When did firefighters first start to use fire hydrants?
Visitors who check out the hydrant collection at the Watch Hill Fire Station are curious about their history. Technological advances have contributed to successes in fighting fires for many years, and the fire hydrant is a perfect example.
The hydrant is simply a pipe with a valve that controls the water flow from a water main. It allows firefighters access to a water source close to the fire so they can rapidly extinguish it. Before the invention of the fire hydrant, firefighters used a bucket brigade or hand pumping systems. The fire company, usually volunteers, would go to the fire and dig up the cobbles down to the water main, which was made from hollowed out logs. The firefighters would then bore a hole into the main to create a pool of water to supply their buckets or pumper. When the fire was extinguished, firefighters sealed the main with a wooden “fire plug.” The next time there was a fire in the neighborhood, they’d dig out the plug and not have to cut into the main.
After a devastating fire destroyed three-quarters of London in 1666, the city installed new mains with pre-drilled holes and plugs that rose above ground level. Valves began to replace wooden stoppers in the 1700s, and firefighters began carrying portable standpipes, or vertical outlets, which were inserted into the plugs. Eventually, iron foundries flourished, and engineers eagerly made improvements to water systems by casting branched fittings to attach to the mains. These were like underground hydrants that could draw water from the mains.
The first post or pillar type hydrant is credited to Frederick Graff Sr. in 1801. Graff was the chief engineer of the Philadelphia Water Works, and it is believed that he held the first U.S. patent for a fire hydrant. However, since fire destroyed the U.S. patent office and its records in 1836, this record cannot be confirmed. The early form of the hydrant was essentially a metal pipe enclosed in a wooden case. During the winter, Graff’s hydrants were covered by iron or wooden boxes that could be removed to allow access to the valve. Typically, the wooden case was filled with sawdust or manure as insulation to prevent freezing in the winter, but this method did not work very well.
In 1802, the first order for cast iron hydrants was placed with cannon maker Foxall & Richards. A year later, Graff introduced an improved version of his fire hydrant with the valve in the lower portion. It was intended to remain permanently in position in the water main and constantly charged with water. In 1811, Philadelphia claimed to have 230 wooden hydrants and 185 cast iron fire hydrants. By 1865, many companies were making cast iron fire hydrants, which were deployed across the country.
Although materials have improved and some of the elements of hydrant design have been refined, the basic form of the fire hydrant has changed little since the mid-1800s.
Locally, the Westerly Water Department maintains the 901 working fire hydrants in Westerly and Pawcatuck. The department also supplies water to hydrants that are owned by commercial properties such as shopping centers or large residential properties. The property owners are responsible for installing and servicing those hydrants.
At the Watch Hill Fire Department, 226 fire hydrants are on display, proudly reminding us of a critical tool for saving lives and property. Whether you call Westerly home or are visiting for the day, Watch Hill Firefighters invite you to stop in to visit their garden of multicolored fire hydrants.
Jane Perkins is a fire safety specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please email her at email@example.com.