By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Alexandria’s firefighting history was reignited this week when the Virginia Association of Museums named the Friendship Fire Company’s 19th-century hose carriage one of its top 10 endangered artifacts of 2018.
As a nominee, the carriage is now in competition with the nine other artifacts for a number of conservation grants ranging from $4,000 for the first-place spot to around $750 for the 10th-place artifact. The winner is determined entirely by people voting for their favor- ite artifacts. Voting is open from Jan. 22 to 31, and people can vote once a day.
The purpose of the competition is to raise awareness with both citizens and legislators about the importance of historic preservation and Virginia’s many museums and archives. However, the nomination is more than just an acknowledgment of the carriage’s history and impor- tance.
The Prettyman hose carriage itself sits at the intersection of Alexandria’s history with fire, technological evolution and civic engagement, according to City Historian Daniel Lee.
The carriage was designed in 1857 and made in 1858 by Alexandria carriage maker and Friendship Fire Company volunteer Robert F. Prettyman. At a time when the city’s volunteer firefighters had to combat flames with buckets of water, the hose carriage was a revolutionary step forward in firefighting.
“Both the hose carriage and the suction engine allowed you to transport water consistently and from a well rather than everyone having to bring their own bucket,” Lee said.
The suction engine was a hand pump that allowed firefighters to get the water out of the well and into the 50-foot hose which, much like today, transported the water faster and more consistently to the fire. The carriage that transported this new technology, and which the Office of Historic Alexandria hopes to restore with the competition’s grant funds, was more than just a tool for the city’s firefighters.
“It was used by the fire company in parades and civic events as a symbol of who they were at a time in which public service was considered a responsibility even though you weren’t getting paid for it,” Lee said.
Although the carriage, which sits in the Friendship Fire Company Museum, is remarkably intact, its exterior is a long way from the gleaming symbol of civic engagement it once was. Once a deep blue with yellow finishes, the carriage is now rust brown. With the grant money from this competition, The Office of Historic Alexandria hopes to do paint analysis on the carriage and restore it to its original blue.
The Office of Historic Alexandria has had plans to restore the Prettyman carriage to its former glory for quite some time, and has already raised $75,000 of the estimated $150,000 restoration cost. While the first-place prize would only cover a fraction of the remaining expenses, its primary value would be in helping publicize the project.
“When you see the images of what it could look like restored compared to what it looks like now, you’ll agree it’s money well spent,” Lee said.
Regardless of how much grant money the carriage receives, the competition ultimately raises awareness about historic preservation statewide, Lee said. It also promotes the power of Alexandria’s museum system, which had one of its artifacts come in second place in 2017, and the value of this history.
“It’s an artifact from an earlier time that not only tells us about our firefighting history in general but who we were as a town,” Lee said. “… The idea of using suction, the need to shoot water longer distances at a time when the realization that the way things had always been wasn’t good enough I think is something consistent with Alexandria’s history and, especially in this case, is something to be proud of.”
To submit votes, make sure to visit https://www.vamuseums.org/virginias-top-10-endangered-artifacts. For those interested in seeing the historic carriage, the Friendship Fire Company will be open for extended hours on Jan. 26 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free.