Relic From 1818 Proudly Displayed at Fire Company Museum in Elkton

The hydraulion, the county’s oldest piece of firefighting equipment came to Elkton about 1827, after townspeople purchased the unit in Philadelphia for $700.  The “Water Witch,” which was built for one of the volunteer companies in the city, served there for about nine years, before it was sold.  It was a new design, a combination unit with a hand-pumper and hose reel mounted on the same carriage.  That reduced some of the strenous exertion required of the men as all the needed equipment was on the combination unit the men struggled to drag quickly to the blaze.

It became Elkton’s pride and when the courthouse bell tolled out with that chilling alarm in the middle of a dark winter night, men pulled the heavy contraption to the fire.  Once there, they formed bucket lines to keep the tub built into the hydraulion full of water as a gang of others rapidly worked the levers on the pump.  For thirty years, this was the town’s defense against fire. But In 1859 a second-hand pumper, a suction engine was purchased in Baltimore.

As Singerly started planning for its’ 100th anniversary in the early 1980’s  both of these old heroes of many of a hard-fought fight were restored.  Restoration was done by a Mr. Petersheim, an Amish carriagemaker near Christiana PA.   Today the equipment is displayed in the company museum.  The photos below are before and after photos of the older unit, the hydraulion.  Singerly consulted with two experts from Philadelphia, Al Wills and Jack Robrecht, during the restoration.  The second photo represents the original color of the 1818 relic.  The first image is of the unit just before it was transported to Mr. Petersheim’s for restoration.


16 responses to “Relic From 1818 Proudly Displayed at Fire Company Museum in Elkton

  1. Hi Mike:
    Loved reading about the Hydraulion. Did Merrick & Agnew build it? One bit of info for you, it was Jack Robrecht and Al Wills who consulted on the project. Jack was the premier authority on hand engines and wrote an early history, complete with line drawings, of all the hand engine styles that were known at the time.

    Regarding the pumper that was purchased in Baltimore in 1859, are there any pictures of it, or do you know who made it? I think it was made by John Rodgers, but I can’t confirm it, nor have I ever seen a photo of it. It sounds from your article that it still exists?


  2. Melissa, thanks for the info. We were so lucky to find Jack and Al and they were so helpful. Also I still visidly remember how excited tjeu were to see this old hydraulion stuffed away in a shed in Elkton. When we got ready to restore the pumpers (about 82-83) we wanted to find some experts so we went to Philadelphia Fire Museum and made connections that way.
    They served as our technical experts on things and in the end we located Mr. Petersheim, an Amish carriagemaker, to do the work. (I’ll have to check my notes from that era and get his full name and checking the spelling.)
    That unit was made in Philadelphia according to Jack & Al by Sellers and another partner. As I recall, they said Sellers and his partner only made about a dozen of them. The Philadelphia Fire Museum experts advised us on color and the restoration process.
    The Baltimore pumper was a Rodgers and the two local newspapers published interesting narrative accounts about the arrival of the suction pumper here. The old “Water Witch” boys, as in the Hydraulion, didn’t approve one bit, and they had a serious competition to see, which one could squirt a stream over the courthouse steeple. The old unit one. I can get you copies of any of those materials for the Fire Museum if you want them.
    Also we do have late 18th century photos of the Baltimore unit.

    • Mike:
      I’d love any and all that you have on the Rodgers. Steve and I wrote a book on Baltimore apparatus builders about a year and a half ago, which is now sold out. We are in the midst of doing a second edition, as we have added a chapter, and the stuff on Rodgers keeps changing. Nothing has ever been written on him before, and yet he was a very prolific builder and we’ve been able to document over 50 of his pieces from as far way as California and South America. If I could get a decent publishable image of the Elkton piece, that would be fabulous, and any info you might have as to its history. Was it purchased 2nd hand? The design is one of Rodgers’ early ones; the later ones all had decorative boxes on top of the pumps, which were all painted with wonderful historical and mythological themes. In fact, Rodgers died in 1859, so it would be neat to find out if this was 2nd hand or if this might have been the last piece that was sold from his shop. After his death, his son maintained the business, but it quickly turned from making fire apparatus to making boilers and home heaters.

      If you have lots of info and it’s easier for me to come up, I’d be happy to!


  3. Mike:
    Forgot to let you know that the Hydraulion was made by Sellers & Pennock, who made the first patented, riveted hose, which was a real boon to firefighters. I’ve found references to Hydraulions in Philadelphia, Washington, Providence, and UVa!

    • Melissa, we have some good info on that and it should be of help to you. Our sources are the two local newspapers, the Ceci Whig and the Cecil Democrat. Both describe the arrival of the unit. I’ll dig those up and get them to you.
      It was a used piece. Apparently Baltimore was going to steam at that point. so the unit was available. It came up on the schooner Iglehort on its weekly run up the bay from Baltimore and it was a big deal when it docked in Ekton with the precious cargo. The paper’s described it as a modern suction engine, one capable of pulling water from a stream or pond without needing a bucket brigade. Members of the fire company had paid $450 to purchase the used piece of apparatus from the Vigilant Fire Company of Baltimore,

    • Thanks for the info Melissa. We still have notes from when Jack and Al visited here to help us with the project. I remember how excited those two experts were at seeing that Hydraulion stuffed away in Elkton.

      • Both the Whig and Democrat covered this story extensively. The weeklies started when the men were getting ready to buy the equipment and they following it through the arrival and the early fires. I’ll get all of that for you. They’d organized a fire company at that time and called it Vigilant too.

  4. Where would the schooner have docked in Elkton? I always thought ships were docked somewhere near where American Home & Hardware is.

  5. John that’s correct. It’s down by American Home and Hardware.

  6. Pingback: Grand Day for Elkton, When 2nd Pumper Double Size of Firefighting Force | Window on Cecil County's Past

  7. Mike: I found the “brief” announcement in the Sun for April 26, 1859 that discusses the sale of a pumping engine to Elkton. I’ll email you the original, which says: “The Elkton Fire Department have bought the beautiful suction engine of the Vigilant Fire Co. of Baltimore for $450.”

    The reason that the Vigilant sold the Rodgers is that on March 30, 1859 the City of Baltimore approved and signed an ordinance to create a paid fire department. All volunteer companies were disbanded and much of the apparatus was turned over to the City. Some pieces, like the Vigilant’s Rodgers, were no longer capable of efficiently fighting fires, as the steam engine was being introduced that was pulled by horses. Obviously, the Vigilant had to get rid of the piece, as the City couldn’t use it.

    I’ve also located in the Sun information about the purchase of a Rodgers by the Vigilant Fire Company. In the City records of 1838, money was to be set aside for a suction engine that was to be manufactured in Baltimore. (Since Rodgers was the only apparatus manufacturer in Baltimore in 1838, he obviously got the contract!) I then found a news article in the Sun on August 9, 1839 about a call out to the members of the Vigilant Fire Co. to go to Mr. Rogers (sic) place of business for a test of the new pumper.

    I can send these to you, if you wish. I’m just glad that I can now officially say that your piece is indeed a Rodgers and that it was made for the Vigilant and sold to Elkton. You’ll now have your own section in the new book (I’ll send you a copy!).


  8. Melissa, thanks so much for that info. Back in the early 1980s when we researched the history of these old “heros,” I’d come up with the material from the two local papers, the Whig and the Democrat. I’d also attempted to find it in the Sun, without luck. Isn’t this digital age changing research for the better. I’d really like to have those, and especially find the piece about when it was built of interest. We’ll add that data to the story.

    Also tomorrow I’ll create PDFs of the local stories for you, so you can add that to your material.

    thanks so much.

  9. Greetings, I though you might be interested to know that there is one other Sellers & Pennock Hydraulion still in existence. It is at the Newville, PA. Friendship Fire Co. To the best of my knowledge these are the only two Hydraulions still around.

    • Josiah, thanks so much for letting us know about that. Have you done preservation work on the Newville, PA hydraulion? We worked on ours back about 1980, and two fire service historians from Philadelphia helped guide us through the process thirty some years ago. ARe there any records they we might access about those early engines and the manufacturer? We last did a comprehensive search back in the 1980s as we were getting ready for the local fire company (Singerly Fire Company) 100th anniversary. It would be wonderful to find some additonal info on the arrival of the units in Elkton. We were able to pick up a quantity of info in the local papers down here in Maryland.

      • Based on your comments with Melissa it sounds like you actually have found much more information on your engines than most fire departments ever manage. I don’t know much about the engine in Newville. I have only seen pictures of it. I hope one day to visit and look at every old hand engine still in existence, but that may be a bit ambitious. I will certainly visit the Singerly company when I have a chance. I have done conservation work on an engine for the New York City fire museum and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and I did some polishing on a hose carriage for the Fire Museum of Maryland. The only primary source records that I know of specifically related to Sellers & Pennock are correspondence between Mr. Sellers and the University of VA. about the purchase and shipping of an engine for UVA. I think Mr. Robrecht probably knew just about everything there is to be known about Philadelphia’s fire engines and builders. I don’t have anything at this point to add to what he knew. Maybe future research will turn up more. As you mentioned, modern digitization of old newspapers and archives is making searching so much easier.

      • Thanks Josiah. We were definitely lucky to have the opportunity to work with those two great gentlemen. They came to Elkton several times to see both of our handpumpers. I remember the first day they came down to look at the Hydraulion. Of course, we knew we had an old early 19th century pumper, but didn’t know much beyond that. With their guidance we did a lot of research, but with the age of digital research I think we need to revisit the subject. AGain thanks for the info.

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