Johnson City's oldest fire truck on road to restoration

Becky Campbell • Jul 22, 2018 at 6:25 PM

A piece of the Johnson City Fire Department’s history nearly slipped away for a dollar, but the deal never happened, and the artifact stayed in storage until this year.

That piece of history — a 1928 Seagrave ladder truck — was one of the city’s first gas powered fire trucks. It’s dusty and worn, but for being a decade shy of 100 years old, it’s in great shape.

The idea for the project came together last year when retired Assistant Chief Mark Finucane, Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl and Vice Mayor Jenny Brock talked about getting the truck restored for the city’s upcoming 150th birthday celebration. When Chief Jim Stables was hired late last year, and firefighters approached him about the situation, he knew what needed to happen.

“I saw the value in it as soon as I saw it and said this is a piece of the history of this fire department, and I think it’s important to keep it,” Stables said. That was music to the ears of firefighters throughout the department. For firefighters like Avery Knapp and Shane Malone, it’s like stepping back in time when they look at the apparatus, touch it and discover all the nooks and crannies and imagine it running the streets of Johnson City to a fire scene.

“It’s amazing they did the same thing we’re doing but had a lot less to work with,” Malone said.

Malone said there had been an attempt from firefighters in the past to revive the old truck, but they never got permission from the previous administration. Stables, however, is all for the project, but he’s quick to give credit to the firefighters for pushing for the it.

“This is not me doing this,” Stables said. “This is our folks. This wasn’t my idea, but I saw the value in it when (firefighters) brought it to me. The guys and girls at the Johnson City Fire Department are working really hard,” to raise money for the restoration.

The ladder truck had been idle, covered with a tarp under a shelter in a city impound lot with other broken down equipment and seized vehicles, until late last year when Stables discovered it was part of his inventory. It didn’t take long for him to get it towed to the city garage, outfitted with new tires and a tune up so it would start. In June, the truck — Ladder No. 3 — rolled into Station 3 with Chris Whitaker, a city garage employee, behind the wheel. He’s one of just a handful of people who can drive the truck due to it having a magneto system.

Whitaker and others had the truck at the city garage for several months getting it running again. Malone said the truck is being taken out every few weeks just to keep the engine in running condition and the battery charged.

Malone was instrumental in another fire truck restoration project several years ago, and he plans on getting his hands dirty with this one as well. The department already has some in-kind work promised from a Piney Flats body shop — Brooks Collision Center —  that has agreed to paint the truck for $10,000. Malone said that’s a third of what the job should cost. During a restoration of the truck in the late 1970s, it was painted metallic red, but the plan is to take it back to the red it originally sported when it rolled off the assembly line.

The Johnson City Firefighter’s Association, Local 1791, plans to have fundraisers to fund the full restoration project, much of which will be completed by firefighter’s themselves.

“It’s going to take a lot of elbow grease for the guys to get the chrome and brass cleaned,” Malone said. One of the wooden ladders from the truck is already being cleaned and restored by firefighters at Station 2 on Cherokee Road.

Fast Facts 

  • The apparatus is a 1928 Seagrave ladder truck, model 6.W.T and is original to the JCFD. 
  • It has a six-cylinder engine with three spark plugs to each cylinder, for a total of 18 spark plugs.
  • Like modern fire trucks, the engine operated the truck as well as the pump, but the process was more than just flipping a switch. Firefighters had to put the truck in neutral, manually move a “shift to pump” lever to the pump, then put the truck in drive. This process moved the transmission from drive mode to pump mode.
  • The open cab firetruck could seat only two firefighters. All other firefighters responding on the truck stood on the running boards and held onto a brass handrail that runs the length of the truck.
  • The truck has three 50-foot wooden extension ladders which were made with brass hardware.


Future of the Seagrave

Malone and Knapp said the Seagrave ladder truck will become a showpiece for the department, something they and the community can be proud of as it tells the story of the JCFD.

“We want it to be a community truck,” Knapp, public information officer for the firefighter’s association said. Malone said it would probably take about $30,000 to complete the restoration, and that’s with firefighters doing 90 percent of the work. 

“The exciting part is we have a 1928 fire station and a 1928 fire truck,” Stables said. A long-range plan of his is to replace that fire station — Station 3 on East Main Street — with a new station and turn Station 3 into a museum.  The 1928 Seagrave and other fire department artifacts would be housed at that museum.

Malone said it’s important to honor the firefighters that worked on the truck.

“We don’t want to keep it together just to have a pretty truck,” Malone said. “We want to keep the truck together for the guys that preserved it for us. If those guys had not had pride, that truck wouldn’t be in such good condition.”

Missing Pieces

Knapp said there are several missing parts to the truck — the bell that was once mounted on the hood, nozzles that were attached to the running boards. spot lights that were on top of the truck and brass fire extinguishers mounted on each side of the truck.

He and Malone think there might be some of those items in Johnson City but no longer in the fire department’s inventory of equipment.

“We think there could be some people in Johnson City who may have some of the original equipment that came off that truck,” Knapp said. “We’d like to see if anyone might have any of the original pieces that go on the truck who would be willing to donate those back.” 

How You Can Help

Due to the cost of the restoration, the firefighter’s association handling the fundraising aspect of the project. Tax deductible donations can be mailed to Johnson City Firefighter’s Association, Local 1791, P.O. Box 4540, Johnson City, TN 37601. Knapp said donations should be designated to the Seagrave project. 

Other arrangements for donations can be made through the association’s social media page at www.facebook.com/JohnsonCity1791/.

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