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Buffalo's historic fireboat celebrates 116th year in service and many important roles

The Buffalo Fire Department

Buffalo's iconic fireboat – the Edward M. Cotter – has been defending against blazes all along the city's waterfront for over a century. This weekend, the boat’s 116th birthday was celebrated by hundreds of people. But what many of them may not know is that the boat serves as far more than just a tool for firefighters.

At the start of the last century, the Edward M. Cotter came into service (then under the name William S. Grattan). For 116 years, it’s been an invaluable asset to the city’s firefighters, and now holds the status of ‘world’s oldest working fireboat.’

“It’s a working piece of fire apparatus,” said Fireboat E.M. Cotter Conservancy President Sanford Beckman. “It’s protecting the waterfront area, and it’s still a valuable piece of equipment for the fire department.”

On deck, the boat’s four powerful fire pumps and many hose connections are capable of spouting 15,000 gallons of water per minute. If anything were to ever happen to the Colonel Ward Pumping Station in LaSalle Park, Beckman said the Cotter “has the capability of pumping water right from the lake into the pumping station.”

The Cotter was even considered for use in fighting this week’s massive blaze at the former Bethlehem Steel plant in the City of Lackawanna. Ultimately, fire officials decided it wouldn’t be logistically feasible.

The boat’s hull – originally made of Swedish steel – does more than just keep it afloat. In the city’s colder months, it’s used to break up the thick ice that forms along the Buffalo River, and protect Cheektowaga, West Seneca, and other areas upriver.

Credit emcotter.com / The Buffalo Fire Department
The Buffalo Fire Department
The Edward M. Cotter breaks ice built up in the Buffalo River.

“Once that river freezes over, there’s a chance of ice blockage, and that would cause extreme flooding,” said Beckman.

In addition to being the world’s oldest working fireboat, the Cotter also holds status as a National Historic Preservation Site and a floating museum. It’s a tough balance to maintain.

“It’s difficult,” said Beckman. “It’s one of the things that the conservancy has been trying to bring to the public – the fact that this museum that’s 116 years old is still a working fireboat, but it is available to people.”

Proving that point was part of the reason for this weekend’s festivities at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park.

On Saturday afternoon, a large crowd turned out for the boat’s birthday celebration. Beckman estimates 300 to 400 people were in attendance, along with City of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield, Fillmore District Common Council Member David Franczyk, and West Seneca Town Supervisor Sheila Meegan, who joined former Captain of the boat, Sam Guadagna, in cutting a ceremonial cake.

Credit Mayor Byron Brown / Twitter.com
City of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown (left) and Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield (right) join former Captain of the Edward M. Cotter, Sam Guadagna, in cutting a ceremonial birthday cake.

Following the celebration, the Cotter was opened to the public for tours from noon to 3 p.m., and again during those hours on Sunday. Beckman said the conservancy hopes to continue such tours during Western New York’s warmer seasons, and eventually expand its programming to become part of the curriculum in local classrooms. They even have an exact replica of the boat to show off to students.

“We’d like to get the school children informed about what the boat is,” said Beckman. “Since it’s so close and it will be open for tours and stuff, it’s one of those things that they can get a real hands-on experience.”

The conservancy hasn’t partnered with any local school districts or educational organizations yet, but Beckman notes that the organization is less than a year old. He said, “We’re still getting our feet wet.” Boat pun, perhaps, intended.

While the boat comes with big history and big plans for the future, it also needs some big repairs to stay in service and meet U.S. Coast Guard standards.

Credit emcotter.com / The Buffalo Fire Department
The Buffalo Fire Department
Engines below decks on the Edward M. Cotter drive the shafts and propellers that are in need of replacement.

“Primarily, it needs new shafts and propellers, in addition to some electrical work and some other stuff. We’ve been trying to raise funds,” said Beckman. “The bulk of the money, of course, will come from the city. They’ll provide the funding for it either through bonds or actual budget outlets.”

The big repairs will cost a minimum of $500,000. Then there’s the yearly upkeep costs of $25,000, which Beckman said the conservancy feels it can handle.

Anyone interested in helping the cause can make donations by mail to: Fireboat E.M. Cotter Conservancy, P.O. Box 4, Buffalo, NY, 14213. The conservancy will also be selling merchandise to raise funds throughout the year, and Beckman noted they make nice gifts for the holidays, while helping promote the boat.

Avery began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey for WRUB, the University at Buffalo’s student-run radio station.
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