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The History of Fireboats in Chicago

Fireboats have played a significant role in Chicago’s history, providing vital support to the city’s firefighting efforts, particularly along its extensive waterfronts. The need for fireboats in Chicago became evident in the late 19th century as the city experienced rapid industrialization and a boom in maritime activity. With bustling ports, large warehouses, and wooden infrastructure along the riverbanks and Lake Michigan shoreline, the risk of fires was considerable.

Chicago’s first fireboat, the “Geyser,” was commissioned in 1877, just six years after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The catastrophic blaze, which destroyed much of the city, underscored the need for better firefighting capabilities. The “Geyser” was designed to pump water from the Chicago River directly onto fires, allowing firefighters to battle blazes from a strategic position on the water. Its introduction marked a significant advance in the city’s ability to control fires, particularly those along the waterfront.

The Fred A. Busse Is Born

Over the years, Chicago continued to invest in its fleet of fireboats, adapting to technological advancements and evolving firefighting needs. In the early 20th century, additional fireboats were added to the fleet, each with increased pumping capacity and improved maneuverability. 

The Fred A. Busse was built in Bay City, Michigan in 1936. The boat was named for the 39th Mayor of Chicago, who served as Mayor from 1907 until 1911. It was placed into service with the Chicago Fire Department May 4, 1937, and at that time was the largest diesel powered Fireboat in the world. It was built specifically for Chicago to fit underneath the cities bridges, minimizing response times for emergencies and to help ease congestion in a booming city.

With 4 water pumps onboard, the boat was rated for a combined 10,000 gallons per minute and could spray water up to 27 stories high. The boat served valiantly and responded to countless emergencies, before finally retiring from the Fire Department in 1981.

Fred A. Busse Specifications

Date built: 1936
In Service: 1937 to 1981
Gross Tons: 99
Length: 90 feet
Beam: 22 feet, 4 inches
Approximate Draft: 5 feet, 5 inches
Capacity: 127 passengers
Hull: Steel
Propulsion: Twin Screw, Detroit Diesel 8V71 Engines

Fred A. Busse fighting a fire at 320 N LaSalle, January 12, 1951.
Fred A. Busse fighting a fire along with her sister ship the Joseph Medill.