A Mystery Photo. Is It a French Fire Engine? A French Locomotive? And What Is It Doing in Memphis?

This intriguing photo was circulating on eBay for a long time, so I finally bought it because it puzzled me. The seller's description claimed it was a vintage photograph of a "French fire engine in Memphis, Tennessee." But — well, I just don't know what it is.

For starters, if it's a fire engine at all, it's a very unusual one — lacking ladders, hoses, axes, and other gear that is normally used to battle fires. It does have a driver, but he's in the shadows, so I can't tell if he's wearing any sort of fireman's gear, or a uniform of any kind. And what manner of vehicle is this, anyway? The bulbous  front end looks vaguely like that of an old-timey steam-powered locomotive, while the back end looks like — well, I just don't know what it looks like.

And if it's a locomotive, then why does it have regular tires? Where are the tracks?

Then let's ponder the French wording painted on the side, which only deepens the mystery. "Le Chemin de Fer du Sud" translates into "Southern Railroad." "La Societe des 40 Hommes et 8 Chevaux" means "The Society of 40 Men and 8 Horses." On the side of the cab, "Voiture Locale 418" simply means "Local Car 418."

And "Memphis, Tenn" means — I'm pretty sure about this — "Memphis, Tenn."

So, let's see. We have local car 480 of the Southern Railroad, which is somehow involved with 40 men and eight horses. It boggles the mind.

I do know this photo was taken in Memphis because if you look carefully at the second-floor window of the nice building behind this contraption, you can read "Laird Dancing School" painted on the glass. In the 1940s, city directories confirm that Thomas Laird operated a dancing school on the second floor of a building at the northwest corner of Third and Court. For a while, he lived upstairs with his wife, Esther. So this photo shows that intersection in the 1940s, looking north. Most of the other buildings in the photo have since been demolished, but the brick building that houses the dancing school is still standing — relatively unchanged — and, the last time I wandered by there, was home to a chiropractic clinic.

But that's all I can tell you. Even with my vast resources, I can only do so much. What this vehicle was, and why it was in Memphis, is a mystery to me.

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Famed Memphis trivia expert Vance Lauderdale answers reader questions weekly here on his blog!

About This Blog

Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business.  Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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