Gertrude's Story

  • By Mike Britt, California Fire Museum

    On October 25, 2009, after a two-year effort, the California Fire Museum acquired a former Orange County Fire Department 1948 GMC/ORCO-CDF shop built fire engine which has been serving the Holy Jim Volunteer Fire Department since being donated to them by the OCFD in 1981. By working cooperatively together, CFM, the Holy Jim VFD and the Orange County Fire Authority were able to arrange for Holy Jim to receive a surplus OCFA brush engine (one of the 1990 GMC/Fire-Bann Type-3 units) so that Holy Jim VFD could in-turn donate the 1948 GMC pumper to CFM, without losing a fire suppression resource for the remote and isolated canyon community.

    Originally assigned Orange County Shop Number 5137, the 1948 GMC has a long history with the Orange County Fire Department, serving at a number of stations over the years. Those include: Red Hill (ORC Sta 21), the Orange County Airport (former ORC Sta. 17), Doheny (ORC station 29), Sunset Beach (ORC Sta 3) and South Laguna (former ORC Sta. 6). In her second life, this rig served the Holy Jim VFD very well, and was fondly nicknamed "Gertrude" by the volunteers. Most of the Holy Jim folks were excited about receiving their new engine, while at the same time, sad to see old "Gertrude" leave the canyon for the last time. But they were happy to know she will be preserved in a fire museum with recognition of their time with the old gal.

    Why was CFM so determined to save Gertrude? "Because she is more than just a one-of-a-kind rig - she is an important piece of Orange County fire service history. She helps us understand the evolution of firefighting in the county as it changed from mostly rural to mostly urban over the last 60 years.

    To understand how and why "Gertrude" was built the way she was, it first helps to understand a little bit of Orange County fire history itself.

    In the years immediately following WWII, there really was no such thing as the Orange County Fire Department. Fire suppression in the county's mostly rural unincorporated areas was provided by the California Division of Forestry and a group of cooperative volunteer fire departments which recruited their own members and elected their own chiefs.

    Some of these were locally formed and had their own board of directors elected by the area residents, others were established by the county itself. All were eventually brought under the administration of the Orange County Board of Supervisors (the last one being Emerald Bay VFD in 1951). The primary reason for this was so that the volunteers would be covered by the county's insurance and state disability. There was no thought of establishing a "county fire department" at that time. Instead, the Board of Supervisors contracted with the CDF to oversee the management, training and operations of these volunteer departments. The county also provided at least one pumper and equipment such as hose and nozzles. If the volunteers raised half the funds to purchase a rescue squad, the county would match the amount.

    Prior to 1947, the typical fire engine that the county provided to the volunteer stations was a commercial chassis (Ford, Chevrolet, GMC, or REO) with the front-mounted Barton pump of about 150 GPM. While these early pumpers "got the job done" they were woefully inadequate for working structure fires and also lacked the ability to pump-and-roll that the state forestry rigs had. Therefore, in 1948, the county began to put in service pumpers that had skid-mounted pumps capable of up to 750 gpm, driven by a secondary motor located immediately behind the cab. Based on old shop records, "Gertrude" was the first of several of this type of pumper put in service by the county in the late 1940's and early 1950's.

    According to the builder's plate, "Gertrude" is in fact a 1947 GMC cab and chassis, powered by a 248 c.i. gasoline engine. However, the fire engine body was not begun until 1948, which is also when she was first registered with the DMV. From what we have been able to find out, the hose-bed body was fabricated all or in part by an unknown local company. Then the Hale 750 GPM pump, Chrysler 232 c.i., 6-cylinder flathead engine (to drive the pump), 500 gallon tank and hose-bed body were assembled onto the chassis in the old Water Street shops in Orange. For some reason, assembly of the rig took months to complete. She finally went into service in June, 1949, when she was delivered to the Red Hill VFD and became their first pumper. The Red Hill volunteers had organized on October 7, 1948 and were supposed to get their pumper in January, 1949, but instead waited eight months before receiving Gertrude.

    In the early days, the County of Orange VFD's were not numbered (they went by their names) and the county-owned fire units were numbered by the CDF plan: each rig was assigned a "firetruck" number for the life of the unit. Unit numbering had absolutely nothing to do with station assignment until 1967 when all ORCO rigs were renumbered to correspond with the station numbers. What station numbers?

    The numbers had absolutely nothing to do with the order in which the stations went in service, but were randomly assigned as radio identifiers when the county installed the old 46 MHz base station radios, completed in 1952. This is the subject of an entirely separate future article, but will help explain why "Gertrude" was designated as Firetruck number 23 (1923), even though she was never assigned to Villa Park (ORC Sta.23), which was not activated until 1961. As "9123," she served at Stations 21, 27, 29 and 3, but she never ran as Engine 21, 27, 29 or 3. Got that?!

    in 1950, Gertrude got to move into her first permanent quarters when Red Hill VFD's

    Red Hill Volunteersadobe brick station was completed on Newport Avenue. [The photo to the right shows the members of the Red Hill Volunteer Fire Dept. inspecting their newly delivered GMC pumper, inside the garage of the Golden West Packing House on Newport Avenue in Tustin, June 1949. Photo from the collection of Mike Britt.]

    In 1951 Redhill added a GMC squad and that was followed by a 1952 GMC/FMC pumper, which was one of the county's first "heavy" engines (with a higher-capacity pump integrated into the hose-bed body and driven off the vehicle engine via a transfer case). This pumper literally moved Gertrude to the back of the station as the second-roll engine. In 1956, Redhill got a new 1000 GPM Seagrave pumper and Gertrude said goodbye to Redhill. That same year, the Orange County Airport station was activated, and Gertrude had the honor of not only being the Airport station's first pumper, but also being the first unit to have a full-time county crew assigned to her.

    The Airport got a new engine in 1958 and soon Gertrude was headed south to Capistrano Beach to serve as the first pumper at the newly formed Doheny Volunteer station. Gertrude must have liked being near the beach, because by 1964 she was serving at Sunset Beach (ORC Sta. 3), and later she went to South Laguna as their second roll engine. It was at South Laguna where where she got her number changed from 9123 to 9206.

    The June 1975 issue of the Orange County FD "Code 20" newsletter has this report from South Laguna: "9206 (1948 GMC) cracked a head and was relieved by the newest International Van Pelt, which immediately developed transmission trouble. Oh well, we didn't need a second roll unit anyway." Gertrude was repaired and put back in service as 9206, but her days as a regular in-service unit were numbered. The Nov-Dec 1975 issue of "Code 20,' page 10 reported: "Old 9206, a 1948 GMC 750 was replaced with a Ford Howe 1000 gpm pumper."

    Shop 5137 was listed as a relief engine during the mid and late 1970's, but does not appear on the 12-31-80 OCFD Apparatus Assignment List, under any station or the list of relief apparatus. Presumably Gertrude had already been surveyed during 1980. However, thanks to the formation of the Holy Jim VFD, Gertrude was saved from going to auction and possibly the scrap heap, and instead given a new life up in the Cleveland National Forest. And now, after more than 60 years in service, she begins her third career - as a part of CFM.

    Mike Britt is a fire service historian, CFM advisory board member, Webmaster for the Crown Firecoach Enthusiasts club, former Riverside County dispatcher, and owner of a 1966 Crown pumper, ex-Orange County FD shop 5157 (aka 9019).

    Editor's Note:

    CFM member Brian Grimes has transported the 48 GMC to his home in Big Bear, CA where he is doing some much needed maintenance and restoration. He is also storing the rig inside until we have our building where we can display it. By storing the rig at his home he can work on it from time to time as his schedule permits. Over time he will repair any rusted out places and make it ready for a new paint job. Brian is a former member of the Holy Jim VFD so he is familiar with Gertrude and is very happy to be able to work with CFM on her restoration. He has already made some repairs to the brakes and some oil leaks. A big thanks goes to Brian for taking on the restoration project to this great piece of Orange County Fire Services history. We have a lot of history and photos that will add to the exhibit of this rig. We also want to thank the Holy Jim VFD for making this donation to the CFM possible. They are excited about being a part of the historical story on this vintage fire engine.

More About Gertrude

Gertrude has the honor of being the oldest fire engine (in Orange County) 
still in front line service until 
October of 2009.


Gertrude at work

Gertrude at Work


In October 2009, we welcomed the new Wildland Engine and decommissioned Gertrude. Fire Chief Dave Niederhaus drove her out the canyon for the last time. With the help of many people, she was loaded onto a flat bed and moved to a temporary location in Big Bear, CA. We look forward to seeing her again one day at the California Fire Museum.