When Windsor was incorporated in 1854, most of the buildings in the bustling little town on the Canadian shore of the Detroit River were no more than one or two stories in height. At this time Windsor’s firefighting equipment consisted of little more than a small hand-operated pumper, some buckets and a couple of hand-drawn hose carts.With continuing growth and the construction of three- and four-story commercial buildings and hotels in the downtown area came new challenges for Windsor’s brave volunteer fire fighters , among them the rescue of citizens from the upper floors of these taller structures in the event of fire.
So it was that in 1866 Windsor’s volunteer fire brigade acquired its first hook and ladder truck. The largest – and longest – piece of equipment on the department at the time, the heavy ladder wagon, drawn by two horses, carried single-section wooden ladders of varying lengths and heavy metal hooks used to pull down burning buildings in order to save others nearby – hence the hook and ladder nomenclature. The ladder truck was assigned to a new fire company – Excelsior Hook & Ladder Co. No. 1.
The long hook and ladder truck was unique in that it had a steerable rear axle – or tiller – to enable the apparatus to get around corners more easily. The driver drove the two-horse team from his seat at the front of the rig. A second driver called a “tillerman” was perched atop the ladders at the rear of the truck, from where he steered the rear wheels end via an oversized steering wheel. In the hands of a well-trained crew, the long hook and ladder truck was remarkably agile.
By the early 1900s, by which time Windsor a paid, professional fire department, the Excelsior’s 1866 ladder truck had been retired, replaced by a more modern city service hook and ladder truck which was also drawn by a two-horse hitch but did not have a tiller. The Windsor Fire Department didn’t purchase its first aerial ladder truck until 1910. This aerial, which was motorized with a locally-made Menard auto tractor in 1916, and successors purchased in 1936 and 1949, had tiller-type rear steering.
The builder of Windsor’s very first ladder truck is, unfortunately, not known.
Written By: Walt McCall