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Fodder for the Cotter: historic fireboat to get $500,000 in repairs

The fire-engine red Edward M. Cotter — believed to be the oldest active fireboat in the world — has been putting out fires and breaking up ice for 118 years.

But while the hardworking, steel-hulled Cotter is freshly painted every year and receives regular maintenance, it is in need of an overhaul.

On Monday, Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, will announce a $500,000 state grant to get the city-owned boat back in tip-top shape.

That will include basic hull repairs, including possibly replacing some of the steel plates and replacing shafts, props, rudder bearings and sea chest valves. A thickness test for the steel will also be conducted.

The maintenance is music to marine engineer John Kelleher's ears.

Kelleher said the boat is supposed to get fully serviced every five years, but it hasn't happened for ten years.

"I'm happy they finally found some money for it," Kelleher said. "I've been piecing it together for the last five years and asking for money, so it's a nice Christmas present."

Ryan said he felt an urgency to help the boat, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996.

"It's a working piece of history, and by putting in these repairs we will reboot this boat for a generation and bring it back up to current maritime standards," Ryan said.

The assemblyman has a personal connection to the Cotter. His late father, firefighter Jim Ryan, spent his last year in the Buffalo Fire Department working on the boat. As a youngster, Ryan rode with him when the pumps were tested one spring.

This year also marks the 100th anniversary that the Cotter was moored near the Michigan Avenue Lift Bridge at Ohio Street and Michigan Avenue, behind the DL&W Terminal. It's next to a small fire house built at that time.

Kelleher said the hull's 1.5-inch thickness allows it to push through two feet of ice. By comparison, icebreakers that go to the North and South Poles have a thickness of 2 inches, he said. The boat measures 118 feet long, 26 feet wide and 14 feet down.

The Cotter's range extends from the Tesla plant in South Buffalo to just past the Coast Guard base on the northern end of the Outer Harbor.

The boat clears the Buffalo River and keeps ice from clogging Buffalo and Cazenovia creeks in the spring.

The Fire Department has estimated it would cost $20,000 to $30,000 a day to hire an icebreaker that does the work of the Cotter.

The boat can also pump as much water as 11 pumpers to put out fires on or near the river.

Kelleher said he's looking forward to getting the boat in dry dock to make the needed repairs.

The Cotter will be ready to do what it does best after that occurs.

"I tell people it's older than the Titanic, still floats and has been breaking ice for 118 years," Kelleher said.

"With everything going on with all the history, we gotta keep her going," he said.

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