Firefighters return first engine

The latest addition to the Snoqualmie Fire Department's stable of vehicles is a venerable piece of city history: the department's first fire engine.

The red, 1939 Chevrolet fire engine is parked in the bays of the old fire station on River Street that it called home for decades before being sold off as obsolete in the late 1980s. However, the historical significance was enough to inspire firefighters - through their union and volunteer association - to purchase the fully-functional, restored rig.

"It gives an appreciation for the prior volunteers," said Steve Reno, a Snoqualmie firefighter. "It's had a pretty profound effect on all the volunteers and career guys, too."

The Snoqualmie Fire Department was founded in 1939 as an all-volunteer department. The original firehouse was in the union hall on Railroad Avenue. The engine was brand-new and top-of-the-line in its day.

"It was just like a pickup," said former volunteer firefighter Bill Staggs, who joined the department in 1953 when the engine was still the department's main engine. "It was really a good fire truck."

The truck was equipped with a 500-gallon tank, hoses, wood ladders and fire extinguishers. However, it had no baffles in its tank so the water sloshed back and forth as the truck moved, Staggs said.

When the department acquired a new Maxim engine in 1955, the Chevy became a back-up engine used mainly for brush and chimney fires, Staggs said.

"It's just a regular fire truck," fellow former volunteer firefighter Lee Briggs said. "It never failed us."

The volunteer firefighters built a new station on their own time with donated materials on River Street, moving in 1956.

"That's how firemen view life in general," Reno said. "They see a need and they take action to make it happen."

Re-acquiring the old engine serves as a reminder of the dedication and hard work put in by the department's old-timers, Reno said.

Like the volunteers who drove and rode in the engine, the '39 Chevy fire engine is remembered as reliable and memorable.

"It's been around a long time," Briggs said. "I spent a lot of time hanging off the back end of it."

That's something that wouldn't be allowed today, Reno said. Modern engines are equipped with safety belts. Firefighters sit inside rather than hold on while standing on the baseboards.

Modern rigs are equipped with all the life-saving equipment and tools firefighters might need: power tools, Jaws of Life, foam extinguishers, gas-powered rescue equipment, first aid and more. The Chevy is a modified pickup designed to carry hoses and water.

It's a bit underpowered and requires familiarity with a double clutch to drive, Reno said.

"It takes a little finesse to get it down the road," he said.

Though some things change, some things stay the same. The siren on modern engines is patterned after the sound of the old growlers. The Chevy's pitch is a little higher because the siren is a little smaller, but it has the same distinctive sound unique to fire engines.

"That's a tradition," Reno said.

Keeping those traditions alive inspired today's firefighters to consider an offer made by the engine's owner, Jeff Chase, to sell it back to the department. Chase had restored the engine and driven it in several recent parades. At last year's Railroad Days parade, he asked firefighters if they'd be interested in re-aquiring the engine.

They were, but now that its back, they'll need community support and donations to pay off the loan they took out to buy the engine, Reno said. They plan several fund-raisers this year and hope the community is willing to support their decision to return the historic engine to the department.

The engine's planned unveiling will be at this year's Railroad Days Festival parade Aug. 5 in Snoqualmie, Reno said.

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