Early firefighting rig.

Hall of Flame

Field review by the editors.

Phoenix, Arizona

The world's largest collection of firefighting equipment has a surprisingly waggish name -- the "Hall of Flame." It's in Phoenix, but not because Phoenix has a lot of fires, or because the temperature outside sometimes feels char-broiling. The Hall of Flame isn't even associated with the Phoenix fire department. It's here because it was the private collection of George F. Getz, Jr., wealthy son of a Chicago coal baron, and when he retired to Arizona in the early 1970s, he took his fire engines with him. According to Hall of Flame director Pete Molloy, "firefighters come here from all over the world, but people in town don't even know we exist."

Gas masks and helmets displayed.

The Hall of Flame is a series of large, open galleries packed with fire-fighting rigs, some that date back centuries. A sign next to the 1725 Newsham fire engine notes that it was built over 80 years before there were fire hoses, so we guess that it wasn't particularly effective. Still, one can trace the evolution of the fire engine, from pipsqueak hand-drawn carts to behemoth V-16 aerial ladder trucks that needed a second driver to steer the rear around corners.

Almost all of this equipment is displayed in its original spit-polish glamor. Firefighters were pimping their rides long before it became fashionable on MTV, with elaborate hand-painted scrollwork on the horse-drawn rigs, and yards of gaudy chrome on the modern engines. Pete tells us that fire companies sometimes spent thousands of dollars on such decorative options as a big, clangy bell. Consequently, most fire engines -- despite their hard jobs -- are kept in excellent shape. "You don't see them rotting away like a school bus," Pete said.

Vintage equipment.

A brisk walk through the exhibit halls takes you past dozens of ladder wagons, parade carriages, hose wagons, chemical wagons, steam powered pumpers.

There's a 1961 Mercedes-Metz all-terrain fire engine, a pint-sized 1948 Jeep fire engine, a 1890 horse drawn fire sled from the snowy Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A sign next to one hand-pumper claims that it was used to fight the Great Chicago Fire, while another calls attention to its vehicle's rubberized canvas windshield.

The Safety House.

All of the engines, with the exception of one that you can climb on, are protected by "keep-off" chains strung between fire hydrants.

Lining the walls and tucked into spaces among the vehicles are ladders, axes, gas masks, badges, helmets (including some from Kaiser-era Europe with fancy spikes and tassels), hundreds of fire extinguishers, thousands of patches.

An escape trampoline hangs from one wall, firehouse alarm room equipment fills a gallery, while another is dedicated to smokejumpers and has a replica lookout cabin. Skinny showroom dummies throughout the museum are hopelessly overmatched by their bulky leather and rubber firefighting gear.

One gallery features a two-room "Safety House" with warning signs affixed everywhere, flagging perils such as cracked wire insulation and exposed electrical outlets. Next to it stands "Haz Place," a doll house that lights up where hazards lurk. And in a corner stands a well-traveled Smokey Bear costume -- used to entertain kids, we imagine -- with what appear to be burn holes in its muzzle. It looks like whoever was wearing it tried to get one puff too many out of a cigarette.

9/11 Memorial displays.

We ask Pete about the "Hall of Flame" name. It annoys him that people sometimes think lightly of the place because of it, and he recalls that it was once featured on the Jay Leno Show because "they thought it was gonna be something crazy and nutty" (Jay ended up liking the place anyway). Pete says that phone callers are occasionally confused -- "What are you, a restaurant?" -- and yet, despite the drawbacks, the museum has no plans to change its "Hall of Flame" name to something more conventional.

"We've been a Jeopardy question three times," Pete says, "and people always get it."

Hall of Flame

Address:
6101 East Van Buren St., Phoenix, AZ
Directions:
East edge of the city, between Tempe and Scottsdale. I-10 exit 153. North on Hwy 143/Hohokam Expy for two miles, then take exit 4 onto Washington St. East one mile, turn left onto 56th St., turn right onto Van Buren St. After you cross Galvin Pkwy. the road curves to the right; look for the Hall of Flame sign and exit to the right. Museum on right.
Hours:
M-Sa 9-5, Su 12-4 pm. (Call to verify)
Phone:
602-275-3473
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
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