Rescue Me

A 63-year-old Morristown volunteer firefighter is on a one-man crusade to save one of the town’s two antique fire trucks.

Photo: Courtesy of Independent Hose Company

Fred Richards is a man with a mission. The 63-year-old Morristown volunteer firefighter is on a one-man crusade to save one of the town’s two antique fire trucks.

Richards, a 40-year veteran of Independent Hose Company 1, retired five and a half years ago from his job as an inspector and instructor with Jersey Central Power & Light. Most days now you can find the Morris Township resident getting good and greasy under the 19,000-pound pumper that for the past two years has been aging gracefully in the old Market Street Firehouse just south of the Morristown Green.

The antique pumper, manufactured in 1947 by the Ahrens-Fox Company of Cincinnati, is an oddity of vehicular design. To the untrained eye, it appears as if someone has bolted a giant washing machine motor to the front of the truck. This in fact is the truck’s piston-powered pump, an elaborate contraption of pipes and valves topped by a beach ball-sized globe of chrome and rust. In its prime, the piston pump could gush about 1,000 gallons of water per minute on a fire. (The once-gleaming sphere atop the pump acted as an air chamber to smooth the flow of water.)

The truck and its twin—which also resides at Market Street, but is in the keeping of Washington Engine Company 1—were once known as the Morristown Dolls. They started life together in Morristown and stayed in service until about 1966. After several years as reserve pumpers, they were turned over to the Vintage Fire Association of Morris Township and relegated to life as parade and demonstration vehicles. When the VFA disbanded, ownership of the twins reverted to Morristown, and the trucks—by then in disrepair—were towed back to their old home on Market Street.

Richards believes the twins (with consecutive serial numbers) are the last surviving pair of their breed. For the past year, he has been leading a group of his fellow volunteer firefighters in an ambitious restoration project of the Independent Hose Company’s truck. Loose paint and debris have been power washed from the body, the wheel cylinders have been rebuilt, and the brake drums and brake shoes replaced. But that’s just the beginning. Richards estimates that the engine—a 954-cubic-inch, 280-horsepower, six-cylinder behemoth—last ran seven or eight years ago. Before it can be turned over, every internal part must be inspected and lubricated. “We don’t want to overlook anything,” says Richards. “These parts are hard to get.”

Ultimately, Richards says, the truck will have to go out to a shop for a ground-up restoration. He estimates the entire project will cost more than $100,000. Richards hopes to raise a good portion of that through the sale of reprints of a painting by the company’s most famous former member, the nineteenth-century political cartoonist Thomas Nast.

But once restored, it is unclear where the twins will be housed. Morristown fire chief Robert Taylor confirms that the town is considering selling the Civil War-era Market Street fire station. In that case, the trucks would likely end up in the town’s new central firehouse, but that structure is still on the drawing board. Richards, who would like to see the old firehouse turned into a museum, fears the twins could end up homeless. Fortunately, his fear seems to be unfounded. “We’ll always take care of the Foxes,” says Taylor. “We’ll find a place for them.”

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