A Fire Engine by Any Other Name

Great excitement greeted the arrival of the month of March in 1866—and it wasn’t weather related! 

The citizens of Davenport were awaiting the arrival of their new fire engine with great anticipation.  This wasn’t a simple hand pump type, but a modern Button and Blake Steam Engine model patented in 1864.  It would also be the first steam fire engine west of the Mississippi River and north of St. Louis.*

Vol. 172 VM89-001373. Later steam fire engine owned by the Davenport Fire Department. This model dates from the 1870s. No pictures are known to exist of the Michael Donahue. The Michael Donahue would have looked similar to the engine pictured.

Prior to 1882, when they became a unified, paid city department, individual fire companies were created around Davenport  by concerned citizens.   Beginning in 1865, these companies began raising money for new steam fire engines.  Up to that time, they had been using typical hand pump engines. 

As the name indicates, the hand pump engines needed to be manually pumped to create water flow.  Newspaper accounts of the day indicate that the physical exertion needed by the hand pumps quickly tired the firemen—not the best case scenario at a fire scene!  But the steam fire engines used coal and steam to create the pumping motion.  Men (and their strength) could then be employed in other activities during a fire.

The “Pilot No. 3” company, as did all the volunteer fire companies, relied strongly on the support of local citizens for financial support and supplies.  “No. 3” promised that the highest donor to their steam engine drive would have the new equipment named after them.  The money was soon raised and the order placed.

The steam fire engine arrived from the state of New York on March 7, 1866, via the railroad.  It arrived with the name “Red Rover” inscribed upon it, but “No. 3” promised to unveil its new name at a great christening ceremony a few days later.  Mr. Button was also on his way from New York to be there for the first tests of this new machine.  The celebration was about to begin.

An evening fête was planned at the German Theatre on March 8th for the grand unveiling of the new machine.  Everyone was invited to attend. 

At 9:00 p.m., the stage curtains at the German Theatre parted to reveal the 4,000 pound engine surrounded by members of the “No. 3” fire company.  As promised, the machine was christened the Michael Donahue, after the man who had given the most money towards its purchase.  Speeches were given to rousing applause.  Eventually the formal events gave way to the promised dancing to round out the evening.

On March 9th the Davenport City Council held their regular meeting.  A petition was presented by members of the Pilot No. 3 Engine to be renamed the “Liberty Steam Fire Engine and Hose Company No. 1.” The resolution was adopted by council and old “No. 3” soon had the nickname of Liberty Company.

Saturday, March 10th was another day of celebration as the Liberty Company paraded down the streets with their new machine.  The parade was well attended by not only citizens wanting to see the new equipment, but also by other volunteer fire companies from Davenport and Rock Island who were invited to participate.  Another reception was held afterwards at the German Theatre for further viewing of the engine (and probably some more speeches, too).

 Mr. Button finally arrived on March 12th, but full testing of the engine was delayed until the afternoon of March 14th due to inclement spring weather.  The public’s interest had not waned at all when the tests were undertaken along the levee at the foot of Perry Street.  Crowds filled the area to witness the engine take only 8 minutes from start to steam and then water spray testing commenced.  Liberty Company and the crowd seemed pleased with the results.  Mr. Button was paid in cash as the transaction was completed and Davenport had its first steam fire engine.

The Michael Donahue first saw action around 2:00 a.m. on March 20th , when lightning struck  and ignited the new brick stable of the Pennsylvania House, on Iowa Street near Fourth Street.  The engine was placed near the Mississippi River.  There, one hose was put into the river and the machine pumped water through another hose to Rescue Company No. 2’s engine, which was probably a hand pump machine.  The horses and buggies were saved, but the rest of the supplies and stables were a loss.

But who was Michael Donahue? 

Mr. Donahue was a Scottish immigrant who moved to Davenport around 1855 and purchased the LeClaire Foundry and Iron Works.  He was also a member of the Pilot No. 3 Engine Company eventually earning his diploma as a veteran fireman.  In 1867, he was elected mayor of Davenport.  Fascinating is a good word to describe Mr. Donahue’s life, but we will save the rest of his many and varied accomplishments for a later article.

So how much did Mr. Donahue contribute to the fund?  His contribution was estimated to be $325 according to local newspapers.  The Davenport Daily Gazette, August 11, 1865, reported the steam engine would cost $4,000.  By today’s costs that total is just over $55,000.  Mr. Donahue’s contribution today would be just over $4,500.** 

Even at those prices, the Michael Donahue would not be the only steam fire engine in town for long.***  Within a month, the Fire King Engine and Hose Company would be in possession of their first steam fire engine as well.

This indicates that the citizens of Davenport were serious about their fire companies.  This concern and support would be needed in the future, but that, too, is a story for another time.


*Davenport Daily Gazette, March 8, 1866, Pg. 4.

**Estimates from www.westegg.com.

***According to The Daily Times, October 29, 1942 Pg. 8, the Michael Donahue had been retired many years before. While in storage in 1933 it was damaged in a fire. The engine had then been placed on display on and off around Davenport until it was donated for scrap metal in support of the war in October 1942. 

(posted by Amy D.)

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