1891 Silsby Steam Engine horse-drawn restored, Yantic fire Norwich CT


NORWICH — The antique, horse-drawn steam engine inside the Yantic Fire Engine Co.’s headquarters bay can’t match its modern counterparts when it comes to mobility or pure gallon-pumping power, but it sure does look pretty.

After a three-year repair and refurbishment process, the department’s 1891 Silsby Steam Engine is back home in all its nickel-plated glory, with fresh paint, newly upholstered seats and modern coils of hose.

And while the guts of the engine are archaic by today’s standards, its basic design is the same, Assistant Chief Paul O’Connell said this week.

How do steam fire engines work?

“Today’s $1 million trucks use diesel and combustion, while the Silsby used coal and steam to extract and discharge water to put out fires,” said O’Connell, the department’s historian. “It’s always been about putting wet stuff onto hot stuff.”

Back 130 years ago, the steamer’s extraction hose would be sunk into a cistern or other water source as firefighters loaded the boiler with shovelfuls of coal. The resulting steam provided enough pressure to send up to 500 gallons of water flowing through discharge hose couplings every minute.

“A modern pumper truck can put out between 1,500 to 2,000 gallons a minute,” Chief Bill Eyberse said. “But the idea is the same. A boiler like this is like a nuclear reactor, just with a different fuel source.”

The Silsby, produced by its namesake Seneca Falls, N.Y. company, was bought back when the department still served the Yantic Woolen Company Mill, which produced flannel and textiles in the 19th century.

The engine was replaced in 1921, but the department hung on to it – except for a brief period when it was bought by the Bozrah Fire Department – trotting it out for parades and other community events for decades.

Restoration of the Silsby pumper truck

About 20 years ago, after some in-house upgrades, the department began seriously debating a whistle-to-bell facelift for the engine, former Fire Chief Frank Blanchard said.

After years of fundraising – no fire district funding was used to get the piece to its current $250,000 appraised state – the engine was shipped in November 2018 to the Firefly Restoration Co. in Maine where it was broken down piece by piece.

Restorer Andy Swift handled some of the restoration work himself and sent other components to out-of-state specialists before the piece was re-assembled.

“It’s about pride and preserving history,” Blanchard said. “This was a pumper that was ahead of its time and now it’s back to its former glory.”

The department got updates throughout the process via Ray O’Connell, a former chief who served as liaison between Swift and the department. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed the upgrade work, but the department this month got a restored, era-accurate piece of its history back.

On Oct. 21, the steamer came home and sat this week in a bay a few feet away from the massive pumper trucks it inspired, its gleaming veneer picking up and reflecting shards of florescent light.

That nickel-plating is the most eye-catching attribute of the engine, with a cherry-red overlay covering wheel spokes and paneling – though Eyberse admits a preference for its more subdued, pre-restoration hues.

Delicate, hand-painted green and gold whorls and patterns peek out from just about every surface. A hand-bell on the front, which still sends a clear tone when struck, sits below a carriage seat where firefighters once urged reined horses toward flaming buildings.

“This was considered a mid-sized steamer at the time, but it was a top-of-the-line piece of equipment,” Eyberse said. “When it was chugging under fire, it just puked oil and soot. When you had a few of these pumpers out at a scene, they sometimes put out more smoke than the fire they were fighting.”

Eyberse said the department’s still figuring out the logistics for when the pumper will hit the parade circuit again.

“We’re hoping to do something in time for the department’s 175th anniversary next year,” he said.

John Penney can be reached at [email protected] or at (860) 857-6965

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