Not Your Ordinary Fire Plugs

 

A damaged hydrant at Fourth and Race Streets and a half-buried hydrant.

The city’s High Pressure Fire System was decommissioned in 2005, but its fire hydrants are still with us. These industrial relics are quite common right now, but they won’t be forever. Cars run into them, new projects remove them, and then there are the ones that look like they are sinking. Actually, they’re not–rather, as sidewalks are resurfaced they are sometimes finished at a higher level than before. Perhaps someday they will be buried entirely. In one hundred years, will any one remember that Philadelphia’s HPFS system was acknowledged as finest in the world for decades? Will anyone even know what those red plugs were for? Will any still exist?

The High Pressure Fire System is another Philadelphia “first,” and a much more recent one than most–the system started in 1903. It delivered water via independent mains and special red fire hydrants located on sidewalks throughout downtown. These fire plugs could throw a two-inch stream 230 feet vertically at a moment’s notice.

The first high-pressure pumping station was located on Columbus Boulevard by Race Street, the brick and terracotta building that is to become the Live Arts/Fringe Festival headquarters. Fire losses immediately declined once the HPFS system was operating, prompting the removal of extra insurance charges imposed on structures within the congested area between the Delaware River and Broad Street, from Race to Walnut Streets.

A HPFS hydrant in use. From Tin Helmets, Iron Men: Phila Fires 50’s, 60’s, 70’s (Pediment Pub., 2001), by Bob Bartosz.

The 56-mile HPFS system was used often and to great success during the 20th century. It was the backbone of the Philadelphia Fire Department and saved many buildings. The system was taken out of commission in 2005 after falling into disrepair. High-pressure water service had become unnecessary anyway due to better fire equipment, high-rise sprinklers, and the use of fire-resistant building materials.

A HPFS hydrant and two manhole covers, and an image of the HPFS system in use when it was new.

A Bit of Backstory

On January 27, 1801, water from the Schuylkill River was introduced from the Fairmount Water Works, distributed by hollow wooden pipes laid in the streets. When a fire occurred, the volunteer firefighters dug down, found a log pipe, and augered a hole through it. Water would fill the firemen’s excavation, forming a “wet well” to either get buckets of water from, or to serve as a pump reservoir. After the fire was out, the hole in the pipe was sealed by driving a wooden plug into it. The plug’s location was noted and marked before the pipe was covered over, so that it could possibly be used another time. This is the basis of the term “fire plug,” a name that is often still applied to modern fire hydrants.

The first “post type” hydrant is generally credited to Frederick Graff, chief engineer of the Water Works, around 1801. It had a combination hose/faucet outlet and was of “wet barrel” design with the valve in the top. As a result, Philadelphia was the first city in the nation to have a fire hydrant system. The following year, Graff introduced an improved version with the valve in the lower portion. These were inserted into wooden mains with a tapering joint. Philadelphia claimed to have 230 wooden hydrant pumps and 185 cast iron fire hydrants in 1811. By 1865, Philadelphia had installed cast iron hydrants that were very similar to those used today.

About the author

Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.

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8 Comments


  1. South Philly still has working fire hydrants…are these a different design or run on a different system? I still see people “hop in the water plug, just for old times sake”.

  2. Informative, well written article! The HPFS used raw river water as opposed to modern hydrants which are positioned on the same mains that deliver household water. The “normal” hydrants in use today are easily differentiated from their high pressure cousins. High pressure hydrants from the now defunct HPFS have a large barrel, 3 operating stems on top and the entire hydrant is red. Normal Philadelphia hydrants have a single stem, an orange barrel (unless painted by neighbors) and a bonnet (top) which may be painted orange, red or green depending on the size of the water main serving it.

  3. The the big old O’brien hydrants in center city are dry now and the fire dept now relies solely on standpipes? Or were they hooked up to a normal water system?

    Also, the reason the O’brien hydrants have such a large barrel and three stems is because they have two independent gates.

    • Yes, the HPFS system was decommissioned in 2005 due to having too many leaks, as well as because of better fire equipment, high-rise sprinklers, and the use of fire-resistant building materials. The system is now empty, from what I understand.

      • I suppose the proliferation of standpipes in the former “Conflagration District” now makes hydrants unnecessary. It’s just strange to imagine fighting fire without a hydrant.

  4. Fire protection systems are connected to the domestic water system. The high pressure system was designed for the Kensington mill district and dense downtown area. Fire department pumpers are more than capable now of supplying the necessary high pressures for large fires/buildings.

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