If La Crosse wanted to be a respectable city at the turn of the twentieth century, it had to have a steam pumper fire engine. Any city that aspired to greatness – and particularly one built mostly of wood – had to have a professional fire department outfitted with the newest equipment. The city of La Crosse had established a professional, non-volunteer fire department in 1896, and by 1905 they had talked the city into purchasing this 1904 model Nott Steam Pumper for the substantial sum of $5,000.
In La Crosse prior to 1900, fire engines were not much more than horse-drawn water carts. The steam pumper, though still reliant on horse-power, was a significant innovation in firefighting, providing more power and more water. The 1904 Nott model could supply 1,000 gallons of water a minute.
The Nott Fire Engine Company of Minneapolis supplied many Midwestern states with steam pumpers in the first decade of the twentieth century. Not only were Nott steam pumpers less expensive than most on the market, but the politics of the period may have earned the company some business. The largest manufacturer in the game, the International Fire Engine Company of New York, had made no secret of its intention to become a monopoly. Nott Co. played David to the monopoly’s Goliath and survived, largely because of patronage from places like La Crosse.
The steam pumper engines had a short-lived heyday; they were all but obsolete by the 1920s thanks to gasoline-powered engines. La Crosse’s 1904 model was most likely out of service about ten years later. The city’s steam pumper lived on, however, in special ceremonies. “Two dandy draft horses” pulled it in the 1962 Maple Leaf Parade, for example, but only after Robert A. Farnam, then-president of the La Crosse County Historical Society, gave it a “full-fledged test” by firing up the boiler. It remains in the collection of the La Crosse County Historical Society, patiently awaiting its next chance to get fired up.
This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.