Wednesday, May 22, 2013
PORTLAND - For Paul Mesuk, a longtime firefighter from Bloomfield, N.J., the allure of the bright red pumper, converted to a sightseeing vehicle, was too much to pass up.
Ken Araujo and his family, residents of Acushnet, Mass., ride aboard a converted 1971 International Harvester fire truck on Friday during a tour conducted by Tim Lambert of the Portland Fire Engine Co.
Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer
The International Harvester, which stops at the Spring Street Fire Museum on Wednesday and Friday afternoons, makes its way along Commercial Street.
"When I saw the antique firetruck, I had to check it out," said Mesuk. "I think it's a great idea. It's unusual."
He was referring to one of the newest tourist attractions on the city's waterfront, the Portland Fire Engine Co. The converted pumper seats 12 and offers an hour-long ride through the city, with a guide pointing out modern attractions and the sites of historic events.
At the same time, historic pictures of the city -- including dramatic images from after the Great Fire of 1866 -- play on a flat screen affixed to the back of the truck's cab.
Like Chicago and San Francisco, Portland has a rich fire history dating to the Revolutionary War.
"The city almost burned down completely four times," said the truck's owner and the entrepreneur behind the fire tours, Keith Nuki. "The conflagration in 1866 was the biggest until the Chicago fire."
The city also has a heroic firefighting tradition, dating to when those devastating fires were fought with horse-drawn hand pumpers and leather buckets.
Nuki has been working on Portland's waterfront for the past 10 summer tourist seasons. In years past, he has taken pictures of people headed out on tours, offering to sell the images as souvenirs.
While waiting for potential customers, he had time to devise a business plan of his own.
Nuki said he likes fire engines and figured other people do as well. "I just thought it would fit in, and it kind of does," he said.
Over the winter he spotted, on the Internet, a 1971 International harvester Fleetstar with 55,000 miles on it.
Center Harbor, on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, had sold the old pumper to a collector, who ran it in parades and then sold it to a man who tried to start a tour company similar to the current operation.
Nuki bought it. Without divulging the sale price, he noted that firetrucks of similar vintage cost about $10,000. Then there's thousands of dollars for retrofitting.
The pumper's large water tank was removed and bench seats were installed. The gasoline engine gets three to four miles per gallon, he said.
On its own, the fire engine is a draw, for kids and fire buffs alike. Black-and-yellow jackets, reminiscent of firefighters' turnout gear, are kept on board in case of heavy rain.
Mesuk admired the truck as he and his family took in Portland as part of a weeklong Maine vacation. "It seems like a great learning experience," he said of the tour.
His wife, Elaine, liked the truck's emblem, the Maltese Cross of the fire service -- with a silhouette of a lobster in the center.
Nuki doesn't have a firefighting background, but said he has great admiration for the work. He said it can be a powerful story to show images made just days after the Great Fire of 1866, then show the tools those firefighters had.
The tour stops at the Spring Street Fire Museum when it's open, on Wednesday and Friday afternoons. The museum, maintained by the Portland Veteran Firemen's Association, includes artifacts from the city's firefighting heritage.
Michael Daicy, historian for the Portland Fire Department, said the tours give the museum exposure, though they don't provide enough time to fully appreciate the extensive collection.
When the museum isn't open, the tour visits the Narrow Gauge Railroad museum, giving kids a place to stretch their legs and absorb some railroad history.
On a tour Friday morning, Ken Araujo of Acushnet, Mass., rode with his 2-year-old daughter, Kerrin, on his lap, his son Connor, 9, alongside him. His wife, Caitlyn, and daughter Kailey, 6 sat opposite.
They bounced as the red tanker rumbled up Munjoy Hill, its shock absorbers not designed for passengers' comfort. Tour guide Tim Lambert grabbed the striker of the brass bell to keep it from ringing as the truck bounced over railroad tracks and paving stones.
Lambert regaled the family with stories of battles between the British and Americans, his voice amplified over the roar of the truck's engine. Normally, the city's harbor and scenery would merit attention, but it was invisible through Friday's fog.
Rolling along Congress Street, Lambert pointed out City Hall, which is due to celebrate its 100th anniversary this year -- an earlier incarnation burned in 1909 even though it was supposedly fireproof, he said.
Araujo, on his first trip to Portland, said afterward the tour is a good way to learn about the city.
"If you go on a fire engine, especially for the kids, it gives them something more to do," he said.
Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: