The fire service is filled with many historical facts, and none are more interesting than the impressive feat of getting water to the scene of a fire. Today, most communities are fortunate enough to have hydrants attached to a municipal water system, but that has not always been the case.
In earlier times, water was carried in some sort of container to the scene of a fire. Early firemen sometimes had to travel great distances to get the water to the blaze. The use of buckets to combat fire has been historically documented back to the time of the Roman Vigiles—the firefighters of the Roman Empire, circa 60 A.D.—who used bucket brigades to control or slow the progress of the fire. This system was both labor-intensive and time-consuming. Bucket brigades were used throughout the world for many years, but slowly became obsolete with the advent of fire pumps, fire hoses, and water-distribution systems.
Several hundred years later, hollowed-out log pipes were used for water conveyance. There are references to wooden water pipes in the 13th century; the use of wood for water distribution had become standard practice by the late 1700s and early 1800s. It didn’t take long for firemen of the time to discover they could easily tap into this water system. When a fire occurred, instead of traveling great distances like their predecessors, the firemen would dig down to the log pipe and drill a hole in it, using a hand-powered auger. Once a hole was made in the wooden water pipe, the water from the hole was allowed to fill the excavation site that the firemen had just created. Initially, buckets were used to scoop out water from the excavation. Later, they would use a fire pump, which could draft out of the excavation.
After the fire was extinguished, the fire crew would seal the hole in the pipe by driving a wood plug into the opening. The plug’s location was often marked before the pipe was covered over, so the plug could be found and used again as a source of water instead of creating a new hole in the wood pipe. The use of the wooden plug is where we get the term “fire plug” that is commonly used by firemen, to this day, to describe a fire hydrant.
I was given a section of water main (pictured in this story) as a gift from my father-in-law, who received it from his aunt. His aunt saw the pipe sitting along the side of her road where the public works department was working and recognized its significance and history. To most people, this would look like just a log, an old pole, or a big piece of wood, but she saw the signature details and asked the street workers if she could have the old section of wood. In turn, she gave it to the author’s father-in-law, knowing he was a fireman and collector of fire-related artifacts.
Early wooden pipes were often constructed of hollowed-out logs and became the norm in the 1700s and early 1800s, with some even being found, still in service, in the 20th century. The type of wood that makes up this section is unknown, at the time of this writing, but water mains were commonly made of Douglas fir, hemlock, elm, and white pine. It was common to see redwood used in the western United States, because of its availability and durability. My particular section of water main shows the commonly-found, spiral-wound steel strapping that was applied to give the wood the ability to withstand higher internal operating pressures. Additionally, as you can see in the picture, an asphalt coating was applied to protect the wood and the steel from the minerals in the earth.
Long runs of water main were difficult, due to elevation issues that affected how the log would sit in the excavation site. Settling of the site where the water main was laid had the potential to cause connection issues. Additionally, the weight of the logs made it difficult to transport numerous sections of water pipe without damage. To address some of these problems, later versions of wooden water mains were made of staves and hoops, as it was much easier to transport these pieces on a wagon to a site, excavate the site, and construct the water main.
“Why use wood?” you might ask.
Wooden pipes were much easier to maintain than metal because the wood did not expand or contract with temperature changes as much as metal, eliminating the need for expansion joints and bends. Additionally, thick wood has natural insulation, thereby reducing the potential for freezing, as compared to metal pipes. Wood used for water pipes also does not rot very easily. The water pipe is buried, and therefore not exposed to air or the elements that contribute to rot and decay.
It is easy to see how history can be overlooked. Things that seem very ordinary or just scrap can be very important in the history of this country and our culture today. The wood water main’s place in history is interesting to the fire service and those in the water-distribution service, but we are not the only ones.
We all, as a society, need to be constantly looking for those artifacts that trace back to our history and how we came to be where we are today.
Thanks to Jon C. Schladweiler and sewerhistory.org for his research help for this article.