In the world of fire memorabilia collecting, one of the most valuable firefighting tools has been mostly forgotten. There has long been love for fire steamers and engines, fire marks, fire helmets, and other paraphernalia, but the fire hydrant has not had much appreciation. One reason for this oversight is that—because of their overall size and long service life—they are not typically easy for collectors to collect.
For my first installment of this regular column, I would like to share one of the 200-plus American fire hydrant companies I have reviewed on my FireHydrant.org website. There are so many good candidates to consider that I did not know where to start. Maybe a Chapman Valve. Or one of the early Holly hydrants. Maybe a Holyoke or one of the Chicago-spec units such as the late-1800s, internally-gated Cregier.
As I pondered which hydrant company or model to feature, I peered over my desk at a framed photo I acquired 20 years ago, and the answer came to me. I have collected many photos featuring rare or unknown hydrants. A typical photo shows someone standing next to an old O’Brien or a Jones Wet Barrel, or it might depict a building with the hydrant in front of it or off to the side. It is rare to find a photo that places the hydrant so prominently in the frame.
As with many other antique photos I have encountered over the years, I looked on the back for writing that would reveal clues to its origin. Someone had written: “Linnton, Oregon, August 1913, water construction.” Such scribbling is a real goldmine for a historian! Linnton is a neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. The hydrant is an Iowa fire hydrant made in Oskaloosa, Iowa. More specifically, it is a toggle-joint fire hydrant with an offset-geared operating nut mechanism. The toggle-joint hydrant uses a mechanism in which two sleeves, threaded in opposite directions, move up or down the operating rod, causing the rubber valve to pull away from or close against the brass seating area. These were also known as “dry hydrants,” and they were good for areas prone to hard freezes. The hydrant, produced in the early 1900s, was marked with the patent dates of 1906 and 1911. Various other patent dates followed on later-model hydrants.
The Iowa hydrant was not the first toggle-joint hydrant. Its overall design closely followed the Rensselaer Valve Mfg. Co. hydrant, which was produced in Troy, New York. The operating mechanism on the Iowa tended to be beefier in construction than the Rensselaer. Later Rensselaer designs called for heavier construction specifications. The advantage of the Iowa hydrant is that one person could disassemble the hydrant by himself. Because they were made of dissimilar metals, several other hydrant designs of the time required the use of very large and heavy disassembly wrenches and at least two to four men to loosen the seat.
The Iowa hydrant’s downfall was that it was hard to use. I have heard for years from water superintendents that these hydrants are more difficult to cycle fully open and to close and seal with confidence. Lack of general knowledge in maintaining key parts has added to these issues. Another difficulty is that, since the valve opens with pressure, the hydrant mechanism has to close against the velocity of the water flow. Depending on system pressure, the last few turns can require additional higher torque. Other than the Eddy fire hydrant (which has been produced for more than 100 years), all other fire hydrants produced today open against pressure and close with pressure. (I have found many people prefer the operation of the modern designs.)
The last Iowa fire hydrant was produced for Seattle, Washington, in the late 1960s. For many years, Seattle was the only city that actively purchased the Iowa hydrant. Familiarity with servicing the hydrant was a key factor in Seattle’s decision to keep buying it for as long as it did.
A couple of years after getting the Iowa hydrant photo, I had an opportunity to go to Portland, Oregon, and visit Linnton. Could this Iowa hydrant still be in service? Would the same building still be there from the photo? Maybe someone in the town could identify the people in the photo. I would like to tell you I found the hydrant, but after a thorough review of the small town, it seems the fire hydrant is no more. Maybe a reader of this magazine has knowledge or resources from this area. Any help is appreciated.
As I have studied the photo over time, my mind wonders about the people in it. In my imagination, they constantly gain identities and back stories I previously have not thought of. From the father and daughter in the back to the barefoot boy standing on the real boardwalk in the front, so many people with diverse responsibilities came together to celebrate the completion of a project so important to their town.
With many water systems being installed or expanded in the early 1900s, this fire hydrant was a symbol to these folks—a symbol of strength and security for their growing town. It was a symbol of optimism for what might one day be.
In future issues, I will share some hydrant history and photos. Maybe in time, your curiosity about the fire hydrants you pass on your travels will match my own.
Vintage Fire Truck & Equipment is pleased to introduce this new regular column by Thomas Ingalsbe, who has forgotten more about fire hydrants than we ever knew existed. He is the co-founder of FireHydrant.org—a website dedicated to the history of… you guessed it… fire hydrants.