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James P. Aiken, Brevard FD Line of Duty Death, August 25, 1909 – part 2

Not a steamer, but a surprise

In the first part of this posting, we presented the newspaper story of James P. "Jim" Aiken of the Brevard Fire Department in North Carolina, who was killed when a chemical engine exploded at a fire scene on August 25, 1909.

Facts and Fact-Checking

This lengthy web page biography of Jim Aiken also describes the incident, albeit briefly: "He was the only Black member of the Brevard Fire Department. Jim Aiken was serving as acting Fire Chief of the department on August 25, 1909. A fire broke out on that date. Jim was driving the town's two wheeled steam fire wagon to the fire, when it turned over going too fast around a curve. It exploded killing Aiken instantly."

Reads a bit different than the newspaper account! 

The details about the steam engine was my clue to possible inaccuracies in the biography. Based on my earlier research, no steamer ever served in Brevard. That is, my researched list of steam fire engines in North Carolina did not include the town. But could Brevard have had a steamer that disappeared from surviving records? Say, one that might've been destroyed in an accident or otherwise? Perhaps.

The second clue to "something other than a steamer" was the reference to the fire engine being "two-wheeled." That rules out a steam engine due to simple physics. Even the smallest sized steam engine wouldn't have been operable or maneuverable with only two wheels. (Though readers are welcome to correct me, if indeed two-wheel steamers were possible or even actually constructed!)

Thus my suspicion that a chemical engine was the culprit, as hand-drawn two-wheel versions (as well as four-wheel versions) were widely used at those times. The newspaper article, located after the biography was found, confirmed same.

Example of a single-tank Chemical engine, circa 1870s:

Editor's note: Do our readers know of other chemical engine explosions from "back in the day?" How about any steam engine explosions, did those ever occur?

Brevard Fire Department in 1911

Did the town replace the chemical engine? Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps from two years later cite a "combination wagon" in the service of the fire department. Was this a combination ladder wagon and hose wagon? Or a combination chemical engine and hose wagon? Don't know.

"Water Facilities: Gravity system of water works owned by the town. Installed 1900. Two reservoirs, capacity 90,000 and 270,000 gallons, located two miles northwest of court house and fed by mountain streams. Eight-inch gravity main supplies distributing mains four- and six-inches. Sixteen hydrants. Normal pressure 60 pounds per square inch.

"Fire Department: Volunteer company, chief, and fourteen menu. Two fire stations. One combination wagon with 60-feet of ladders, three Babcock extinguishers, and 800 feet of 2 1/2-inch hose (stationed near Courthouse), and one cart at Southern depot with 500-feet 2 1/2-inch hose. Bell alarm." 

Remembering Jim Aiken

Aiken was so popular, notes the biography, that none of the black churches in town were large enough for the people expected to attend the funeral. The white First Baptist Church of Brevard provided their building. On the day of the funeral, "so many people of all races attended that the crowd overflowed the church and filled the nearby streets." All the stores and government offices in town also closed.

The newspaper story described Aiken as the most widely known black man in western North Carolina. He was a "successful and enterprising businessman" with a "well-patronized" store on Main Street. He was a member of the Baptist church and "several benevolent societies." He was a fireman and "always among the first to respond to the call of the fire bell and one of the hardest works at every fire in the history of the town."

Notes the biography, he was survived by his wife Mary Smith Aiken and several children.

Moms Mabley

One of his children was daughter Loretta Mary Aiken. She was fifteen when her father died. Though her mother was "left fairly well off," notes the biography, Loretta was "dissatisfied with her life in Brevard." She went north in search of a new life and began singing and dancing in Vaudeville. Her family was embarrassed by her career choice and her brother wrote to her and  requested that she stop using the Aiken name.

Loretta changed her name to Jackie Moms Mabley, and became one of the most famous black comedians in America. Known as "Moms Mabley," she performed for almost thirty years at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She appeared on Broadway, in film, on television, and at Carnegie Hall. Among her TV appearances, she was a regular on Merv Griffin's show.

Mabley died in 1975 at age 81. Read her Wikipedia entry.

Comments - Add Yours

  • Legeros

    Thinking more about this, the Sanborn Map citation of “combination wagon” surely means a combination chemical and hose wagon. I don’t think ladder/hose wagons were ever labeled as such.

    In those days, a dedicated ladder truck was a long beast. Nowhere nearly as maneuverable as a smaller hose wagon.

    Thus, it seems at least one more chemical engine/apparatus was used by BFD, after the accident.

    Hopefully this helps those readers undoubtedly loosing sleep over this nagging detail? All one of them.

    • http://www.firegeezer.com/ Mike “FossilMedic” Ward

      Well *I* will sleep better tonight.

      Gate 7 at the Long Beach Airport