2010-07-31 / Columnists

Horses Played Important Role in Fighting Fires on Mackinac

HORSE TA ES by Candice C. Dunnigan

If horses could talk, I wonder what those on Mackinac Island could tell me about pulling the Island's pumper wagon and ladder rig, racing to save a burning building in the 1800s? Since they can't, I took it upon myself to make a trip up to the carriage display at Surrey Hills to try to find out. I had a long, slow look at our old pumper, silently standing there. It’s amazing to know that we have such an important piece of Island history, our own city's original fire pumper, right here on the Island. How many municipalities can still boast of that? And, in how many places can one still visualize this pumper at work with the horsepower on hand to enact a run?

Although the cityscape of Mackinac Island has changed since the use of this pumper wagon 120 years or so ago, thankfully the street plan has not. It’s true the old maze of connecting alleyways and small barns has more or less disappeared. Side lots that once were gardens, or pasture, are gone. Vertically the town's structures today are much higher. But, the Island still has the closeness of buildings in relation to one another. It took a tremendous amount of coordination and courageous manpower to fight a fire on Mackinac. Back then it demanded horsepower, too.

Envision a small settlement in the center of Mackinac, a smattering of strictly seasonal cottages dotting the bluffs, summer cottages in Hubbard's Annex, the young Grand Hotel, and the Old Fort of Mackinac. Then realize that these were only the outward parameters of residential Mackinac Island. The limits of the downtown went from the Mission area of the east, and "Shantytown" to the west. There were, however, horses living and at work in all of these areas that in essence could or would be harnessed to pull ladder wagons and a pumper if fires arose, and they did. Like many small towns, most permanent homes, cottages, hotels, stores, and barns were built of wood. In some cases on Mackinac they were log (and still are). Mackinac is an island, but the sources for water to put out catastrophic blazes, as they do anywhere else, had to have lots of water under pressure for the hoses to work. Fire hydrants and the lake were our mainstays. The lake was our main water supply. I am amazed, when I think of the dedicated men, with horses, hoses, and buckets, who were known to work that line, with so little, except the drive to save.

Horses pulled this ladder wagon to fires in the 1800s. Horses pulled this ladder wagon to fires in the 1800s. Our fire pumper was, in some respects, a technological nightmare as well as a "modern Victorian wonder of the world." The pumper is a steam engine. That steam engine itself has to be fed either with wood or coal fire to produce enough steam to force pressure into the hoses to push the water onto the blaze. The pumper, in essence, did what the modern fire trucks do today. How the pumper got to the fire is another thing. Horses were hitched to the front of it while a volunteer fireman stoked the engine.

This steam-powered pumper, which weighs more than a ton when full of water, is on display at Surrey Hill. This steam-powered pumper, which weighs more than a ton when full of water, is on display at Surrey Hill. The pumper weighs more than a ton, and more when it had its belly full of water, wood, or coal. The horses had to be driven to the fire. More often than not, they were hitched three abreast and let loose at a wild gallop. Imagine them careening down Main Street and galloping full blast to a site such as the old Island House Hotel, pulling the smoking, chugging, and churning pumper behind them. Then, picture other teams of horses cantering behind with ladder wagons, men running alongside pulling and dragging hose carts. Everyone was in a rush, and no one was wearing modern protective fire clothes.

The only safety factor with fire fighting on Mackinac Island then was that there were fewer people, and no bicycles to congest the streets. The Island's fire house was still near City Hall. There were also small sheds at various spots in town that held hose carts. These were pulled by two men to the fire. I know that three of these were near the old Mary's Pantry (today The Gate House), one by Mission Church, and one shed in Harrisonville. I was told that there was one in the Annex, which would make sense because of the distance it is from town.

The ideal fire horse back then was a heavy draft horse, but when compared to the horsepower of today, these animals were few and far between. So fire fighting, hauling horses were often light harness animals that served as working tour (hack) horses for the original Mackinac Island Horsemen's Association. They often suffered burns from not only the fire they came to fight, but from the steam of the pumper. At bare minimum, there were at least five to seven horses on the scene. In some fire stations, and we do not know for certain if this applied to Mackinac, the harness for the fire horse was suspended next to his stall so it could quickly drop down on him and buckled in a few seconds, ready to go on to be hitched to the pumper.

A while back this pumper wagon of the City of Mackinac was taken off of the Island. The boiler was reconditioned and repaired by members of the Wellington and Purvis families (with strong Island ties). When restored, it was then brought back to Mackinac and displayed at Windermere Point. Current members from our city's volunteer fire department were on hand for the ceremony, as John Wellington fired up the boiler. Wisely, they had left the horses behind. The pumper pushed the pressure into the hoses that sprayed water at a credible force and distance. Unfortunately, the pumper was long past its prime, as its base was doomed with small pinhole leaks that buckled under the pressure. Nevertheless, it worked one more time and was then retired to Surrey Hills.

Mackinac Island, at one point in the 1960s, had at least three separate motorized fire engines: the City of Mackinac Island, the Mackinac Island State Park, and the Moral Re- Armament (MRA) vehicles. As in the horse power days, most of the firemen still arrived on the scene with very little in the way of protective clothing. By that time horses here were not used on the scene. The old-time firemen are often referred to as "the smoke eaters" because that is what they did, more or less bare-handed save for an axe, pick, a hose, and a horse.

The fire hall in Sault Ste. Marie has a great collection of local firemen and firehall memorabilia that includes early photographs of their firemen and their fire horses. It’s great place for history buffs to visit and horse lovers to see what some of these beasts looked like. Meanwhile, don’t forget the old fire pumper here on Mackinac Island, and all the Island homes and lives it just might have managed to save, and think about those brave fire horses.

By the way, hats off to all of our current roster of volunteer Mackinac Island firemen and to Fire Chief Dennis Bradley.

Candice Dunnigan is an active member of the American Equestrian Association, the Waterloo Hunt, and Mackinac Horsemen’s Association. Seasonally she resides at Easterly Cottage.

Return to top

Click here for digital edition
2010-07-31 digital edition