San Jose Fire Museum

All Photos by Ed Hass

The first steamer to serve San Jose, CA, is this 1880 Amoskeag 2nd size #547. It sat for many years at Pollardville Ghost Town, a combination fried-chicken restauarant, old-west town, steam railroad, and riverboat casino, on Highway 99 in Stockton, CA. Steam enthusiast Bruce Kegg of Portland, OR, found this steamer there, bought it, and restored it to its current pristine condition. San Jose Fire Museum re-acquired it from Bruce, at last bringing it back to its original home town.

San Jose bought what would have and should have been their last steam fire engine, an Ahrens Continental, in 1907. Unfortunately, that fire engine was destroyed by fire in 1914. San Jose then bought a used steamer, an 1899 2nd-size Metropolitan #2676, from the San Francisco Fire Department. After attaching a new three-wheel Knox-Martin tractor, San Jose put their final steamer in service as Engine 1. Retired in 1937, this motorized steamer went to the Levin Brothers junkyard in San Jose. The Levins recognized what a rare piece of fire equipment this is, and instead of scrapping it, they moved it into a shed for the next 30 years. When the San Jose Fire Department began collecting antique fire engine for a proposed fire museum, the Levins dionated this steamer in 1968, and it was restored in 1969. It took until 2001 for the dream of a San Jose Fire Museum to finally become a reality, and this sole surviving Knox-Martin is now the museum's star attraction.

The fire department in Tracy, CA, acquired this 1905 Metropolitanm steamer #3085 second-hand in the 1930s, when the town was little more than a railroad station and a handful of stores and homes. Tracy FD sold it to a local private collector of old vehicles about 1960, who in turn sold it to San Jose Fire Department in 1968, for its proposed fire museum. The steamer then sat in deep storage until the msueum opened in 2001. Unfortunately, no old-timer remains in Tracy to recall where, how, and when they acquired it. And the extensive surviving archives of the American-LaFrance company do not show a steamer with serial number 3085, even though serial numbers ran from 2101 in 1892 to 3445 in 1917. The nearest big cities to Tracy (big enough to have had steamers in 1905) include San Francisco, Stockton, and Sacramento, but so far there are no record to indicate whether any of these comunnities, or some other smaller town, originally owned #3085. So the origins of this steamer remain a deep mystery.

Fire apparatus historian Ed Hass found these two hose reels on Al Smith's orchard in Campbell, CA, and bought the pair of them for $100 on November 8, 1988. The reel above is a 1909 Wirt & Knox, made in Philadelphia, PA, and originally used by the Hunt Brothers fruit and vegetable cannery in Los Gatos, CA. That cannery was converted to a shopping center when Hunt Brothers moved out of town in 1944, and that shopping center still stands. At that time, Sunsweet Growers was completing their new fruit cannery #7 at 7th and Alma Streets in San Jose, CA, and acquired all of the cannery machinery from Hunt Brothers, and even this 1909 reel.

With completion of their giant new #7 cannery in 1944, Sunsweet needed more fire protection than just the 1909 reel provided. Being the middle of World War II, new fire equipment was virtually impossible to obtain. The Garbarino Brothers, on Autumn Street in San Jose, had been making machinery for Sunsweet and other local canneries since 1927. So Sunsweet's plant superintendent Adolf Wagner naturally asked the Garbarinos if they could make a second hose reel for Sunsweet. Paul Garbarino had a couple of extra small steel wheels for prune carts (Garnarino's own design and patent wheels) lying around, and he used them to mount the reel. George Garbarino somehow obtained a used wooden telephone-cable reel to use as the hose reel. The Garbarinos then welded together some scrap pieces of angle-iron to suspend the hose reel on, built a wooden deck to mount the angle-iron arches on, and set the reel on some Fafnir roller nearings to make it easier to roll the hose on and off the reel. The Garbarino Brothers also fashioned a wooden tool box to hold wrenches and other tools. Adolf Wagner of Sunsweet then helped assembled all of these components, and the home-made hose reel went into service.

When Sunsweet consolidated all of its plants in the San Jose area into a new city-sized cannery in Yuba City, CA, in 1976, the cannery at 7th & Alma became a warehouse for Orchard Supply Hardware Company (OSH). OSH president Al Smith, a well-known collector of steam trains (real ones), moved the two antique hose reels onto his orchard in Campbell, CA, where they sat for the next 12 years, complete with their original hose and tools.

Ed Hass restored the unique 1944 Garbarino hose reel first. An auto-body shop in Sunnyvale, CA, repainted it, and Mike Macias of Milpitas, CA, designed and applied the gold-leaf decorations. Restoration was completed in February, 1989, and two days later this unique reel won second place for best hand-drawn apparatus at a national muster held in Tucson, AZ. Only one item is missing: the hand brake lever that reoleased a spring (the spring is still there) to stop the rotation of the hose reel when loading or unloading hose (deep gouges in the side of the reel show the effects of that spring-loaded brake over the years).

Later that year (1989), restoration of the 1909 Wirt & Knox reel was also completed. All gold-leaf, including the Sunsweet logo on top of the tool box, was done by Chester Rivera of San Jose, CA. An old Argentinian black-smith, running a machine shop in Santa Clara, CA, fashinoned a new bell arch for the 1909 Wirt & Knox, and San Jose machinist Carla Satra donated a 1905 fire axe to the restoration project.

In 1992, both reels were displayed at the Sunsweet's company's 75th anniversary celebration at their cannery in Yuba City, CA. There, Ed met retired plant superintendent Adolf Wagner, who had charge of both reels for their last 32 years of service, and who recounted their history. Later in 1992, Ed also met the last surviving Garbarino brother, George, and toured the machine shop where the 1944 reel was made. At that time, the shop had changed little since its 1927 founding, and George was 92 years old.

Storing these reels proved to be too expensive for Ed Hass, and in 1997, Ed donated them both to the San Jose Historical Museum. When San Jose Fire Department finally opened its fire museum in 2001, after more than 30 years of planning, the Historical Museum turned over both reels to the Fire Museum.

The 400 Series, with its unique pump location in the cowl, is probably the rarest and most sought-after of all collectible American-LaFrance pumpers. So the San Jose Fire Museum id indeed fortunate to still have San Jose's 1937 ALF 400-Series pumper, which replaced the 1899 Metropolitan steamer with 1914 Knox-Martin tractor at Engine 1.

This Amnerican-LaFrance 900 Series aerial served Ladder 4 for many years, and somehow managed to escape the repaint to lime green that befell so many of San Jose's fire engines in the 1970s. When the original ladder suffered structural cracks in the 1990s, it was fitted with a new aerial ladder and transferred to Ladder 3. This photo shows it at one of its last fires, at an auto-parts warehouse, before its retirment and move into the San Jose Fire Museum.