The three-man crews manning the one-engine fire station on Balboa Island not only save lives, they save nearly a century of firefighting memorabilia.
The quaint station located at the southeast corner of Park and Marine serves as a home for one of the city’s most modern fire engines and a museum dedicated to the nostalgia of Newport Beach’s fire service.
When the station’s two-story roll-up doors lift, passers-by are treated to a remarkable show: a fully restored 1920 American La France triple-combination pumper that sits like a classic mechanical thoroughbred ready to break from the gates. It perpetually shines like a polished ruby—obviously the result of years of loving care and daily pride from the firefighters/caretakers who call that station home.
Fire Engineer Jeff Bogin, a firefighter for almost 25 years (12 in Los Angeles, before shifting “very happily” to Newport Beach) never tires of sharing the history of the Department with the countless people from all over the world who are “drawn as if by vacuum cleaner” to the museum.
When not responding to emergency calls and caring for and repairing equipment, Bogin and his crewmates become as much docents as firefighters. And they love it.
The ol’ fire engine still runs, although the pumps are disconnected, Bogin said. Other than being driven in the Balboa Island Parade, the American La France stays indoors. If it needs to go somewhere else, “we tow it,” Bogin shared.
Bogin explained that Newport Beach took possession of the dilapidated fire engine in 2000 when the Warmington family of Newport Beach donated it. Car restoration artisan Rick Poulsen spent more than two years rebuilding the pumper to better-than-original condition.
Poulsen and another city shop master, Andy Martinez, needed to fabricate many of the parts on the fire truck. One such example is the sun-bright radiator cap that Andy turned from a single block of brass.
Once the new coats of lacquer were applied, famed 50s and 60s hotrod pin-striper Bob Bondurant labored for eight days to apply bright painting and striping, using real 23-carat gold leaf.
“He slept here, often worked past midnight, or whenever he wanted to,” Bogin recalled of this famous free spirit, Incidentally, city firemen donated the $4,500 it took for the gold leaf.
The spark for the museum originated from retired Fire Engineer Mike J. Novak, described by his co-workers as a “rather shy man, who was an amazing photographer and a great writer with an (obvious) appreciation for the department.
Novak found thousands of historical pictures in countless forgotten boxes spread across six of the city’s eight stations, and brought them all together. The earliest artifact was from 1907.
“He had this idea that we had to share them with the public,” Bogin said. Another of Novak’s thoughts was to create plaques with the names of every past and current Newport firefighter. These polished brass nameplates glisten in military-like columns on the wall of the station’s stairwell. They keep company with more than 400 photos of heroes from yesteryear, most of whom likely would’ve been forgotten, save for this display.
“Mike still comes back to update the names,” Bogin shared.
Display cases and other wall mountings trace the evolution of Newport’s fire department. Behind glass in one case rests a perfect scale model of the antique fire engine on display. It, too, looks ready to roll if summoned by the perfectly rebuilt street fire alarm “call box” that is anchored to the wall outside the station office.
The alarm actually served the community around the Los Angeles station at which the large American La France was poised in 1920. And it still works perfectly.
Other fascinating displays include a march of fire helmets, with one encased solo that was badly blistered from a fire-training accident years ago: static and dramatic proof of the type of dangers firefighters find themselves confronting.
Another classic-looking fire helmet is made of leather, perhaps one of only very few in existence. Adjacent rests some primitive life-saving equipment that in its day was state-of-the-art, and it’s all in perfect condition and waiting to be marveled at for its renovation and purpose.
In its earliest days, the Balboa Island Fire Station was situated up Marine Ave., toward the bridge, and served both as fire headquarters as well as a makeshift jail on Saturday nights.
Today, the only thing captured is one’s imagination.
If the doors are open, and they’re not on call, Shift Capt. Rick Zaccaro, Engineer Jeff Bogin, and newcomer firefighter Dustin Suppe say they’re more than happy to extinguish one’s curiosity about the history of the Newport Beach Fire Department.
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