Merced’s Old Betsy

By DOANE YAWGER

It bears little resemblance to today’s sophisticated apparatus but Merced’s first fire engine still holds a place of honor in the Old County Courthouse. “Old Betsy” came to Merced from Stockton in 1874 and served the community until 1906 when more modern equipment arrived.

The Philadelphia-style pumper has a shiny brass pumping unit in the center and sits on a 6-foot tall wooden body, with four large wooden-spoke steel wheels. It took 14 firefighters to maneuver the two 15-foot folding arms that were used to pump the water through the brass holder. It could shoot a stream of water 190 feet into the air.

Sarah Lim, Courthouse Museum executive director, said Old Betsy is the most popular exhibit at the historic courthouse, revered by people of all ages.

Sporting 1,500 feet of 2 1/2-inch hose, Old Betsy was bought from the Stockton Fire Department for $1,800; it required 30 to 40 men to pull it and operate it before horses were later acquired to pull it. The publisher of the Merced Express newspaper is credited with naming the engine.

Capt. Jim Evans of the Merced Fire Department’s Station 53 on Loughborough Drive said Old Betsy was built in 1859 by the W.M. Jeffers Fire Engine Co. in Pawtucket, Rhode Island and could shoot water higher than the Courthouse dome which is now a central part of the historic museum. Old Betsy has been on permanent display at the museum since 1983.

Engineer Keith Albrecht said Old Betsy is an example of how far firefighting equipment has evolved. One of the department’s newest computer-controlled engines was delivered in 2016 and cost $600,000, not including extra equipment. The new engine pumps 1,500 gallons of water a minute and can store 500 gallons of water. It seats six firefighters and has air-ride suspension.

Evans says firefighting efforts were much more labor-intensive in the 1800s; fire engines were first devised a century earlier. The job of firefighting now is much more complex and involves many more duties, such as responding to medical emergencies. Firefighting efforts in the 1800s were much more defensive, mostly trying to keep fires from spreading to other buildings.

Evans points out Old Betsy is still featured on department patches, belt buckles and its logo. Old Betsy still has its original hoses which would draft water from cisterns or a creek to fight fires. ■

Doane Yawger of Merced is a semi-retired newspaper reporter and editor.

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