire.

“The way the fire goes out is still water on the fire, but the difference, just starting this, and looking at how old the machinery is, and really how finicky it is, it gives you a respect for the skill that they had to have to operate the machinery, to get it started, get it warmed up and get it down the road to the emergency,” Wyman says.

Wyman says the Fire Department up in Poulsbo agreed to part with the engine for just $13,000.  That department’s Deputy Chief Bruce Peterson acknowledges the engine would have fetched much more from a private collector, but he says there was a strong feeling that the engine belonged back in Bend.

The Bend Firefighters Foundation plans to launch another fundraising effort next year to build a new fire museum where the engine would be on display along with other items collected over the last hundred years.

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