Things were aflutter at West Vancouver Fire Museum on Thursday (June 3) as Old 31 – a vintage vehicle that once belonged to the fire department’s fleet – was returned to the North Shore after spending decades in limbo in Prince George.
The fire museum, tucked away in the British Properties near Sentinel Secondary, was action-packed as volunteers, almost all former firefighters, helped guide the vehicle off the tow truck and into the compound.
They promptly began to examine the classic Thibault-model fire truck, cleaning out its nooks and crannies, surveying the damage, and revelling in its solid, storied frame.
For some in attendance it was like being reunited with an old friend.
Retired West Vancouver firefighter and museum vice-president Art Ridley was one of the original people to pilot the old thing back in the day.
“We have a few memories,” he quips.
The department bought the vehicle brand-new in 1954, when West Vancouver’s first official fire chief Flint McKim (Yes, that’s right – “Flint”) was rumoured to have bought the demo model of the Thibault right off the floor of a fire chiefs convention he was attending in downtown Vancouver.
It was assigned fleet number 31.
Ridley started as a volunteer at the West Vancouver fire department in 1955 and was offered a full-time job by ’58. He retired in 1990.
It was Ridley’s job to drive the fire truck during call-outs. He recalls how advanced the truck was – capable of dishing out 1,050 gallons of water per minute – for its time, as well as how challenging it was to pilot along the North Shore’s steep terrain.
“It was state-of-the-art for its time, but these trucks are quite different to the trucks of today – these are all manual shifts,” he says. “No matter where you went, it was uphill. 15th Street or Taylor Way were our many routes up, and with these things you had to manually change them.”
Typically, a fire truck sees front-line action for about 10 years before going into reserve status for another decade or so, according to Scott MacKenzie, a retired firefighter and a director of archives and photos at the West Van museum.
Old 31 went into reserve status in the early ’70s, at which point it was a backup vehicle in case a fire call-out required more engines in attendance or a newer model broke down.
A little red truck's big journey
After more than 20 years serving West Vancouver, the truck was auctioned off to Northwood Pulp Mill in Prince George in 1978, which the mill bought in order to serve its in-house industrial fire brigade.
The fire truck served its purpose at the mill for another 20 years before it was donated to the Central BC Railway and Forestry Museum, also in Prince George, in 2000.
Over the past year, the railway and forestry museum has made deaccession efforts to remove some of its items, like fire trucks, that would be better suited elsewhere.
“They put the word out that this stuff was up for grabs,” says MacKenzie. “We thought this would be an enormous project. Do we really want to take this on?”
Before MacKenzie had started his career as a firefighter, he was an on-call photographer for the District of West Vancouver, which at one point included him taking photos of the fire department’s whole fleet of vehicles.
“In ’77 I took a photo of Old 31, because it was still in reserve service. I took this picture of it – and life goes on. Fast forward to today and we’re looking at this [newer] picture of it. … All of sudden, I looked at the front tire. It’s the same front tire. The picture I took in ’77, it’s got this really unusual tire with raised white lettering on it.”
After realizing the fire truck that the railway and forestry museum was pitching them on was in fact the same vehicle which used to serve West Vancouver, they offered to donate it back to them.
Old 31 has definitely seen better days. The elements have taken their toll and its glistening red coat doesn’t pop the way it once did – though the West Vancouver Fire Museum hopes to change that.
Through its membership, the fire museum is planning to launch a fundraising campaign soon to help cover the costs of completely restoring Old 31 back to its former glory, a project they estimate will take five years to complete.
“It’s solid as a rock. The steel on it is like a German tank. You can see rust on it, but it’s all surface rust,” says MacKenzie. “The guys are pumped. … It’s important because it’s a piece of West Vancouver’s history. It’s an important part of the West Vancouver fire department’s history and it’s been rescued from the scrapyard.”
The museum also has three other former fire trucks – one from 1929, another from 1947, and a final vehicle from 1949 – in its possession that have been fully restored over the years.
For Ridley, he’s excited to see Old 31 officially retire back home in West Vancouver.
“It’s nice to see it again. It’ll be nice to see it again when we get it looking better,” he says.