Former Kenai Mayor John Williams is leading an effort to restore a World War II-era Kenai Fire Department engine.
Williams said he plans to put the city-owned fire truck’s pumps, tires, engine and chassis back in clean, working order, as well as repaint it to its original white color scheme and let it drive once again down the streets of Kenai.
“We hope to put it in fine mechanical running condition, and I’m going to drive it in (a) parade,” Williams said.
The Chevrolet truck that would become the Kenai Volunteer Fire Department’s Engine No. 3 was built in a General Motors plant in Tarrytown, New York in 1941, according to Williams’ research. It was sold to the U.S Army Quartermaster Corps. Williams said it likely ended up at Wildwood Airbase — the military airfield headquartered in the building that’s now Kenai’s Wildwood Correctional Complex — though he hasn’t confirmed this.
However the truck came to Alaska, Kenai bought it in the late 50s or early 60s. At that time, Williams said, the town’s volunteer fire department was based in the Old Town building now occupied by the Kenai Art Guild, which it shared with a city jail. By 1974 the town had grown large enough that the volunteer fire department had become full-time and professional. That year, the truck was donated to the village of Hope, replaced by a new American LaFrance engine.
Twenty years later, Williams was in his second term as mayor when a Kenai firefighter discovered the truck abandoned in the woods in Cooper Landing. At their Aug. 3, 1994 meeting, the Kenai City Council authorized a group to bring the truck back so the Kenai Fire Department could restore it. According to the meeting’s minutes, Kenai Fire Chief Dave Burnett was working on a deal to give training time to Cooper Landing firefighters in exchange for the truck. With the council’s authorization, council member Jim Bookey (uncle of present council member Terry Bookey and a former assistant fire chief) drove with Williams to Cooper Landing to retrieve the engine with Bookey’s lowboy trailer.
The restoration project, however, never came to fruition. Williams left the Kenai city government in 2005 to become Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor, and other restoration proponents also dropped out of city government.
“Jim Bookey retired from council and everything just went into static mode,” Williams said.
After sitting in Cooper Landing, the truck spent an additional 21 years sitting in a city shop yard in Kenai. A year ago, Williams re-discovered it.
“Last fall in 2015 I was out there wandering around, and lo and behold, I spot this truck,” Williams said. “It was still laying out there in the yard. So I said to a couple of people, ‘what’s going on with this thing?’ They didn’t know. It had been there as long as some of them had.”
Taking up the project again, Williams spoke to the city council about the fire engine in late 2015. He estimated restoration would cost around $30,000 total and requested a $10,000 contribution from the city council to match the funding he planned to raise himself. Other contributions, he said, could come via a grant he intended to seek from the Anchorage-based philanthropy group the Rasmuson Foundation.
The Kenai government met Williams’ request, though it took two tries.
The city’s fiscal year 2017 budget dedicated the requested $10,000 to the fire engine restoration. This funding was removed with a successful amendment by council member Terry Bookey during the June 1, 2016 meeting. Bookey said that although he supported the fire engine project, government funding wasn’t appropriate for it.
The donation was made at the following June 15 meeting via a resolution introduced by Knackstedt and council member Brian Gabriel. The resolution text noted that Williams had fundraised over $14,200 from individuals and businesses and had applied for a Rasmuson grant as he’d intended. The $10,000 that Knackstedt and Gabriel proposed to give was taken from an unspent remnant of the previous year’s budget (FY 2016) and would return to the general fund if not allocated. Bookey was the only council member to vote against the allocation.
At their meeting this week, the Kenai council will vote on whether to allocate another $3,500 share of funding — not city money this time, but from the Rasmuson Foundation — to the fire truck restoration.
As for the private share of the funds, Williams has received donations from individual donors such as Jim Bookey and relator Fred Braun, service clubs such as the Elks, the Eagles and the Pioneers of Alaska, organizations including the Kenai Historical Society and businesses including the IGA Country Foods supermarket and Schilling Rentals.
In addition to the money, donated labor is also going into the restoration. The body of the truck itself presently sits in the shop yard of Freddie Pollard, a co-owner with his son of Pollard Wireline, an oilfield support service company. Pollard restores old vehicles as a hobby and said Williams approached him about the fire truck after seeing a similar 1946 truck in Pollard’s collection. He and his staff are taking off the body panels and grillwork, sandblasting and priming them, and preparing to repaint them.
Pre-World War II vehicles, Pollard said, were built of higher-quality metal with a greater nickle content, which has helped the Kenai truck stay intact as long as it has.
“If this were a modern vehicle, and it’d been through what it’s been through, you could poke holes in it with your finger right now,” he said.
Pollard pointed out other features of the truck’s mid-20th century engineering: lacking a reliable electric system, the windshield wipers were driven by the vacuum of the engine’s pistons. When idling or going up a hill, the wipers would have slowed. The cabin heat vent opens directly into the engine compartment, and the gas tank is under the seat.
“Today’s cars are so compact, so crammed full of plastic,” Pollard said. “You raise the hood and you can’t even see the motor. Old cars, it’s a lot more plain… They were still learning how to make cars back then.”
While Pollard and another sandblaster, John Peterlink, work on the body and panels, the truck’s tires, engine and 300-gallon pump are both off in separate shops — Alyeska Tires is ordering new tires, the pump is being restored by Mike Schilling at the GLM Turbine machine shop and the engine is being fixed by John Mellish of Kenai’s RPM’s Auto Shop.
Mellish said RPM’s has worked before on engines from ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, but said the fire truck engine “is probably going to be pretty close to the oldest one we’ve worked on.”
“It’s interesting to see how they put things together, a little bit different ideas about the assembly and design of the engine,” Mellish said. “You got to remember what they had to work with back then, too, with precision, as against modern engines. There’s no comparison in bearing clearances and cylinder wall clearances.”
Such differences, Mellish said, are one of the enjoyable things about old machines.
“That’s the fun part of it,” he said. “You see it, and go ‘why did they do that?’ But then you figure, at the time, that was state of the art. It’s flying around in an old Spad fighter aircraft and then going and looking at an F-16.”
Knackstedt, speaking at the June 15 city council meeting, said hardware such as the truck is worth preserving.
“We don’t have much tangible history in Kenai,” Knackstedt said. “As far as tangible things you can point at, this fire truck is one of the few.”
“This is in remembrance of all those people who helped build the city and started the fire department and created what we have here,” Williams said. “We don’t have enough of that. I was young and most of us were too young to have worried about such things, but there are so many things I could tell you about that we should have saved, artifacts we should have saved and kept around and didn’t.”