The Jeffers Engine

The Jeffers Engine sits in the basement of Station 2 of the Woonsocket Fire Department, covered in dust and surrounded by workout equipment. Built by William Jeffers of Pawtucket, pulled first by hand, then by horse, and now missing its pump, the first steam fire engine the department purchased in 1872 is a far cry from the massive engines in the garage above.[1] Something in the large red wheels and the big dull water drum shares their spirit, though. It too once raced through the streets of Woonsocket towards scenes of danger, carrying fire fighters just as determined to save lives and livelihoods as those who serve today.

A hint of the glory days of the Jeffers Engine can be seen in a photograph from 1908. One of many historic Fire Department photographs now held by the Woonsocket Historical Society, this neatly-labeled photo shows the Jeffers Engine standing in the yard with a crew of four men. With a bit of digging in the census records and city directories, we can learn the full names and something of the lives of these men. At least three of them were first-generation Americans, and they all held many jobs over the course of their lives. At least some of their time was spent atop this steam engine.

  1. Charles McMullen (1) was born on 6 September 1868 at Hartford, Connecticut to John McMullen and Ellen Laycock, both immigrants from Ireland.[2] He married Amy Hunt and had one son, George. He was 40 when this picture was taken and served with the Woonsocket Fire Department until about 1930.
  2. Henry F. Ellsworth Orchard (2) was born on 7 February 1863 at Framingham, Massachusetts to William Orchard and Ellen Holtham, both of them English immigrants.[3] He married Annie Laura Leedham in 1887 and they had several children. Henry was unemployed in 1900 when the census was taken, but by 1910 he was a foreman for the Fire Department![4]
  3. J. James (3) was the most elusive of the men in this photograph, but he might be John James who was widowed and living with his daughter, Grace, in his unmarried sister Eleanor’s house in 1910.[5] His occupation is given as house painter on the Census, but firefighting was not a full-time or long term occupation in the early twentieth century. (It often still isn’t.)
  4. Walter Wilfred Gobeille (4) was born 8 December 1878 at Rhode Island to Augustus Gobeille and Delina Girouard of Quebec, Canada.[6] He married the Canadian-born Amelia Vanasse, and they had three children. The youngest of the men in this photo, he served with the Fire Department for over a decade.[7]


[1] “Department History 1835-1889,” Woonsocket, Rhode Island, Accessed 3 May 2019.

[2] 1910 U.S. Federal Census, Woonsocket Ward 1 (Providence County, R.I.), Charles McMullen household, sheet no. 9A.

[3] Chelmsford, Massachusetts, birth record, Henry Ellsworth Orchard, born 7 February 1863.

[4] 1900 U.S. Federal Census, Woonsocket Ward 1, Henry Orchard household, sheet no. 17B.

[5] 1910 U.S. Federal Census, Woonsocket Ward 1, Eleanor James household, sheet no. 7B.

[6] U.S. World War I Draft Registration Cards (Woonsocket), Walter Wilfred Gobielle.

[7] 1910 U.S. Federal Census, Woonsocket Ward 1, Walter W. Goheillo [sic] household, sheet no. 14A.

Catherine Gaggioli

About Catherine Gaggioli

Catherine is a researcher at NEHGS. She received her Bachelor’s of Arts in History from Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and went on to earn a Master's of Library and Information Science in Archives Management and a Master's of Arts in History from Simmons College. Prior to NEHGS, Catherine worked for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries, where she scanned archival materials as a part of a large scale digitization project.View all posts by Catherine Gaggioli