A collection of historic antique San Francisco fire engines is slowly deteriorating beneath the rain and sun in an industrial parking lot, as a group historians sound the alarm to city officials.
The group of more than a dozen trucks, one used to fight the1906 earthquake and fire, has been without an indoor home in years, after bouncing around between city warehouses on Treasure Island and Bayview-Hunters Point.
Several years ago the Academy of Art donated space for the collection in a warehouse in the industrial Bayshore area, but bounced the collection to the parking lot about a year ago when it needed the space.
“As you can see there’s extensive deterioration due to it’s being stored outside,” said James Lee, a retired San Francisco firefighter who is trying to find the trucks a new home.
Lee said the collection, which includes water tenders, ladder trucks and other unique apparatus, is rotting in the elements — especially following a particularly wet winter which repeatedly blew off the protective tarps. Lee’s group, Guardians of the City, has been providing care for the trucks though they are officially city property.
“What I see here now,” Lee said, “is there is a benign neglect with regards to the protection of this historical equipment.”
Last week, Lee and his group issued a plea to the San Francisco Fire Commission to find shelter for the collection. Commission members said it was urgent the city find shelter for the beleaguered trucks — though they didn’t offer an immediate solution. They set an October hearing date to consider more options.
Both San Francisco fire department officials and the office of Mayor Ed Lee said they support finding a new home for the trucks — though no specific plan is yet in place
Lee and his group have proposed finding space for the collection on Pier 19 or possibly in the city’s vast storage space beneath Civic Center.
“I believe there is space within the city,” Lee said, “and it could happen very easily.”
During his first days in the fire department back in the early 1960s, Lee worked on one of the old ladder trucks now languishing in the lot. He climbed up on the truck’s running board and demonstrated how he would grip its wooden ladder for support as the truck responded to calls. He rode the truck for six months.
“It was a great ride when it was pouring rain,” he chuckled.
He’d also seen a water tender in the collection in action back in the 1970s just before it was retired. The truck, which hailed from the 1920s had reported to a large, stubborn fire in the city’s Tenderloin.
“This thing drove up,” Lee recalled. “They put it up, turned it on, fire went out.”
Lee eventually hopes to see the collection restored to its original glory. He wants to find companies and benefactors to sponsor the trucks’ restoration. But before that can happen — he said — they first need a home.
“It brings a lot of memories,” Lee said pacing past the row of trucks. “There’s a lot of water under the bridge.”