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. 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.
- Charles McMullen (1) was born on 6 September 1868 at Hartford, Connecticut to John McMullen and Ellen Laycock, both immigrants from Ireland. 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.
- 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. 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!
- 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. 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.)
- Walter Wilfred Gobeille (4) was born 8 December 1878 at Rhode Island to Augustus Gobeille and Delina Girouard of Quebec, Canada. 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.
 “Department History 1835-1889,” Woonsocket, Rhode Island, https://www.woonsocketri.org/fire-department/pages/department-history. Accessed 3 May 2019.
 1910 U.S. Federal Census, Woonsocket Ward 1 (Providence County, R.I.), Charles McMullen household, sheet no. 9A.
 Chelmsford, Massachusetts, birth record, Henry Ellsworth Orchard, born 7 February 1863.
 1900 U.S. Federal Census, Woonsocket Ward 1, Henry Orchard household, sheet no. 17B.
 1910 U.S. Federal Census, Woonsocket Ward 1, Eleanor James household, sheet no. 7B.
 U.S. World War I Draft Registration Cards (Woonsocket), Walter Wilfred Gobielle.
 1910 U.S. Federal Census, Woonsocket Ward 1, Walter W. Goheillo [sic] household, sheet no. 14A.
6 thoughts on “The Jeffers Engine”
Things like this are an important part of genealogy. People form communities, and interact within those communities. I am related to none of these men, but knowing that, though from very different bckgrounds, they associated with one another in this community organization tells me something about the community itself. I know many of my ancestors, male and female, participated in community organizations like this, but I need to learn more about the organizations themselves and how the people in them fit together. This is rather exciting, now that you’ve got me thinking about it! I’ll probably end up belonging to dozens of small town historical societies, looking for information. I’ll add as an aside that I live in a Vermont town that still has an all-volunteer fire crew, and a volunteer ambulance and EMT. Pretty amazing folks.
Given that Woonsocket was a major enclave for French Canadian families like my in-laws I was surprised there was only one Frenchman, Gobeiulle on the fire engine
This reminded me that my great grandfather, Charles Somers Miller of Waterbury CT, built a small fire engine that was sometimes displayed in parades (I have a photo), so I decided to search his online journals [http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/rak/gen/miller/CSM-ALL] for more information. He started the project with his sons in 1904 and mentions having it in a parae in 1937. I don’t know what became of it after he died in 1943, but assume/hope that it is in a museum somewhere in central CT,
I enjoyed your article and tracking down even the most elusive of these men. Just a not, not until I scrolled to the footnotes did I even imagine Woonsocket was in Rhode Island!
I especially enjoyed this article because the engine was built in my home town, Pawtucket, Rhode Island. As noted above, Woonsocket was heavily French Canadian, but I believe most of those immigrants, like both my maternal and paternal grandparents, didn’t immigrate until the 1920s. Woonsocket is the home of the American French Genealogical Society and library, one of the best reseach facilities on French Canadian ancestry.
Catherine, I was a Woonsocket Firefighter and have done some research on this steamer and its history. If you are still interested we could chat.