Fires were and still are one of the greatest threats to property and human life. This is especially true in the close confines of city living as a small fire can quickly become an all-consuming disaster. Wooden structures built side-by-side, block upon city block, were often tinder for catastrophic fires. Nearly every city has stories of “the great fire;” Louisville can be counted among that number. The ability to provide an “abundant” supply of water for the City’s battle against fires was one of the main reasons used to promote the building of the water works.
In proactive efforts to combat the threat of fire, Louisville’s city council enacted many laws to help in the battle against fires. As early as 1820 the council approved the purchase of “two or three fire engines.” In addition, each person was to have at least two fire buckets. Fourteen years later, the council appointed a committee to recommend the number of cisterns to be built and their location. At least three cisterns were built and connected with iron pipes to nearby pumps. But their capacity was still limited and often did not contain a sufficient amount of water. The City’s “great fire” occurred in March of 1840, destroying 30 buildings on Main Street at a loss of $300,000. Seventeen years later, “another conflagration” burned six businesses at a loss of $200,000. Contemporary accounts report “the fire had gained great headway before the firemen reached the scene, and soon after they got to work the water in the cisterns nearest the fire, as usual, gave out….” Prior to the founding of Louisville Water, the city clearly did not have a consistent supply of water to fight fires.
For much of the 19th century cisterns remained the main supply of water by the fire department. By 1862, 100 cisterns around the city were connected to the water system. Four years later, the first five fire hydrants, then known as “fire-plugs,” were installed; all were placed within the business district of the city. Since at least 1871, Louisville Water has been charged with ownership and maintenance of Louisville’s fire hydrants. Its expenses were then reimbursed by the City. In late 1935, that changed and the company now uses its own funds for the maintenance of the public hydrants. Today, Louisville Water owns and maintains over 23,000 fire hydrants in its service area. These hydrants are flow-tested and maintained every year to ensure they are in good working order. Approximately 200 to 250 older hydrants are replaced each year. The older units removed from the system are either saved for spare parts or are scrapped.
Link to Fire Fighting digital image collection on Flickr.