Trending Topics

The man behind firefighting’s first aerial truck

Many fire history buffs may recognize the Hayes Truck, but here’s a look at the man who brought the aerial rig to life

Firefighters by their nature have had a knack for inventing tools for the job. And more often than not, the impetus for a creation is the lack of the right tools for the job, or the one available wasn’t good enough.

Some firefighters develop new tools like the Halligan Bar, but Daniel D. Hayes took firefighter innovation to new heights. Hayes invented and patented the first successful aerial ladder in the United States in 1868, just three years after the end of the Civil War.

Hayes was considered by many to be a firefighter with a machinist’s mind. He was a native New Yorker who served as an active firefighter for five years as a member of Engine Company No. 2 of the Volunteer Fire Department of New York, and for three additional years with Engine No. 42 of the same department. But it would be his talents as a machinist that would bring Hayes the most success in life.

Now this is where the Daniel Hayes story takes a twist because he would not make his mark as a fire apparatus innovator in his native New York. After eight years of serving as a volunteer firefighter in the Big Apple, Hayes went to work for the celebrated Amoskeag Steam Fire Engine Company of Manchester, N.H.

The Amoskeag Company was one of the largest textile mills in New England in the day. The Amoskeag Steam Fire Engine Company, a subsidiary, manufactured fire engines and horse-drawn carriages from 1859 to 1879.

Go west young man
In 1866, his bosses at Amoskeag placed Hayes in charge of the delivery of five Amoskeag steam fire engines that had been ordered by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for the Fire Department of San Francisco. The engines were the first fire apparatus ordered by the board in April 1866 in preparation for the advent of a paid fire department for the city.

After delivering and assembling the new apparatus for the city, the steam engines were ready for service when the new San Francisco Fire Department began operations in December 1866. Hayes was then offered — and accepted — the job of superintendent of steamers for the new fire department. He was the first man to fill that office and would serve the firefighters and residents of the city by the bay for 14 years.

Hayes was an inventive machinist in the San Francisco Fire Department repair shop and it would be there that he developed and patented the first successful aerial ladder in America in 1868. Hayes created this new type of fire apparatus — which would become widely known as the Hayes Truck — by mounting an extension ladder to the top of a ladder truck; a spring-assist mechanism raised the ladder into its elevated position.

The San Francisco Fire Department bought the original Hayes Truck for $3,000 and great things were expected of it. As with many innovations in the fire service, the aerial ladder was relegated to a back seat in the department’s operational scheme. Also, as is the case with many inventions, it would take an extraordinary event for naysayers to see the light.

The Harpending block fire in 1871 (a fire that would account for almost the entire property loss from fire for the city) and the disastrous failures of the ladders then in use stirred up a storm of indignation at the ineffectiveness of the equipment of the department.

The turning point
The department’s chief engineer, David Scannell, submitted a report on July 1, 1872 to the San Francisco Fire Department to the Board of Supervisors. In part it read:

“After carefully weighing all the facts and taking into consideration the peculiar character of the building, and the opportunity afforded for the spread of the flames by the peculiar construction of the upper portion of the block where the fire originated, I am of the opinion that had the department been supplied with ladders of sufficient length to reach the upper floors, and had the supply of water been ample when the department arrived on the ground, a portion of the block might have been saved.

“I will add, that in my opinion the Hayes Truck, which has been recently put in condition for service, will remove one of the causes which lead to so disastrous a conflagration, as by the aid of this truck several streams can be placed in position on the roof of the highest building in the city in a very few minutes after its arrival at a fire.”

Chief Engineer Scannell’s words would turn out to be very prophetic. On July 4, 1872, the year following the Harpending block fire, the fire department took part in the parade. The Hayes Truck, which had been assigned to Engine No. 1, was in the procession.

An alarm was turned in and Chief Engineer Scannell ordered Engine No. 1 to the scene of the fire. Hayes took charge of his truck at this fire and demonstrated beyond all shadow of a doubt the superior operational capabilities of his apparatus. From that time, the Hayes truck became a staple of the SFFD and its reputation would quickly spread across the country.

Long reach
According to the Los Angeles Fire Department, Hayes made a sales pitch to that city on Jan. 28, 1884 for a Hayes Truck with an extension ladder to reach 65 feet. The truck was outfitted with, among other things, four leather fire buckets and four pitchforks. On June 2, 1884, Los Angeles accepted his proposal and bought the truck for $2,750.

This aerial ladder invention by Hayes revolutionized the use of ladders at fires. The Hayes ladder could be quickly raised to windows of burning buildings to rescue victims. The Hayes ladder would soon become an important piece of fire apparatus in major cities across the United States, including Hayes’ native New York City. The San Francisco Fire Department continued to use the Hayes-designed aerial ladder until the late 1950s.

The reputation of the Hayes Truck and its inventor was not confined to this country. Superintendent Eyre Massey Shaw, founder and first captain of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (now the London Fire Brigade), saw the Hayes Truck and was so struck with its usefulness and effectiveness that he bought one for the brigade back in London.

Daniel Hayes would move on from San Francisco and return to the eastern United States where he would become a representative for the LaFrance Company of Elmira, N.Y., the builders of the LaFrance fire engine.

In his day, Hayes’ ingenuity and the importance of his invention were substantially recognized. Looking back from today, the story of Hayes and his truck is a rich example of the yearning for improvement and zest for invention that typified late 19th century America, and continues today in firefighters across the United States.

What will we come up with next?

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.