Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sepia Saturday #94

"Willing Hands to Save"

Grabbing onto the theme of 'horses' from Alan's photo prompt, I decided to share the story of William Cameron's Silsby Steamer.

William Cameron was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 1795, the oldest of eight children. The family moved to Lewisburg, PA in 1810. During his lifetime, William served in the War of 1812, was Justice of the Peace, had a dry goods business, and then started the Lewisburg Savings Institution, which eventually became the Lewisburg National Bank. The bank was run out of William's home for 34 years before acquiring its own building. While William was well-known locally in his own right, his brother, Simon, had a claim to national fame, as he had served as a Pennsylvania Senator, as Lincoln's Secretary of War from 1861-1862, and then as Ambassador to Russia from 1862-1865.

Needless to say, William was a very wealthy man. In February 1874, he gifted the town of Lewisburg with a much-needed piece of fire equipment -- the Silsby Steamer.

Purchased from the Silsby Manufacturing Company of Seneca Falls, NY, the horse-drawn Steamer was a coal-fired water pump able to build enough pressure to shoot water 175 feet over the spire of the Baptist Church, and was delivered along with 2,500 feet of hose and three hose carriages for the then-impressive sum of $10,000. A parade was formed the day of delivery which started at the firehouse and included the Lewisburg Silver Cornet Band (I wish I had a photo of that!), the newly appointed Chief Engineer Samuel D. Bates, the Steamer itself and all its accoutrements, and "Little Valiant," the old hand-cranked pump which tried its best to serve the community but was now a broken relic. The parade, with over 1,000 spectators and participants, ended up at Squire Cameron's house, where he made the following speech:

Gentlemen of the town council of the borough of Lewisburg - I am happy to present to you for the citizens of Lewisburg the steam fire engine, hose carriages and hose now before you. And let me say to you, this is not the first time I have thought of making some gift to the Boro of Lewisburg. I had intended making an entirely different one; but when I saw the steam fire engine exhibited here a few weeks ago, and found the people were so strongly in favor of council purchasing one like it, the idea struck my mind that here was an opportunity to make a gift which would give more real pleasure or lasting benefit than a steam fire engine and the necessary accompaniments.

From the large outpouring of the people on this occasion and the very many expressions of kindness, I believe the people are satisfied, and my heart is rejoiced to feel that this is the case.

If in the future I am the humble means, through this gift of saving a single tenement of a poor family in or about Lewisburg, I will feel extremely thankful. I now turn over the steam engine and the accompanying apparatus to the town council to keep as the property of the citizens of Lewisburg.

In return, the town renamed the fire company the William Cameron Engine Company. William died three years later, in September 1877.

Although not uncommon to see horses on the streets of Lewisburg well into the 1930s, the Silsby Steamer was finally retired from service in 1932, a 58-year veteran of the fire company. Pictured above is the next generation of fire equipment to serve the community. Notice the double doors on the front of the building have been replaced with a single, wider door to accommodate the larger engines, and the original wooden floor was replaced with poured concrete. This firehouse was eventually torn down in the 1960s along with the residence beside it, and a newer, larger firehouse was built at the engine company's present location. The old property is now a municipal parking lot. (On a personal side note, the church to the very right of the picture was where I was married in 1988.)

The current building, Company 2:

Both the Silsby Steamer and its predecessor, Little Valiant, are currently on display at the WCEC's Liddick-Stephens Museum.

NOTE: The title of today's post, "Willing Hands to Save," is the motto of the William Cameron Engine Company.

**All black-and-white photos in today's post are part of the collection of the Union County Historical Society. Color photos are courtesy of the William Cameron Engine Company. William Cameron's speech along with other historical tidbits can be found on the William Cameron Engine Company's website.

For more of this week's Sepia Saturday fun, clicky RIGHT HERE!


  1. I'm glad the station is still named after Cameron, and I'm delighted to see they saved the old fire equipment in a museum!

  2. I don't know if I ever wanted to be the driver of a "fire-engine," or even to be a passenger in one, when I was a lad, but these certainly are magnificent contraptions. What a pity the old firehouse was torn down. The modern one is, I suppose, superbly functional, but the character of the original was just the home for the Silsby Steamer.

  3. Such a sweet story, and nicely written for us...those original buildings were just awesome too....saving bits and pieces of our pasts is so important too! Thanks for such a detailed Sepia!

  4. What a great piece of history. The story of the Silsby Steamer is one not to lose.

  5. It's nice that the old equipment wasn't destroyed. It's more than just equipment when one knows its history.