Kennewick's first fire truck retires in 1948

June 27, 2012 

This is an interesting look at some of the history of firefighting in the Tri-Cities.

It's good to note that "Bessie" didn't meet the fate originally intended in this story, but was preserved, sort of, stored at a fire station in Kennewick and used as an occasional coat rack or bench to scrape off muddy boots for the next 55 years. In 1995 Kennewick Fire Capt. Chuck Spencer asked his father, Ed Spencer of Clarkston, to haul the old faithful fire truck off and clean, scrub, sandblast, paint and shine the truck. Four months later Bessie was back in Kennewick, this time to be the pride of the department.

Kennewick's old fire truck 'Bessie,' to retire

By Howard Sanstadt, Herald staff writer
Published on February 4, 1948
Old Number One, the only fire fighting equipment to protect some 1200 persons in Kennewick for 13 years, will be retired soon like a gallant war horse who has served well, but is no longer useful in an age of high-powered projectiles.

The truck, sometimes called Bessie in moments of affection, arrived in 1922 when the city was a snug little community confined within an irrigation canal that today divides the city and acts as a barrier where roads come to an end at its banks.

It saw service at every major fire for miles around and often made the difference between loss and saving of a building. Members of today's 25-man volunteer fire fighting crew view Bessie's passing with sadness, but recognize the old and antiquated must give away to the new and efficient.

If Bessie were human she'd think of her demise with pride because two streamlined engines will take the place of her 20-foot frame in the city's fire station. Her 24-foot ladder will be replaced by a 35-foot aluminum ladder that comes in three sections. Instead of a little sodium acid chemical tank, there will be a 1000-gallon pumper on one truck and a 250-gallon tank on the other.

The two shining red trucks are due in March. One will be the property of the city and the other will belong to Benton County Fire Protection District. It will serve the rural area which, for the first time, will have equipment to go it its aid -- legally.

Not that Old Number One did not rush to any conflagration that developed, be it as far as Benton City or Richland. Old-time fire chiefs tell of the time Bessie lost a wheel on a run to the then pint-sized community of Richland, when it was found necessary to travel by way of Kennewick Highlands. Another trip to Benton City was accomplished with plenty of spirit but small result as the building was all but destroyed when she showed up.

Bessie's arrival marked a great stride forward for the little city on the banks of the Columbia River. The hose cart that was pulled by Spike Ferrel's dray team was put aside in favor of the four-cylinder Buda which was then the fastest vehicle in Kennewick. It is still capable of a 50-mile per hour gallop in an emergency.

The hand-cranked siren and three-inch hose were the marvel of the time. No one thought to complain about the lack of a windshield or automatic swiper to keep vision clear for the driver. Perhaps every youngster in town rode Bessie at one time or another, particularly on return trips when state laws were not so demanding about how equipment is to be handled.

The city sold $714 in bonds to purchase Number One and then almost paid this much in interest over a 20-year period. The bonds were retired a few years ago. The city's new Mack truck, with 6-inch hose and a chassis that will hardly fit in the cement block fire station, will cost approximately $15,000.

The fate of Bessie's LaFrance Brockway Torpedo frame, built in 1921, is at present undecided. One group would like to place her on blocks underneath the city hall in the basement and keep her as a museum piece, but others are all for selling her for junk. Fire Chief Herbert Malchow claims her resale value would be hardly enough to bother about.

She was the city's only guardian from 1922 to 1935. Then her adjoining stall was filled by a larger model which gave the city greater pumping capacity and additional pressure. In 1944 a third truck was added when the city limits bulged under the influx of war workers employed at Hanford and Richland.

In the memory of the three fire chiefs who have been in charge of Number One during her most active years (Bill Gravenslund, 1926-1937, J.C. Pratt, 1937-1944, and the present chief, Herbert Malchow) the P.P. & L. warehouse fire in 1938 was the biggest event in the exciting career of the retiring steed.

The flames started in an elevator shaft and quickly spread to the roof before the department could get hoses applied. Bessie pumped with all her heft at that one, Pratt recalls, and, aided by six inches of tar paper on the roof, confined the fire to the interior of the building. More than $125,000 in equipment was saved that night, and material that appeared doomed was dragged to safety. The department was commended by the company for that one.

The toughest assignment was a dry cleaning plant fire in Pasco when the volunteers were called in early morning hours to battle a blaze in 14 below zero weather. When the work was over, the hoses were frozen solid and Bessie rolled back to Kennewick with her lines draped around the back end in grotesque fashion because it was impossible to thaw them out on the street.

Then in 1938 there was the Memorial Day blaze at 2 a.m. in the Kennewick Flour Mill, a four-story structure that burned to the ground without a chance of being saved. That was another one for the truck as well as the firemen who rolled out of bed in the middle of the night. However, the fire fighters were able to save property adjoining the ancient wooden building, despite the fact gardens two blocks away were seared by the flames. Paper from the roof of the structure blew as far as Pasco in a high wind.

The Kennewick department has always made a point to assist anyone in distress, no matter how far the distance, Pratt observed.

Although state laws require that the equipment remain within the city limits, the old-time volunteers couldn't stand by while their neighbors were in need, so calls were often made to grange halls and rural dwellings. Many buildings were saved, but when damage was serious the shortage of water usually was responsible rather than slow arrival of equipment.

When the new rural truck arrives there will no longer be the problem of when to go to the aid of rural dwellers. The truck is specifically for this purpose. Although Bessie's narrow rubber tires rolled over many a farm road, there was never a time when another building went up in smoke inside the city because she was out fighting a blaze, Pratt claims. The most serious occasions was when three fires broke out in town almost simultaneously. Fortunately, they were small fires and damage was light.

Just before the present steel and concrete bridge was built across the Columbia from Kennewick to Pasco in 1923, the local department saved the approach to the former span. The old wooden structure caught fire on the Kennewick side which would have spread until the entire bridge went up had not the equipment arrived in time to avert disaster. Though Bessie probably cost the city almost as much as the new truck that is to arrive (when interest is taken into consideration), the three who have been most closely associated with her, believe the expense is cheap compared with the loss that would have been sustained had she not been available.

She has not made a run since the Sonderman warehouse burned along with a load of potatoes in 1944, but she has stood by faithful in case of emergency, her little engine ready to grind at the touch of the accelerator. The same almost toy-like tires that arrived in 1922 are on the truck today. Like an old fire horse, she almost leaps at the sound of the fire gong. But, unless something tremendous develops, Bessie's days of service are over. Her place in the station stall is needed for bigger equipment to serve a larger, growing community.

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