In 1902, the year after Valdez’s incorporation, the community purchased an 1886 Gleason & Bailey hand pumped fire engine, and in 1907 purchased an Ahrens steam water pumper. As the pages of history turned, the community’s investment in these firefighting implements and construction of a fire hall by volunteers proved worthwhile; on several occasions both apparatus figured prominently in extinguishing flames that could have turned Valdez’s business district into cinders.
The Valdez Museum’s Ahrens Steam Fire Engine Number 131 is a “Continental” model, the first model manufactured by the newly-organized Ahrens Fire Engine Company. The Continental was state of the art for its day, with world records for the highest gallons per minute, greatest water pressure, and shooting streams further and higher than any other make of steamer. About 105 of these “steamers” were manufactured, only twelve of which remain today; this is the only one in the state of Alaska. The steamer was purchased in response to the St. Elias Hotel fire of December 1906, which destroyed several buildings. Purchased for $7,800, it was the first piece of new fire equipment purchased after the City was incorporated in 1901; a used 10-man hand pumper had been purchased in 1902. The steamer arrived in Valdez on board the S.S. Yucatan in October 1907 and has since then never left the community.
The steamer was originally drawn by a two-horse hitch. During the winter, the engine was seldom taken from the fire station due to its four-ton weight and Valdez’ immense snow accumulations. In 1923, the City’s purchased a new Model T Ford fire truck which was occasionally used to pull the steamer. In 1935, the steamer was retired and placed into storage until 1959, when it was placed on display near the town’s new museum building. In 1960, a snowplow damaged the steamer and it was sold to Owen Meals for $1.00. The steamer was eventually donated back to the City, and in the early 1980s the Valdez Fire Department and the Valdez Museum began restoration. Restoration was accomplished by over 30 volunteers led by Fireman Andy Swift and Fire Chief Tom McAlister, and guided by restorer Ken Soderbeck. The project took nearly two years and cost $25,000. Most of the labor was volunteered.