River Views: Horses pitted against machines in fire fight

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It was a quiet Friday evening around Auburn’s Washburn School on May 1, 1914, until the alarms sounded at the Auburn Fire Department’s engine house on Court Street. Crowds gathered near the school as the city’s fleet of firefighting equipment arrived at full speed.

It wasn’t a tragic fire, but it was a significant moment in the city’s history when a gas-powered vehicle showed its superiority over horse-drawn fire wagons that had served with distinction for many years. The next day’s edition of the Lewiston Journal called it “a great contest between horses and auto machines.”

The event was arranged to take place at 6:30 p.m. that day, and Chief Merrill, accompanied by a few other officials, drove to the school a few minutes earlier in an Overland automobile. There, the chief opened the fire alarm box at the front of the school building and invited the Journal reporter to pull in a general alarm.

The news story said, “It must be understood that no team can leave the engine house until the first round has been sounded. This delays the first movement for several seconds, but at the last touch of the gong the entire department started for Box 86.”

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The department’s new “auto truck” was first away from the building in the test of horse against machine. At the wheel was A.A. Hoyt, “the expert from Columbus, Ohio, who brought the machine from the factory.”

Neighbors gathered quickly as the realized that something was up. The intersection of Whitney Street and French Street (later known as Lake Auburn Avenue) was soon “black with people.” The story said, “Even Asa Young came running down Summer Street without his hat while artist D.D. Coombs left his supper table to see what the uproar was all about.”

Observers said they counted several hundred people around the building as excitement mounted and word spread.

Dr. John Sturgis held the stop watch. At exactly two minutes and 20 seconds from the time the alarm was pulled, the “combination truck” rounded the corner from Turner Street and began paying out 700 feet of house which was connected to a hydrant. The truck pulled up to the school and its hoses sprayed water on imaginary flames.

Heads now turned to watch for the horses. First to be seen was the hose cart driven by Charles Cone. The cart laid out 800 feet of hose to the test scene.

“Three minutes and five seconds,” Dr. Sturgis quietly announced. The ladder wagon arrived next on the south side of the building just five seconds behind the hose cart. Men rapidly unloaded ladders and placed them against the school’s walls.

The horse-drawn steamer arrived in three minutes and 30 seconds with Frank Cone holding the reins. He had taken a slightly longer route than the nine-tenths of a mile covered by the first arrivals. While the route for the truck and other horse-drawn vehicles was Pleasant Street to Turner and then Whitney to the school, the steamer had come in on a different street.

The story noted that a chemical tank on the “combination truck” was also tested.

“It was a complete demonstration that Auburn is better protected against fire than ever before in its history,” the reporter wrote.

The headline proclaimed that Auburn Fire Department officials seemed to be as tickled with the automobile truck “as an old-fashioned boy with new copper-toed boots.”

It was no mystery to understand the sentiments of the reporter. He said, “It was the last supreme test to find out exactly the full significance of modern machinery and the result has been entirely satisfactory.”

The writer said the outcome of the contest “puts another shadow on the horse.”

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by e-mail at dasargent @maine.com.

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