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Both a museum and working fireboat, 116-year-old Edward M. Cotter needs TLC

In the shadow of the Michigan Avenue Lift Bridge, close to the Cobblestone District and across the Buffalo River from RiverWorks and the General Mills cereal plant rests one of Buffalo's most beloved attractions.

The Fireboat Edward M. Cotter is both a National Historic Landmark and Engine 20, a working piece of fire apparatus. The 118-foot-long steel-hulled boat, moored at 155 Ohio St. at Michigan,  is ready to draft water from the river and train its five spectacular turret guns on waterside blazes, as it did at the spectacular Concrete Central fire of May 27, 2013.

From stem to stern, from the keel to the tower that raises the back turret gun about 15 feet off the  main deck, the Cotter is a painted, polished, humming  testimony to the skills of its crews through the years, including Captain John D. Sixt III and Jack Kelleher, fire department marine engineer. Besides those two Buffalo Fire Department employees, a group of volunteers tend to the Cotter and serve as crew  when it goes out. Its supporters recently formed a new group, the Fireboat E.M. Cotter Conservancy Inc., to raise money to repair and preserve the Cotter.

[Photo Gallery: A closer look at the Edward M. Cotter]

Although the Cotter has been held together by constant maintenance work, it needs extensive repairs to its hull and engines and new propellers and shafts. The work is estimated to cost half a million dollars. The Conservancy and the City of Buffalo are discussing how to use money raised by the Conservancy to pay for these repairs and what resources the city might provide. The Conservancy has pledged to  $25,000 a year to pay for the boat's upkeep.

The Cotter is valued as a working fireboat and as a museum that is open for tours by appointment. The boat is taken to the Port Colborne Canal Days Marine Heritage Festival every year to recall its response on Oct. 7, 1960, when the Cotter was called to assist with the Maple Leaf Milling Co, grain elevators fire. In doing so, the Cotter was believed to be the first fireboat to cross an international boundary to fight a fire.

The Cotter, which can pump as much water as about 11 pumpers, "is absolutely our first line of defense in case of a large industrial fire along the waterfront, the grain silos or any of the other industry there," said Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. "But don't forget all the residential development that is going on there too. Our waterfront is being developed as it's never been before."

The Cotter also works as an icebreaker in winter and spring, clearing the Buffalo River and keeping ice from jamming the Cazenovia and Buffalo creeks and causing extensive flooding. Whitfield Jr. estimated that hiring an icebreaker to prevent flooding from those creeks would cost between $20,000 and $30,000 a day.

"As wonderful a piece of apparatus as it is for us, as historic as it is, don't diminish its importance as an icebreaker," he said.

Conservancy supporters hope to raise the Cotter's profile with visits to Canalside and other promotions as the boat's 116th birthday approaches next month. In the meantime, the Conservancy is selling an assortment of items, ranging from from T-shirts to Cotter charms and challenge coins cast from brass that was once on the boat. They are available from Wickenheiser by calling 741-9276.

It was built in 1900 and has had three names: the William S. Grattan until 1953, when it was briefly named The Firefighter, then renamed the Edward M. Cotter to honor the president of Buffalo Firefighters' Local 282. It is believed to be the oldest working fireboat in the world.

A group of volunteers is led by President Sanford Beckman, vice president Ron Endle, secretary Mark C. Butler and treasurer Charles Wickenheiser, and the group is supported by the Fire Bell Club of Buffalo, the Buffalo Fire Historical Museum, Union Local 282 and WNY Retired Firefighters.  Cotter Captain Sixt, Buffalo Commissioner of Fire Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. and Local 282 President Thomas Barrett are ex-officio directors of the Conservancy.


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