A circa 1879 Clapp & Jones steam powered fire engine will be fired up as part of Friday’s Fourth of July activities in Virginia City, offering a unique opportunity to see a rare piece of fire history in operation.
The double-vertical piston driven steam fire engine will be fired up for a demonstration of its firefighting capabilities in front of the Comstock Firemen’s Museum on C Street following the Fourth of July parade that starts at noon from the Fourth Ward School, and will also appear in the parade.
The steamer is part of the collection of the Comstock Firemen’s Museum which undertook a two-and-a-half-year restoration of the engine under the supervision of Museum Trustee Jack Greenhalgh with other museum members and trustees. The Comstock Firemen’s Museum acquired the steamer on loan from a Southern California man several years ago and later purchased it for about $25,000. Restoration of the steamer cost about $55,000 including a $45,000 grant from the E.L. Weigand Foundation of Reno that helped cover construction and installation of a new boiler to put it into operating condition.
The steam fire engine was manufactured in Hudson, New York by the same company that supplied one of the five steam fire engines that helped protect Virginia City and Gold Hill from the ravages of fire during the mining boom days of the 1870s.
Approximately 5,000 steam-powered fire engines were manufactured in the United States between 1852 and 1917. It has been estimated that fewer than 400 exist today. The Clapp & Jones Manufacturing Company built more than 600 steamers over a 30-year period beginning in 1862. Virginia City’s steamer bears manufacturer’s number 313, but little else of its history is known including its exact year of manufacture because the Clapp & Jones factory suffered a major fire that destroyed a large portion of its manufacturing records. However, it is known that the steamer was once part of the 20th Century Fox Studio’s property holdings and that it was used in the 1937 production of “In Old Chicago,” with Tyrone Power, Don Ameche and Alice Faye which featured an extensive portrayal of the 1871 Great Chicago Fire. It was also featured in the closing scenes of the Fox movie “Hangover Square,” in 1946, starring Linda Darnell and George Sanders, although modified to resemble an English “Metropolitan” style fire engine.
On July 4, 1979, Virginia City’s volunteer firefighters opened the doors of the museum by ringing the old fire bell and signaling a traditional “housing “of the historic fire equipment that is now displayed. The museum, located on Virginia City’s main street, is open daily from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. May through October. Membership in the museum is open to the public. The Comstock Firemen’s Museum accepts donations in lieu of charging admission.