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The History of the Edward M. Cotter Fireboat

By: Kyle Wekenmann

The Edward M. Cotter Fireboat on Full Display

Photo credit: Discover716


A cherry-red vessel with white highlights and equipped with a handful of water canons, the Edward M. Cotter fireboat is certainly a source of pride for Buffalonians everywhere.

The steel boat is 118 feet long and has an icebelt around the hull that is a rather considerable 1.5 inches thick – this powerhouse can make ice that’s up to 20 inches thick crumble under its might! To see more specifics of the Cotter, this article is a good place to go, courtesy buffaloah.com.

In addition to all of that, it is also the oldest active fireboat in the world today, at the spry age of 123 years old. As such, the Edward M. Cotter has quite a rich history.

The fireboat was built in 1900 and cost $91,000. If it were to be built today – accounting for inflation – that would be around $3.2 million!

At the time of its construction, the boat wasn’t originally named the Edward M. Cotter; that name came quite a bit later. Rather, it was dubbed the W.S. Grattan, after the Fire Commissioner at the time.

And although it was built for the Fire Department in Buffalo, the Grattan was constructed and launched in Elizabethport, New Jersey. According to the E.M. Cotter Conservancy, the boat was officially christened by Viginia Pearson, who was the daughter of Buffalo’s Fire Commissioner.

To see it off was a crowd that numbered 1,000. Among them were Buffalo’s own Mayor Diehl, W.S. Grattan himself, Buffalo’s Fire Commisioners, Master Mechanic David Owen, and Chief B.S. McConnell.

The trip up to Buffalo was estimated to take 3 weeks, but it certainly had its troubles along the way.

One such trouble was a leak found in an exhaust pipe. This article from the Buffalo History Gazette, which includes an original New York Times article dated Sept. 2, 1900 about the launching of the ship itself, is rich with more Ship Log entries and history.

Despite the troubles, the Grattan overcame all obstacles and trials finally arrived at Buffalo on November 6th. Over the next few weeks, tests had to be run and adjustments made.

After one final test, the Grattan was put into service on November 15th. The captain at the time, David Welch, who not only brought the ship to Buffalo, but also oversaw the construction in New Jersey, and continued to captain the ship until the early 1920’s.

Finally in our great city during a time in which our industry was booming, the Grattan proved to be an invaluable asset and a bulwark for the shoreline warehouses and grain elevators.

Unfortunately, battling fires and responding to emergencies puts everyone and everything in danger – ship and crew alike.

In 1928, while responding to a fire on an oil barge by the name of The James F. Cahill, the Grattan and many other fire departments fought the flames for over 15 hours. After an empty oil tanker – The B.B. McColl – caught fire and exploded, the Grattan soon became set ablaze as well.

Now engulfed by flames, the crew was forced to abandon ship and swim to shore. Unfortunately, Chief Engineer Thomas Lynch perished, while seven others were injured. With nobody to watch the 2 coal boilers that the Grattan was equipped with, the boat was claimed by the raging inferno.

As if imbued with our famed Buffalo spirit, the Grattan was still salvageable in spite of the heavy damage that it sustained; after 18 months of deciding whether to replace the ship (costing $225,000) or rebuild it (costing $99,000), the Grattan was rebuilt in 1930, during which improvements were made.

Now better than ever, the vessel returned to action in 1954. That was also the same year that the Grattan was renamed Firefighter, which then became The Edward M. Cotter in 1955 in honor of the recently deceased firefighter and leader of the local firefighters union.

As if bouncing back from such a disaster wasn’t enough, the Cotter wasn’t done yet.

On October 7, 1960, the Cotter assisted in fighting a fire in Ontario’s Port Colborne, being escorted by the U.S. Coast Guard. The vessel made history as the first U.S. fireboat to cross an international border to help another country.

Then, in 1996, the Cotter was designated as a National Historic Landmark.

And now, the Cotter can be seen still putting out fires and breaking ice, as well as visiting several celebrations in the City of Good Neighbors.

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