For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, New York State was a leader in fire engine and apparatus manufacturing. One of the main players in that industry was Lysander Button of Waterford, NY.
Starting around 1831, Button worked his way up the ladder from mechanic turned inventor to owner of the firm that would eventually take his name, the Button Fire Engine Company.
Most of Button’s innovations were for hand-pumpers, but he also developed the first “piano engine” which delivered water from the front of the apparatus, and created the “runaround” which returned water to the suction, relieving pressure on the hose. In 1841 Lysander Button developed what is believed to be the first fire engine water pump. Its valves were set at 45 degrees with level waterways from the suction inlet to the pump outlet.
After his son Theodore Button joined the company he submitted about a half-dozen patents between 1873 and 1891, including improvements in couplings, water regulators and steam engines. Shortly after the Button Steamer won the Centennial Award at the Philadelphia International Exhibition in 1876 Lysander retired and sold the company and its patents to Holroyd & Company of Waterford.
Later, Button apparatus were manufactured by the American Fire Engine Company, formed in 1891 by the consolidation of the Button Fire Engine Works, Silsby Manufacturing Company, Ahrens Manufacturing Company, and Clapp & Jones. In 1900, a group of New York investors formed the International Fire Engine Company, which included American Fire Engine, LaFrance Fire Engine Company, and Thomas Manning Jr. & Company.
Many of the approximately 750 Button fire engines sold around the world still exist and are often used in parades. The Waterford Historical Museum acquired an 1857 Button & Blake hand-pumper called the “Converse” in 2005 (it is not on display however). The pumper was used in Unionville and South Bend, Indiana and eventually Malden, Massachusetts.
Since the company’s records were lost in flood during the early 20th century, the Waterford Historical Museum is creating a list of Button fire apparatus online here.
Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site will host Brad Utter of the New York State Museum, for a talk on the Button Fire Engine Company on Tuesday, October 18th. Utter will present the results of his latest research on Button, his company, and the engines they made, which were said to set the “Standard of the Age.”
This program will begin at 6:30 pm in the Enders House adjacent to the Schoharie Crossing Visitor Center, 129 Schoharie Street, Fort Hunter, Montgomery County, NY and is free and open to the public. For more information, call the Visitor Center at (518) 829-7516, or email SchoharieCrossing@parks.ny.gov.
The extensive research of Brad Utter contributed to this essay. The Waterford Historical Museum’s database was developed by historians Brad Utter, Dennis Rivage (a retired fire lieutenant of Newburyport, MA), Stephen H. Bradbury Jr. (a retired fire chief of Newburyport, MA), Stanton “Stan” Dixon and Steve Frady of the Comstock Fireman’s Museum. If you have information about known Button apparatus you would like to contribute, contact the museum at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo of Button Side-Stroke Fire Engine, ca. 1872, courtesy Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History; a Button Fire Engine Company crane neck hand-pumper fire engine; and a Button steamer.