Jeff Jardine

May 5, 2014

Jeff Jardine: Modesto’s 1928 Seagraves Ladder Tiller firetruck comes to life again

Top o’ the Tuesday to ya, with a fired-up firetruck to celebrate a retirement, no-drone rule for Yosemite National Park and more.

From the emails and voice mails:

REVVED FOR RETIREMENT – A few weeks ago, Brian Whitcomb became a man with a mission.

The 1928 Seagraves Ladder/Tiller truck – put into service Aug. 1 that same year by the Modesto City Fire Department and kept in use until the mid-1960s – is in retirement at Station 5, at McHenry and Briggsmore avenues. Fifty-four feet long from bumper to rear, it’s the type of truck that requires a driver in front and another riding atop the rear seat to steer the back end.

Photos of the old truck in action are found in “The Modesto Fire Department History Book – 137 Years of Fire Fighting Tradition,” co-written by Jim Gunn, Bill Wallace and Robert Walton. The Seagraves originally was housed in Station 1 on 10th Street, between G and H streets – the same block destined to become Stanislaus County’s new courthouse.

In its time, it was the city’s best piece of firefighting equipment. It still has the circular piece of canvas used to catch leaping evacuees. Its 75-foot-long ladder sprang upward to save more than 40 women and children stranded on the upper floor of the old Modesto Hotel when fire destroyed it May 3, 1944 – 70 years ago on Saturday.

But the truck had become a largely forgotten piece of Modesto history after being decommissioned, stored at the old Rainbow Bread plant and several other stations before being towed to Station 5 a couple of years ago. No one had tried to start it over the past 17 or so years.

“As far as we know, there’s only two of these on this side of the Rockies,” Whitcomb said. “For as little attention as it’s gotten, it’s in great shape.”

“It was pretty unusual for a city our size to have something like that at the time,” said Gunn, whose father, Robert S. Gunn, retired as Modesto’s fire chief in 1976.

So with Gunn set to join Modesto Truck 1 in retirement Monday after 37 years with the city, Whitcomb came up with a plan: Get the old truck running again and give Gunn one more spin before he shelved his firefighting gear for good.

Whitcomb is a mechanic turned firefighter who worked for a decade at the city’s corporate yard before transferring to the Fire Department to maintain its vehicles. Now he’s a fire engineer. It took nearly three weeks of tinkering, toying and trying in the dead time between fire calls.

“You wouldn’t believe how many times we went out,” Whitcomb said.

“We’d be watching the news and look up and he’d be gone, out working on it,” Capt. Mark Crook said.

Then last week the motor, six cylinders and 1,000-plus cubic inches, fired up. Modesto Truck 1 – the original Modesto Truck 1 – sputtered to life once more.

The old truck, with an Indian chief painted on each side, needs restoration. It would make a great ambassador for the city during parades and other public events. But the city budget doesn’t include money to restore rolling museum pieces.

“Times in Modesto are bad – that’s our newest rig,” Crook joked.

For certain, it can’t be hauled off to a museum in Arizona, which wants it. Its future is only as good as the interest among Modestans who would want to restore it.

But for one short moment, a few days before Gunn’s retirement, there was time for one last ride on old Truck 1. He drove it around the block, with Crook steering from the tiller seat.

“I don’t know if you could see the ladder for (the width of) his smile,” Crook said.

“It was really great,” Gunn said. But much different than the traditional final trip home aboard a modern version of the same truck Monday afternoon.

“That was a lot tougher than I thought,” Gunn said.

NO-DRONE ZONE – You’re halfway up El Capitan and you hear something coming at you, making a buzzing sound.

Or you’re clinging to the cables on Half Dome, and the same happens. Indeed, the last thing you might expect while enjoying the splendor of Yosemite National Park is to have a drone aircraft in your face or watching your every move.

Yet this is happening with greater frequency, officials say; it is illegal, and this time the National Security Agency isn’t the culprit.

“The park has experienced an increase in visitors using drones within park boundaries over the last few years,” according to Yosemite public information officer Scott Gediman. “Drones have been witnessed filming climbers ascending climbing routes, filming views above treetops, and filming aerial footage of the park.

“Drones can be extremely noisy and can impact the natural soundscape. Drones can also impact the wilderness experience for other visitors, creating an environment that is not conducive to wilderness travel. The use of drones also interferes with emergency rescue operations and can cause confusion and distraction for rescue personnel and other parties involved in the rescue operation. Additionally, drones can have negative impacts on wildlife nearby the area of use, especially sensitive nesting peregrine falcons on cliff walls.”

Droning joined parachuting and using helicopters, airplanes and motor vehicles as no-nos to haul people and goods into the backcountry. You can’t even order a DVD or something from Amazon and have it delivered into the park.

AUTHOR! AUTHOR! – Former Modesto resident Mike Monson must have great memories of his one-time hometown. He’s using Modesto as the setting for his series of crime novels, the most recent titled “The Scent of New Death.”

“This is fertile ground for fiction, especially crime fiction,” Monson noted. The book focuses on the exploits of a master bank robber who pulls off heists in Modesto and other Northern California towns. It is, indeed, an example of art imitating life, as local law enforcement, FBI agents and Bee crime reporters can attest. Monson’s latest work is published by Gutter Books and is available in print and electronic forms via Amazon.

And a biography of longtime Stanislaus County Supervisor Nick Blom is available at the Nick Blom Regional Library in Salida and for sale through his family at (209) 505-5567. It details his life in Holland before coming to America, and his time in Modesto over the past 50 years.

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