Amphibious Fire Engine History

The Southern Oregon Historical Society’s “amphibious” fire engine was ordered new by the City of Ashland early in 1946, but with postwar shortages, delivery took nearly a year. The Ford truck chassis was converted to a fire pumper by the Howard Cooper Company at their Portland factory. It then served Ashland for nearly thirty years before being sold as surplus to a private party. The fire engine acquired its unusual nickname during a flood in January of 1948. Firefighters placed the engine on the bridge at the entrance to Lithia Park. While they were preparing to pump out the basement of Weitzel’s department store on the Ashland Plaza, the wooden timbers supporting the bridge gave way and the bridge collapsed, dumping the vehicle into the creek. Fireman Walter Wolford jumped for his life. There were no injuries, but the pumper spent more than a day submerged under the turbulent waters of a swollen Ashland Creek. The Ashland Tidings reported on January 8 on the lifting of the city’s “amphibious fire truck” from its “watery grave,” remarking that its submerged red warning light had “remained lighted until 2:30 this morning.” The fire engine was disassembled and the motor overhauled by Ashland’s Ford dealer, Jim Busch Sales. Ernie Childreth, the shop foreman, noted that it had been driven only 13,000 miles in its nearly two years of service. After its retirement from service in the mid-1970s the pumper was acquired by a Medford resident, the late Keith Newton, from a friend who had purchased it as surplus from the City of Ashland. The friend had intended stripping its body off for use as a forest vehicle. Lee Newton, who donated the fire engine to the Southern Oregon Historical Society, remembers at the age of 10 learning to drive it around his father’s East Medford property. In 1992 the Newton family polished the vehicle for the last time, preparing it for its role in the wedding of Lee’s sister Lisa to Russ Logue. The newlyweds rode the engine from the ceremony held at the Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville to their wedding reception. Shortly thereafter the vehicle was parked on the Logue property in Shady Cove, where it remained until its donation to the Southern Oregon Historical Society in the summer of 2017.

When SOHS volunteers Ben Truwe and Rick Black first heard about the possibility of the donation, they drove to Shady Cove to see the vehicle for the first time. We had previously seen photos of this fire engine in the SOHS archives as it was involved in a bridge collapse in Ashland in the winter of 1948. After the truck was repaired, it went back into service until it was sold in a surplus vehicle auction. A private individual owned it for many years. It had been sitting in Shady Cove on the Rogue River for about 8 years. When the SOHS Collections Committee and Board of Directors agreed to accept the donation of the fire engine, we made arrangements to have it towed to a storage location in Medford (donated by a Society member) so that we could begin to get it into running condition.