The Great Midwestern Handtub Fire Engine Exposition & Pumping Competition
Saturday, June 26th, 2004 • Aurora Regional Fire Museum • Aurora, IL
| Information for Participants | Information for Spectators |

Handtub Fire Engine
Historical and Technical Information

What is a handtub? . . . . How do they work? . . . . Types of handtubs . . . . Visiting firemen and what's a muster?

What is a Handtub?
Fire was a constant threat in colonial America and fire protection was an important community responsibility. While bucket brigades provided an adequate water supply to fight fires, their effectiveness was limited by the distance a bucket of water could be tossed. Early fire engines (or enjines as they were often called) were designed as a means to spray the water onto the fire with more force and accuracy, yet they had no means of drafting or sucking water. Bucket brigades would continuously supply the engine's “tub” (water reservoir), while a simple hand-operated piston pump would be used to force it out through a nozzle and on to the fire.


These primitive hand-operated firefighting tubs -- handtubs -- evolved over the next hundred years. By the mid 1800s, most fire engines had the capability to draft water from nearby rivers or ponds, thus making the need to fill a tub with water obsolete, but the name “handtub” stuck.

Working the "Brakes" -- How Handtubs Operate
Hand-pumped fire engines have long bars running parallel to the body which operated the pump. Theses bars (called brakes or pumping arms) when pushed up and down operated a set of pistons in the engine which alternately suck water out of the tub, and force it into a pressure chamber. The air trapped in this chamber creates a constant pressure, and evens out the "spurts" as the water sprays out of the hose. A full up and down motion of the brakes is called a stroke. These engines were normally operated at more than 60 strokes per minute. At this rate a man could only last "working on the brakes" for a few minutes.

Types of Hand Operated Fire Engines
Crane Necks, Double-Deckers, Piano-Boxes, Sidewinders, Coffee Grinders, Man-Killers, New York and Philadelphia Styles -- hand-operated fire engines come in many shapes, sizes, and styles. Two distinct styles of hand pumper designs emerged. One developed and favored in New York City, had a flat box with the air chamber at one end and the brakes running horizontal to the sides of the engine. The other developed and favored in Philadelphia was a bit larger and had the air chamber in the middle of the engine and the brakes parallel to each end. The Philadelphia truck was a bit larger and had two "decks" with which to operate each set of brakes, one group of members would stand on the ground, the other on a platform on the engine.

New York Style, side-stroke engine
with a goose-neck discharge

End-stroke style hand engine
with a crane-neck

“Shanghi” Style engine with
alternating brake action

Philadelphila or Double-Deck” Style
of end-stroke engine

A“Cider-Mill” Style, also known
as a Windlass or Rotary Style engine

or Crank-Style engine

What some engines lost in power they gained in speed and maneuverability. Many New England communities favored end-stroke engines which were much smaller and could easily negotiate narrow streets. These engines also had an arched ("crane neck") frame which would allow the front wheels to turn 90° to the body. Aurora's Young America No. 2 engine, is a side-stroke style -- where the brakes run parallel to the side of the engine. Its larger and longer size allowed more men to operate a larger size pump making it a a more powerful engine.

Aurora's Young America No. 2 hand engine,
a “Class A” size, side-stroke hand engine made in the 1850s.

For tournament purposes, hand operated fire engines come in five sizes or classes. Class “A” engines have a piston size greater than 7 inches in diameter, Class “B” engines have pistons between 4.5 and 7 inches, and Class “C” tubs have pistons less than 4.5 inches. Their are also special classes for rotary gear engines, and handtubs with only a single piston.

Visiting Firemen
The term "visiting firemen" is said to have been coined after a group of volunteer firemen from Philadelphia, hand-pulled their engine all night through a blizzard to help fight New York's great fire of 1835. Upon arriving in New York after two laborious days of travel, they found the fire had been extinguished, (but had it not been, they would have been too exhausted to be of much use). Despite the fact that the “brave Philadelphia fire lads” didn't actually help fight the fire, they were treated as heroes by the residents and firemen of New York. Mr. J. B. Harrison, a Philadelphia firemen who made the legendary journey is quoted as saying, “When we got ready to go home, the New York firemen pulled our engine to the wharf, the mayor appointed a committee to escort us home, and after that the firemen got to visiting from one city to the other.”

What's a Fire “Enjine” Muster ?
In the book, The Firemen's Muster, America's Sport, Stan Dixon writes, “MUSTER, according to Webster, is to assemble or gather. For the past one hundred and fifty years, firemen have been engaged in the practice of gathering to compete for personal pride and for the sheer enjoyment of straining to prove that their company was the best of all assembled.”

Hand pumped fire engines, (often called “handtubs,” or “enjines” in the olden days), required many people to operate. They were hand-pulled to fires and hand-pumped at the scene. Great pride was taken in one's fire company, and in the abilities of their engine to perform at a fire. Often rivalries between fire companies developed and competitions were held to prove their water-pumping prowess.

The first recorded fireman's muster was held in 1849 in Bath, Maine where five engines vied to pump water the furthest. Firemen's musters soon blossomed throughout New England. An average of nineteen musters a year &endash; with an average of ten engines competing at each &endash; were held in the 1850s. The muster phenomenon also spread west outside of New England, with tournaments being held in California, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, and even Canada.

As volunteer firefighters were replaced by paid, municipal departments and horse-drawn steam powered fire engines, many formed retired or "veteran" firemen's associations that preserved the old hand-pumped fire engines as well as the tradition of the fireman's competitions.

Teams continue to “muster” for the same reasons they did a century and a half ago. “Company pride, personal achievement by each crew, and the honor of parading down Main Street, with brooms held high signifying a clean sweep over all competitors is still what it's all about,” writes Stan Dixon.

According to the New England rules, handtubs compete by shooting a stream of water down a 300 ft long course covered with paper. Each team has an allotted time (usually fifteen minutes) to pump their best stream. The furthest drop of water hitting the paper the size of a dime is used as the official score. The size of the engine, number of crew pumping, and wind conditions, all influence the length of an engine's stream. With favorable conditions, many handtubs are capable of throwing a stream of water well over 200 feet!

In June of 2001, a group from the Aurora Regional Fire Museum traveled to Waltham Massachusetts to witness (and participate) in a traditional New England handtub muster. See pictures, and read about our experiences...

ARFM's Great New England Road Trip of 2001

See a short movie clip of this engine pumping - (60k)

Read More about...
The “Young America Fire Co.” and the ARFM's “Young America No. 2”
The Aurora Regional Fire Museum has recently completed the restoration of our hand-pumped fire engine, and as a nod to the past, it has been christened, "Young America No. 2."

Restoring our hand pumper
Follow the engine's restoration in this step-by-step photo article.

Memorial Day, 2002
In its inaugural appearance, members of the Aurora Fire Department pulled the Young America No. 2 engine, alongside a group of Naperville firefighters and their 1870s era "Joe Naper" hand-engine.

The Aurora Regional Fire Museum and Handtub Junction thank all who attended
the Great Midwestern Handtub Exposition and Competition, and we invite you
to see some pictures of the day in our
Handtub Expo Photo Galleries.

| The old Handtub Expo "home/index" page | Handtub Expo Photo Gallery | Maps, Directions and Accommodations |
| Information for Participants | How does a Handtub work & What's a Fire Muster? | Information for Spectators |
| Handtub Junction USA - homepage | Aurora Regional Fire Museum - homepage |

Aurora Regional Fire Museum • PO Box 1782 • Aurora, IL 60507
Phone: (630) 892-1572 • e-mail: