What’s Happening at the Edward M. Cotter?

What’s Happening at the Edward M. Cotter?

Recently, I’ve been getting a lot of suggestions for blog posts from readers. My schedule is booked well into January, 2021. But just a couple of weeks ago my brother made a suggestion that made me change the schedule in order to fit it in. He suggested I write about “the Cotter”. Good idea, brother.

I always thought that most Buffalonians knew what you meant when you said “the Cotter”. I mean, it’s as much a part of the fabric of our city as say, the Bills. Well, okay, maybe not that much, but it certainly plays an important role on Buffalo’s waterfront, and most Buffalonians have at least heard about it. When I told a friend I was writing this post, he didn’t know it. But when I showed him a photo, he said, “oh, that boat. I’ve seen that around forever!”

He’s right about one thing. The Edward M. Cotter has been around forever. Well, practically.

The side wall at Engine 20, at 155 Ohio Street

Let’s talk about it.

A Little Bit of History

I’ve talked in other posts about Buffalo’s location at the convergence of the Buffalo River, Lake Erie and the Niagara River. Back in the day, most of Buffalo’s industry was built on the waterfront utilizing those natural resources. I’ve also talked about the fact that fires were all too common in cities throughout the 1800s and into the 1900s. Buffalo was no exception. Although we had two fireboats in service already (working out of Engines 23 & 29), they did not have ice breaking capabilities rendering them essentially useless in the winter. So, at the turn of the century, it was decided that Buffalo would benefit from a third fireboat.

The Edward M. Cotter was built in 1900, and was christened the William S. Grattan, named for the first paid fire commissioner in Buffalo. Thus, Engine 20 in the City of Buffalo was born. She is the oldest active fireboat in the world. That’s right, in the world! She is 118 feet long and originally had two steam engines and coal burning boilers. Her prow (or front of the hull) is 1-1/2 inch thick steel, making her perfect for ice breaking. Now, an inch and a half doesn’t seem like much but the current Captain of the Cotter, John Sixt, compared the thickness of the Cotter’s hull to that of the Little Rock, which is 1/8 of an inch thick. Woah. Okay, that puts it into perspective.

Disaster Strikes!

In July of 1928, while fighting an oil barge fire in the Buffalo River, the Grattan caught fire and was severely damaged. The firefighters on board were forced to abandon ship and swim to shore. The boat’s chief engineer was killed, and seven crew members were injured.

The boat then sat for eighteen months while the city decided what to do. They had two choices, replace the Grattan at a cost of $225,000, or completely rebuild her for $99,000 ($8,000 more than the original cost to build). All I can say is that sometimes these decisions go our way. This is one of those times.

The Grattan was rebuilt at the Buffalo Dry Dock Company in 1930. It was at this time her boilers were converted from coal to oil, foam fire retardant firefighting capabilities were added, and her engines were rebuilt.

Some of the Cotter’s Updates

In 1952, the William S. Grattan was sent to Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin for some much needed modernization. Her steam engines were replaced with two diesel engines, twin props replaced the single propeller, and the firefighting platform was outfitted with hydraulics. She was now capable of pumping 15,000 gallons of water per minute! I once read that this boat could fill an average backyard pool in roughly 40 seconds! Holy smokes, that’s a lot of water!

She was returned to Buffalo in 1953, and was given a new name, the Firefighter. In 1954 she was renamed again, and became the Edward M. Cotter. This time she was named for a Buffalo firefighter who was a very popular leader of the local firefighter’s union, and had recently passed away.

In the spring of 2019, the Edward M. Cotter was sent to Toronto for two months, to receive much needed repairs to her hull and the installation of two new propellers. These repairs were paid for with grants received through the Cotter Conservancy. And speaking of which…

The Fireboat E.M. Cotter Conservancy, Inc.

The Fireboat E.M. Cotter Conservancy, Inc. was formed in January of 2016 to raise money so that the Cotter will be with Buffalo for a long time to come. It’s a 501(c)(3) not for profit organization, committed to raising $25,000 a year in order to continue keeping the Cotter in the water.

The Cotter was named a National Historic Landmark in 1996, joining less than ten other National Historic Landmarks in Buffalo. This opened up the Cotter to much needed funds to maintain the aging boat. The conservancy takes the lead in securing these funds.

The Conservancy is run by volunteers, and is led by Sandford Beckman. The group is also supported by the Buffalo Fire Historical Museum, the Fire Bell Club of Buffalo, the Local Union 282, and WNY Retired Firefighters. See the conservancy’s website for more information regarding donating to the Fireboat E.M. Cotter Conservancy, Inc.

The Cotter and the Canadian Connection

About 15 years ago, my husband and I were in Port Colborne, Ontario which is located on Lake Erie at the Welland Canal. Every August, this port town celebrates a Canal Days festival. While there, walking along the canal, we suddenly came upon the Cotter. At first we questioned whether it was actually ‘our’ Cotter. But as we got closer we realized we were indeed correct. It was. We spoke to some of the crew, and were welcomed aboard for a tour.

While we were there, the crew told us a piece of Cotter history we weren’t familiar with at the time. On October 5, 1960 an explosion and a massive fire broke out at the Maple Leaf Mills on the Welland Canal in Port Colborne. Two days later the fire still burned out of control, and the town requested help from the Buffalo Fire Department. The Edward M. Cotter, escorted by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, made the nighttime voyage and within four hours of her arrival, the fire was out.

In appreciation of this, the Cotter is invited to Port Colborne every year to help the town celebrate their Canal Days Festival. Pretty cool.

The Edward M. Cotter on the scene of the Maple Leaf Mills fire in 1960. Photo courtesy of Niagara Falls, Ontario Public Library

A Few Things

There are a few things that stand out for me in this Port Colborne story. The first is that the Cotter needed an escort for this trip because it was never outfitted with deep water navigational equipment, simply because it never needed it prior to this. Interesting. Captain Sixt assured me that an escort is no longer necessary!

The next is that the trip to Port Colborne, which on the lake is approximately 25 miles, took two hours. You see, the Cotter is not built for speed. As a matter of fact, the top speed of this vessel is 11.5 knots, which is just over 13 miles per hour. So two hours is just about right.

Lastly, this event is believed to be the first time a U.S. fireboat crossed an international border to assist with firefighting. Cool, Buffalo!

What Else?

Through the years, the Cotter has assisted with numerous fires both on the shore and on the water. She is, however, limited to where she can go and what she can do in and around Buffalo. Captain Sixt explained that when a relatively small craft catches fire, the Cotter cannot get involved. Her fire pumps are just too powerful, and would sink smaller boats. Sure, the fire would be out, but…

And because of her size, the Cotter has to be in 11 feet of water to stay afloat. Drafts at 11 feet, 13 or 14 feet is even better to be safe. For this reason she cannot travel very far into the Erie Basin Marina, because the water is not deep enough. For the same reason, she cannot enter the small boat harbor. So she simply cannot fight fires from those locations.

She does, however, have the ability to assist with other types of emergencies. For instance, in 1977 the Cotter assisted the U.S. Coast Guard cutter, Ojibwa. The cutter had lost her steering and was taking on water. The Edward M. Cotter helped by towing the Ojibwa to the base and kept her afloat while repairs were being made.

In 1978, the Cotter assisted the U.S.S. Little Rock (permanently docked at Canalside) when the ship began taking on water. The Cotter continuously pumped water from the Little Rock, keeping her afloat for five days during repairs.

There are more stories just like this. The Cotter towed a Polish tall ship (Zawisza Czarny) off a sandbar during a 1984 visit. She assisted an Army Corp of Engineers tugboat, the Nash, by pumping out water to stabilize the tug when it suddenly began to list to one side.

The list goes on and on.

A Typical Day in the Life of the Cotter

The Edward M. Cotter’s crew of two, Captain John D. Sixt, III, and Chief Engineer Jack Kelleher, work diligently to keep the Cotter in top shape. And it was clear they’re doing a fantastic job when we boarded the boat last week. Working aboard the Cotter is no small task. In addition to working a full daily schedule, the two are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

If you doubt the necessity of the Cotter, just think about all the changes on Buffalo’s waterfront. More and more people are living right on the waterfront, including the Buffalo River. In case of fire, it is as imperative now, as it always has been, that the fire department have access to these fires from the water.

Captain Sixt tells me that in summer, the Cotter is busy with various duties. There is constant maintenance on a boat like this. Daily maintenance. Weekly maintenance, and monthly maintenance. That is all year round.

In addition to that, and firefighting duties, the Edward Cotter is busy as an active museum. Pre-covid, the fireboat was open during regular business hours for tours of the boat itself. I would imagine those would typically last an hour or more each. In addition, also pre-pandemic, the Conservancy would set up tours of the Buffalo River and Lake Erie aboard the Cotter.

Every June, for a dozen or so years now, the Cotter travels to Dunkirk Harbor for their Spring Festival, where the Edward M. Cotter is a key attraction in the harbor helping to kick off Dunkirk’s summer season.

In August, it’s back to Port Colborne for a long weekend for their annual Canal Days Festival.

What About the Winter?

Remember earlier when I mentioned the thick prow of the boat? She was made that way in order to break through ice. Winters see the Cotter out daily breaking up ice in the Buffalo River, alleviating the chance of flooding both in the city and the neighboring suburbs. While also keeping the river open for any necessary winter traffic, whether it be for firefighting duties or ships coming in and out of port.

This is what the Cotter was built for, to cut through up to 2 feet of ice. It’s a slow, arduous process, but the Cotter is up to the task. I’m told six to eight inches is more common, but even that is not easy. It sometimes takes up to eight hours to travel the half mile from the Michigan Street Bridge to the Skyway while ice breaking! Eight hours!

Ice breaking is especially important when there is a chance of a thaw. That’s when the ice is likely to shift, move and then pile up in certain spots, causing flooding when the river can’t keep flowing. So, it’s incredibly important work. It’s a matter of watching the weather, and taking your time. And trusting that one and a half inch thick Swedish steel will get you through.

A Quick Personal Story

Here’s a quick personal story about the Edward M. Cotter. Remember The Pier restaurant/bar that was out in the outer harbor years ago? I was there with my husband, my in-laws, and a few other people for a party around St. Patrick’s Day. It was cold. And everything was covered with snow plus a thin layer of ice. My mother-in-law, Barb, saw the Cotter through the window, and decided to go take a closer look.

Well, we were all having a good old time, when someone asked where Barb was. We were suddenly alerted to the fact that we hadn’t seen her in quite a while. Someone mentioned that the Cotter had left. My husband and I bundled up and went out to look for her. We caught up to her just as the Cotter was pulling back in. Imagine our surprise when we found her getting off the boat, laughing away and thanking the crew for the ride!

Apparently, when she went out to look at the boat, she started talking with some of the crew. They were going out for a quick run and asked her if she wanted to go for a ride. She said, “Sure, but let me tell my family where I’ll be.” The crew stated that they had to go, and they’d be gone by the time she got back. This was pre cell phone days, so Barb made the quick decision to go for it. She had a ball cruising around the outer harbor with the crew of the Cotter!

I love telling this story, because that’s who my mother-in-law was, in a nutshell.  She believed that if you have a chance to do something you want to do, you should do it.

My Impressions

The Edward M. Cotter is fascinating to me. The many crew members that have served with her. Who were they? What were they like? The small and the large disasters she has witnessed and assisted with, along with her crew of hardworking firemen.

And all that ice breaking! I’d like to go out on an ice breaking day, just to see what it’s like. I think I might love it. But maybe not in January. When the windchill is 30 below though.

Oh, who am I trying to kid? I’d go out on the Cotter in any weather. It’s a piece of Buffalo history. And, like my mother-in-law, I’d say why not? And climb aboard!

That’s one of the things that keeps me hiking around the city. Because I can. I recently heard from a reader who told me he can no longer walk for more than a couple of minutes at a time due to health reasons. And that he enjoys my posts so that he can see all the things he can no longer go out and see for himself. That’s enough to keep me going.

Be curious, Buffalo. And get to know your city, while you still can.

The crew of the Edward M. Cotter hopes to be able to go back to a regular tour schedule once we return to pre-pandemic conditions. Once that happens, if you can, get out to see the fireboat. You’ll be glad you did.

*Special thanks to Captain John D. Sixt, III, for taking the time to give us a tour, and for willingly answering our many questions! I appreciate it more than you know.

**Get the book! They make great gifts for family and friends (or yourself!).  Click here or on the photo below to purchase yours!

Buffalo Fire Department – Engine 26

Buffalo Fire Department – Engine 26

Several weeks ago, I had a conversation with a gentleman about the West Side of Buffalo, just after I published my post about Assumption Church. Twenty minutes in, I found out he lives in a converted firehouse. In that same conversation, he very politely told me that he and his wife were no longer comfortable with public posts about their home. I understood completely.

Only a day or two later, I was contacted through Instagram by a Buffalo Firefighter (Richie) who works at Engine 26 on Tonawanda Street. He mentioned that Engine 26 is housed in a beautiful, historic building, and offered to give me a tour.

One Door Closes, Another One Opens

Well, since I’ve never turned down a tour of any building, I didn’t intend to turn down this one either. The upcoming tour got me to thinking about the role of the Buffalo Firefighters, and how things have changed for them since 1817 when the first fire company was formed in Buffalo.

And as it turns out, I had a few weeks to think about it. You see, we had to reschedule the tour a few times, because, well, apparently firefighting duties trump meeting with bloggers. Ha! But eventually, we made it work.

Let’s take a look.

A Little Bit of Buffalo Background

Before we talk about the building itself, let’s discuss fires in early Buffalo.

During the War of 1812, in December of 1813, the British Army burned the village of Buffalo. Some accounts say one building survived, some say four did. Either way, we were pretty much leveled. After that, homeowners were required to have leather buckets on hand, to fight fires when they occurred.

If you spend any time reading the history of Buffalo, then you know how many fires have ravaged the buildings here. I am forever reading the history of a building, only to find that ‘the first building on this site was lost to fire’, or something to that effect.

It stands to reason. I mean, most buildings were built of wood back then because it was the most readily available material around at the time. And when all the buildings are built of wood, well, we need only ask our neighbors in Chicago what could happen if a fire were to break out.

The Buffalo Fire Department

A few years later, 1817 to be exact, the first Buffalo fire company was formed with volunteers. The first hand-drawn pumper was acquired in 1824, effectively creating Engine No. 1 for the Buffalo Fire Department. Official volunteers were organized by the city in 1831 when the very first “Hook & Ladder” truck was purchased. This truck carried all the tools of the trade at the time, which included lengths of leather hose, hooks, ropes, axes, and ladders. Now, don’t get ahead of me here. This wasn’t a truck as we now know them. It was a horse-drawn vehicle. Something like the one pictured below.

Photo Credit: unknown

By the early 1850s, residents petitioned for a paid fire department. The city turned them down. But in 1859, the first steam-powered engine was purchased. It required a team of horses to pull it, a driver to drive the horses, an engineer to run it, and a man to stoke the furnace. And so, for the first time, the city was forced to pay firefighters.

Photo Credit: unknown

Engine 26

As the city continued to grow, so did the fire department. “By 1900, the Department had grown to 26 Engines, nine Hook & Ladders, six Battalion Chiefs, five Chemical companies, and two Fireboats.”* The photo below is an early photograph of Engine 26 which was built in 1894. The architect was F.W. Humble, who worked out of the German Insurance Building on Main Street at the corner of Lafayette.

Circa 1908. Interesting that the flag was at half mast, as it is today. Photo credit: Janice Jezewski Rossi

Note the dormers on the front and side of the building. Both have been removed. Gone as well is the rectangular tower on the north side of the building. This is interesting. It originally housed a ‘closet’ where firefighters would climb ladders to the top of the tower and hang the hoses to dry. Thankfully, this is no longer necessary. I’m guessing that the tower at some point needed extensive repairs, and since it was no longer being used, it was simply removed. But the rest of the ‘closet’ still exists inside the building today. I cannot speak for the dormers.

Photo Credit: Buffalo History Gazette

Engine 26 as it appears today.

Fire Alarm Boxes

Buffalo first used alarm boxes in 1866. When a fire occurred, a person could pull a hook or turn a knob inside the box and the mechanism would be activated, causing a spring-loaded wheel to turn. This action would tap out a signal to correspond with the location of the fire at the firehouse and simultaneously cause an alarm. In effect both alerting the firefighters of the fire, and letting them know the location of it. I admit I’ve never thought about how old alarm boxes worked. It’s kind of fascinating really.

This one stands outside Engine 26

Engine 26 still has the alarm box mechanics in place, but of course, they are no longer used. The photos below show both the box that holds the fuses and the chart that shows the corresponding street where an alarm would have been pulled. Engine 26 still serves these same streets, but thankfully, with more updated alarm systems in place. 😉

Edward M. Cotter Fireboat

Since we’re discussing a little bit of the history of the Buffalo Fire Department as well as the building at Engine 26, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the Edward M. Cotter Fireboat, which was built in 1900. It is the oldest working fireboat in the world, and it belongs to our own Buffalo Fire Department. The boat has undergone several renovations over the years, including extensive repairs to the hull and propellers in 2019. The Cotter can frequently be seen in the Buffalo River, where it’s permanently docked.

Buffalo’s own Edward M. Cotter Fireboat. Built in 1900, It is the oldest working fireboat in the world!

A Bit More of Buffalo Fire Department History

Hours were long for early firefighters in Buffalo. In the horse-drawn era, they worked seven days a week, 21 hours a day. They had a total of 3 hours a day off for meals plus two days off per month. Woah! Who would have wanted to be a firefighter back in the day? I mean, I know sleeping was (and still is) allowed, but when did they go home? Talk about a lack of work/life balance!

The work week was shortened to 84 hours in 1916. Called the Two Platoon System, one platoon would work days, and one would work nights. Five, twelve-hour days plus one, 24 hour day to allow the other ‘platoon’ to have 24 straight hours off, once a week. This must have made a huge difference in their lives!

It wasn’t until 1975, that the Buffalo Fire Department moved to a 40 hour work week and a two-day, two-night rotation. So, they work 24 hours, twice a week, with 24 hours in between, with four days (not necessarily consecutive) off per week. This has to make for a much better work/life balance.

The Crash and Rescue Unit at the Airport was created in 1942.

And get this, in 1952 the title ‘fireman’ was changed to ‘firefighter’. But Buffalo didn’t hire a woman firefighter until 1980! That’s late ladies! But, better late than never, I suppose.

The Fire Prevention Bureau

Buffalo’s Fire Prevention Bureau was formed in 1941. Remember fire prevention poster contests? When I was a kid, school children would create posters and firefighters would choose the best in each grade level. Winners were notified by phone and would go to their local firehouse to pick up their trophies. They were also treated to a tour, including climbing on the fire trucks.

Is this still a thing? Do they still have these contests?

One year I won a trophy for fire prevention week, and it was a big deal! I remember it very clearly. My family spent an hour or so at the firehouse climbing all over the equipment, and my mother baked a cake in my honor. And someone snapped a photo of the day. I was thrilled. That’s me, front and center with the big, toothy grin!

There’s so much going on in this photo!

My Impressions of Engine 26

When I first heard from Richie from Engine 26, I figured this post would be about the building. I mean, he was right that Engine 26 is housed in a beautiful historic building. But at present, the inside is just functional. And I suppose that’s all it ever was. The outside seems special for a firehouse. But that’s because in 1894 most municipal buildings were built this way. It was the standard at the time. Gorgeous to look at anyway. And I love the fact that Richie loves the building he works in.

The basement was cool, with exposed early steel frame construction. I’ve never had the chance to see it up close before. I appreciated that.

Danielle C. & Richie H. on duty at Engine 26

But what I was most impressed with was the history of the Buffalo Fire Department. Or should I say the evolution of the Buffalo Fire Department? It’s been around since very early on. It’s grown and changed along with the city itself, according to our needs. And it’s impressive. Also, I’m humbled that I’ve never really looked into it before now, but I’m glad that I’ve had the chance to share it with you.

These men and women are always on duty, waiting to help any one, or all of us in our time of need. That is, in my book, the very definition of a first responder. I’m glad I understand what they do a little bit better. Thank you for that Richie. And thank you for what you and your colleagues do every day.

Oh, and one more thing about Engine 26…

Here are just a few more shots at the fire house. And yes, that’s a genuine firefighter’s pole on the lower left. It’s not used any longer, but Richie seemed to think it is the only one left in the city…cool!


**All the photos in this post are mine, unless otherwise noted.

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