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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!