Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive



As the Twentieth Century was about to enter its second decade, newly appointed Chief Engineer Archie J. Eley, seeing the potential in the new developments in motor fire apparatus, convinced the City Council to advertise for bids for one motor pumping engine. On March 23, 1911, the Union Well Supply Co., local agents for The Robinson Fire Apparatus Co. of St. Louis, Mo. was awarded City Contract No. 1477 for: "One, "Jumbo" Triple Automatic Combination Hose Wagon and Fire Engine not to include chemical tank and equipment for the sum of $8650.00."

The Robinson "Jumbo" was a "Second Size" or 700 to 800 gpm pumping engine. "Second Size" was a classification used to describe the capacities of steam pumping engines and was carried over for a time to describe the capacities of the new motor pumpers as well. "Jumbo" was powered by a huge, six cylinder motor built by the Buffalo Marine Co. It's 6 1/4" x 6 3/4" bore and stroke cylinders developed 110 hp at 1000 rpm. The fire pump was called The Triplex and was designed and built by Robinson. It was a single-acting type with three 5 3/4" x 8" bore and stroke cylinders. The crank-shaft "throws" are set at 120 degrees and the crank was gear-driven at a 3:1 ratio, and was said to cause a great deal of vibration while in operation. Mounted directly behind the seat, the pump sported a huge pulsation chamber, or "dome" as was common on the steamers. The apparatus was propelled via chain-drive through a "three and one" sliding gear transmission.'

After several delays, the Robinson Engine finally arrived during the last week in October 1911. After many more delays, this time for "mechanical adjustments," the "Jumbo" Engine was finally tested at the Elysian Park Reservoir. Chief Eley reported to the Council that the new engine had passed all tests, and on December 30, 1911 the Robinson was officially accepted by the City.

The new engine was to have gone in service in the first fire station to be designed and built for motor apparatus and became Engine Company No. 26 (2475 W. Washington Blvd). However, the house was not completed and on January 17, 1912, Chiefs Eley and O'Donnell sent the Robinson to Engine 22's (4352 S. Main St.) where they began instructing the members on driving, spotting and pumping. Among those first being so instructed was George J. Davlin, retired Assistant Chief who passed away on April 27, 1987.

While awaiting completion of their quarters, Engine 26 ran out of Engine 22's. And doing so, began a litany of mechanical problems that would plague her to her final days. On the evening of February 6, 1912, "...while responding to Box 377, the magneto came loose and we were obliged to take it off entirely to protect the gears. Ran back on batteries." Just five days later, "Robinson engine off duty at 11:00 AM on account of a loose flywheel."

Engine Company Number 26 was officially placed on duty, "5:00 PM February 15, 1912 with Robinson Motor Pumping Engine on duty." On February 23, 1912,"...while responding to an alarm at Vermont and Wilshire, a bearing busted and knocked the bottom off the crankcase." What a dilemma! Here we have a house not built to accommodate horses and no relief motor pumper. Engine 22's new Seagrave motor hose wagon was moved-up in relief and a "towing bumper" was installed. Steam engine No.1 was brought in from the storeroom and thus we see the first motorized steamer in service on the L.A.F.D.

Robinson representatives agreed to replace the entire motor. Superintendent of Engines, Price was of the opinion that the flywheel coming loose on February 11 had caused some unseen damage due to the excessive vibration. April 18, 1912, the "Jumbo" was returned to duty, and Engine 22's wagon sent home. The Amoskeag remained at 26's, but would not have to wait long for the call to duty. Before her boiler had even cooled, the Robinson broke down the very next day and was sent to the shops, and once again Engine 22's wagon was brought back to 26's. This time, the motor engine was out of service only a day and-a-half. Battalion Chief Todd issued orders "...not to exceed 15 mph with Robinson Engine."

It would seem that the die had been cast. "Jumbo" was to make many trips to the fire department's shops with a wide array of ailments over the next seven years. Motor bearing failures, broken valve springs, pump oiler failures, broken chains, broken jack-shafts, sheared jack-shaft keys, sheared drive-line keys, wallowed-out keyways from loose keys, water in the crankcase, broken cam-shafts, even a broken pump crank-shaft and a crack in the pump housing. Shortly after going in service, both rear springs settled so badly they had to be replaced...twice! These were the more major things to befall this pioneer engine. There were many of a minor nature, but just as annoying to say the least.

Truck Co. No.8, a new 1913 Seagrave Style "J" City Service Truck, went into service at 26's quarters on September 1, 1914. After a couple of months, the "damage reports" to the doors on the Truck side of the house prompted Battalion Chief Todd to ask during a visit to the house " was the Truck happening to hit the doors...and wondered aloud if it was anything like trying to beat each other out of the house on alarms?" On November 3, 1914, Chief Todd issued orders that the engine would have the right-of-way and the Truck would follow no closer than 200'. There was no mention of any demerits being issued, but there also was no further mention of the doors being rubbed either.

Not all of the relief work for Engine 26 was done with a wagon towing a steamer. During 1913, Gorham's 27 and 31 were used and in 1915 La France Engine No. 32 was also used. However, the bulk of the relief work was done using one motor hose wagon or another towing one of the relief steamers. In fact there was a relief wagon/steamer combination stored at 26's much of the time.

On one occasion, when the Robinson had been in the shop, Driver Barker was sent to bring it back to quarters. He was gone quite a long time, but when he finally arrived, "Jumbo" was missing both headlights and the right front fender. It seems that Baker had had an accident while on the way home and after the conflict had returned to the shops where the damaged parts were removed.

In 1919, the pump housing had developed a crack and while pumping would spray water all over the place. After personally accessing the situation, Battalion Chief Andrews issued orders,"...and while pumping, not to exceed 140 pounds pressure." On July 27, 1916, "...while returning from an alarm, he (Engineer Noble) went to shift gears in order to climb a hill on 6th Avenue between 27th and 28th Streets, the butterfly valve on the carburetor stuck open and when he freed his clutch, the motor raced and busted the connection on the crankshaft bearing. Towed back to quarters by Truck 8."

Back in March of 1913 it seems that towing the Robinson would become common practice. A note from the Journal of that year says, "...Seikins sent to shop after a hook to make tow line for Robinson engine." From all indications, that tow line was to become a much used piece of Engine 26's equipment.

On May 7, 1917, "...Robinson Motor Engine, while responding to a fire, started to backfire while leaving the engine house and showed more trouble at West Blvd. and Washington. On her return trip to engine house, she stopped and all efforts to start her failed. Had to tow her back to quarters with Truck 8, and while towing, Robinson engine ran into the back of Truck and broke R.F. headlight."

The Robinson "Jumbo" was towed to the shops for the final time on December 15, 1919. On the day before, while responding to an alarm, the motor quit running, "...efforts to start our motor failed, so we had Truck 8 tow us to try and start the motor. When motor started, the clutch would not release and Engineer Scott had to kill motor to keep from running into the Truck." ...Wagon marked 'Engine Co.39' and steam engine marked 'No. 8' were placed on duty December 16, 1919 and remained there until March 25, 1920 when American La-France Engine, shop no. 53 was placed on duty permanently replacing shop no. 28, as the Robinson had become known. No. 28 had gone to the shops and the storeroom, then later stored at Engine Co. 7, which was closed. It's not known if the shop had repaired her to at least driving condition or not, but by 1921 "Jumbo" had vanished completely from the fire department's inventory lists and was not heard from again.

Many more instances of mechanical failures could be cited, but I think we can gather from the instances related above that this pioneer pumping engine seemed to be unusually prone to break down. Only one other Robinson "Jumbo" Engine is known to have been in service locally and that in Long Beach. We have nothing regarding this engine or how successful she performed. Perhaps, before we pass judgment, we might try to project ourselves back in time, into the mud and mire, the dust, the steep hills, the streetcar tracks that would get caught between the rear tires and send the apparatus in unexpected directions when a turn was attempted and those solid rubber tires that in in the mud left drivers with little control. All of these driving conditions on rough and poorly paved streets were a big factor, and heavily laden fire apparatus was literally beaten to pieces. Other pumping engines closely followed the Robinson in service and they too were to experience the effects of the rough roadways of the time, though not to the same extent.

So, while we keep these things in mind, we must find empathy for this pioneer machine and those stalwart men who handled her. The Robinson was the first pumping engine to replace the horse, but actually the horse was being replaced by motor dose wagons as early as 1909 on the L.A.F.D. On July 19, 1921, the horse era ended when the Gorter Water Tower was taken out of service and sent to the shops to be motorized using the La-France front-drive tractor that had been used on Engine 3's Extra First Size steamer. Some 13 years after the first motor hose wagon, the Los Angeles Fire Department's horses had been "pasture-ized."

Information used in the preparation of the article that appear in quotation marks were taken from the Company Journals of Engine 22 and 26. Mechanical specifications came from Mr. Greg Cone of White Post Restorations, White Post, Virginia and a Robinson Catalog in the author's collection. Photos of the old Engine 26's Robinson are quite rare. Those shown are from the collection from the late Fred S. Allen and the collection of the author.

Walt Pittman 7-20-87

This article appeared in the September 1987 issue of The Firemen's Grapevine.

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