Peter K. Ryan

Bytown Fire Brigade

With special thanks to Irvin Sunstrum, Fire Chief, Russell Fire Department

The 1885 Silsby steam pumper #859, has had a truly moving and interesting past. It first served the fire service in the city of Detroit, Michigan, until it was traded in to the American-Lafrance Company. In early 1915 the Silsby was loaned to the city of Ottawa for a few months until the fire department could acquire new motorized pumpers. It was due to be returned in June of that year.

In May, worried about the lack of fire protection in the community, the trustees for the Village of Russell, passed a motion to purchase two chemical fire engines at a cost of $750.00. However, fate beat the new acquisitions to the village. On Sunday morning, June 6th., 1915, fire broke out around 9 a.m. in Murray’s tinsmith shop. The fire spread very rapidly, despite the residents bucket brigade, but it soon became evident the fire was beyond their control.

Within the hour, calls for help were sent out to Metcalfe and Ottawa. The Ottawa Fire Department and the New York Central Railway responded with truly remarkable speed. The Silsby steam pumper, an Ottawa crew, and other firefighting equipment were loaded on a flat car and rushed to Russell by a special train. The engineer is said to have made the fastest trip ever from Ottawa to Russell and was severely reprimanded by his superiors for the risks he had taken. A team of horses was waiting at the station. The pumper was unloaded and rushed to a spot on the river. It already had steam up, and a little over 2 hours from the time the call went out to Ottawa, it was in operation. By 3:30 p.m. the fire was under control. A total of 25 buildings were destroyed, but the entire village might have been lost to fire without the Silsby and the speedy response of the Ottawa Fire Department and the New York Central Railroad.

The Silsby was to return to the American-Lafrance Company, but instead remained in service in Russell Village until 1955, when it was condemned because it failed the boiler test. Wallace Barrington purchased the pumper for $275.00 in 1955, who in turn sold it to Eric Dayton, owner of the Town & Country restaurant. It sat in front of the restaurant at the junction of Carling Avenue and Richmond Road for many years. In November of 1979 the Silsby was moved to the front of the Marble Works restaurant on Waller Street. From there it was later moved to the Old Mill restaurant on the Ottawa River Parkway.

The Silsby, by this time, had deteriorated very badly and was in a sad state of repair. The Bytown Fire Brigade purchased the Silsby for $ 500.00 in 1985 and began what was a ten year restoration project to restore the Silsby to some of its former glory. New wheels were built by members of the brigade with the help of the National Museum of Science & Technology. The entire pumper was then stripped down and repainted, the engine and pump rebuilt and many lost parts replaced. The boiler is the only remaining part to be restored due to the high cost for this type of work. Most of the nickel plating has been redone as well. The Silsby today, looks much like it would have when it left the factory in 1885 from Seneca Falls, New York.

As demonstrated in the above story, the Silsby steamer has made a stirring contribution to fire fighting history. This wonderful artifact belonging to the Bytown Fire Brigade, spotlights its’ raison d’être as a historical society.

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