Retired Volunteer Fire Chief Jim Vuille still remembers driving — and almost crashing — Juneau’s 1927 American LaFrance fire truck as a young firefighter in the early 1950s.
It was the Fourth of July, and he was driving the shiny red truck down Willoughby Avenue in the parade. He unscrewed the steering wheel from its base as a joke and was showing off for the kids when he realized he was nearing the turn near Fireweed Place.
“I went to put the steering wheel back on and dropped the bolt,” Vuille remembered, laughing. “The damn things don’t stop very fast.”
Everything turned out OK for the truck and for Vuille, now 84. He and retired Volunteer Fire Chief Doug Boddy are the only living firefighters who drove the truck while it was in service. And now, after 60 years of being out of commission, the LaFrance is back at the Juneau fire house.
The engine was retired in 1953 and spent 30 years in storage before dropping off the map in the 1980s. Nobody knew what had happened to the LaFrance, Retired Volunteer Fire Chief Jim Carroll said. But, in March, Capital City Fire and Rescue Chief Rich Etheridge received a call from an Oregon woman whose recently deceased father had owned a museum — one she claimed housed Juneau’s original 1927 LaFrance. For $38,000, the city could have it back, she said.
Carroll and the rest of the Juneau Volunteer Firefighters Association decided to invest in what is certainly a piece of the city’s history, and made their first big purchase as an organization.
“We said, ‘Let’s get this truck here,’” Carroll said. “Why not take a stab at it?”
The association did some detective work to make sure the engine in Oregon and Juneau’s missing LaFrance were one and the same.
Association member Tom Gill said he was at first a little skeptical about the purchase, and the engine’s legitimacy.
“I said, ‘We’re going to do what? Why? What does it do?’” Gill said. “I was a Doubting Thomas, saying, ‘I don’t think it’s the same one.’”
Original bills of sale and American LaFrance’s records matched the numbers on the Oregon engine, and the organization made it official. It took a week to get the fire truck here, Carroll said. Alaska Marine Lines shipped it from Seattle for free, he said.
That’s super speedy service compared to how long it took to get the engine here almost 90 years ago. On its original trip to Juneau, the LaFrance was shipped from New York on Nov. 26, 1927, and didn’t arrive until Christmas, according to the original invoice from American LaFrance Engine Company, Inc. Upon receipt, Mayor Thomas Judson signed off on the engine’s cost of $7,480.
Now that it’s back home, the Juneau Volunteer Firefighters Association have donated the engine to CCFR. And despite its age, it’s in amazing shape — its last owners had refurbished it, Carroll said. The goal is to get the truck operational once more, he said. CCFR firefighters will oversee the rest of the work on the engine.
“The chief said, ‘We’ll keep it in a warm spot,’” Carroll said. “I don’t know if that means his heart or the garage.”
The 1927 American LaFrance might live to drive in another Fourth of July parade, but Vuille said his wife isn’t so sure that he’ll be the one driving it.
“She said, ‘Well, we’ll talk about that, after the first experience,’” he said.