Solving The Problem Of Getting Water To A Fire.


It is probably safe to say that everyone is familiar with fire hydrants — they’re on every block in every city and large town in Canada, and rightly so—they save hundreds of lives and untold dollars in property value yearly. But it wasn’t always this way; hydrants have only been in use for a little over 180 years.

A selection of fire buckets on display at the Museum.

Previous to the invention and installation of hydrants and water systems in towns and cities the “bucket brigade” was the chief method for getting water to a fire. Teams of firefighters and citizens would line up between a house fire and a water source, such as a pond, lake or river, and pass buckets of water up and down the line. Some fire brigades had tanks mounted on wagons that could be pulled to a fire. Both methods were less than totally effective as bucket brigades were slow, required many people and depended on a nearby water source. Tanks quickly ran out of water.

Tradition has it that about 1801, Frederick Graff, chief engineer of the Philadelphia Water Works, patented a post-style fire hydrant resembling what we use today. Other sources say that first fire hydrant was invented by George Smith, a firefighter, about 1817, when he realized that Manhattan, where he lived, was running out of water for citizens to use — not just for fighting fires, but for every day uses as well. He reasoned that with the installation of water mains, Manhattan would have more water for drinking as water could be pumped to the city from outside its boundaries—and there would also be enough water readily available for fighting fires.

A section of wooden water main believed to be from Quebec City. It would have been bound with metal bands at regular intervals.

Early water mains in cities sometimes used logs that were drilled through the centre and laid end-to-end. When water was needed, a shallow pit was dug to expose a section of the wooden main and a hole was bored to access the water, which would then fill the pit where it could be pumped or scooped up in buckets. When firefighters were finished, the borehole was secured with a wooden “plug”, thus the name “fire plug” was coined. If a fire occurred later in the same area, the plug could be removed, thus eliminating the need to bore another hole. Cities that had water systems had a much better chance of putting out fires.

High pressure hydrant installed in Toronto city centre after great fire of 1904.

Early hydrants, as designed by Smith, resembled faucets and were at best suited for the bucket brigade method of firefighting as they could only draw water from the water mains in a crude manner. Later, valves were placed on the mains at intervals, much like today’s fire hydrants. With industrial progress, cast iron would later replace the wooden water mains and over the decades to follow, continuous improvements in hydrants were made as new models were perfected. A number of iron foundries across Canada made numerous designs as represented in the Museum collection.

The Museum has a large collection of hydrants that were Canadian produced or used in Canada.

For more information on Canadian Fire Hydrants, click here >>