Mark Hunter (ozma914) wrote,
Mark Hunter

next week's column: History of the Water, Part 1


This is part one of a two part article about history, hydraulics, math, and interesting stuff like that. Sure, I had to give my editor two weeks pay to let me be this long winded, but don’t think of it as bribery; think of it as … actually, bribery fits pretty well.

The town of Albion is asking for letters of support in its attempt to get a B.A.G. toward building a new water tower. (Um, that stands for Big Grant; you can fill in the A for yourself.)

Surely people around town wonder what the fuss is about – why another water tower? We have two, after all. For an explanation, I thought it would be good for an expert, someone wise and knowledgeable in the operations of waterworks and the history of Albion, to take everyone on a journey of discovery.

But I couldn’t find an expert, so I’m doing it.

Let me take you back, dear reader … way, back … way, way back – no, not that far. Relax, we’re not talking Jurassic Park, it’s just the turn of the century. Not the most recent one: the one before that.

It’s circa 1900, which explains the horses, why people are dressed so oddly, and why everyone’s respectful of their elders. We’ve arrived just in time for the action – there’s a building afire, just up the street.

A young boy runs to a wooden shed on the south side of the courthouse square, and vigorously rings the bell. He waits there, to direct the volunteers to the fire when they show up.

And show up they do – almost every able bodied male adult in town is a member of the decade old Albion Fire Department. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker – they drop what they’re doing and run to the firehall. The members are divided into three companies, and each group will run to the scene, pulling their apparatus behind them.

There goes the engine: a four wheeled wagon containing the pump, a section of stiff suction hose, and a tub that can hold a small amount of water.

Behind it is the hose cart, a two wheeled apparatus carrying a reel of – wait for it – hose, as well as a couple of playpipes (nozzles). After that goes the hook and ladder, and I don’t think I have to tell you what it carries.

The fire quickly engulfs a wooden mercantile building and spreads to a livery stable, where workers struggle to get the horses out. The firemen pulling the engine don’t have to go far: They set up at a cistern on the courthouse square, just a block from the firehall, and drop a heavy, stiff piece of suction hose into the brackish water below. (It’s brackish, I swear – I researched this stuff.)

The hose crew stops there, drops one end of their stitched leather hose, and starts unreeling it toward the fire, 600 feet away. In a few years there’ll be a second hose reel, and later still a third, but right now there’s just one.

The hook and ladder goes straight to the scene, where the fire chief has already determined he can’t save the livery stable: it’s already half ablaze, and now a storage shed on the other side of the mercantile building is starting to go. The firemen, with no more protective equipment than leather helmets, canvas coats and a pair of gloves, reach for their hooks.

The modern version of hooks are pike poles, used to expose hidden fire behind walls and above ceilings. There will be no such precise overhaul here; using the hooks, the firefighters tear down the smoldering shed, producing a firebreak that they hope will halt the flame spread. The fire chief wants to keep the loss down to half a block.

A half dozen firefighters wait for water at the nozzle of the single hoseline, while a dozen more demolish the shed and try to stomp out spot fires as best they can. The rest start working the brakes on the pumper – long rows of handles on each side of the wagon. They move them up and down like a teeter-totter, making water pulsate through the hose, then out the tip of the playpipe.

I won’t bore you with the math, but the rough lining of the crude hose, combined with its relatively narrow 2 ½ inch diameter size, creates a huge drag on the flow of water: friction loss. By the time it’s gone two blocks, the water flow that emerges from the playpipe seems a trickle, not much more than you’d get from a modern garden hose. And there’s only one hose: the fire wants to spread in every direction, producing flaming brands that land on homes blocks away. Women and children fill buckets to splash over roofs.

Where will the chief place his single hoseline? And did they have enough hose to get to the next closest cistern, when this one was sucked dry?

This was the scenario across small town America. All of Albion’s downtown burned at one time or another – most of it twice, some three times. When the fire department was formed in 1888 the big conflagrations became smaller, but the town burned on. The firemen had strong backs, good equipment, and the motivation to save their neighbors’ homes and jobs, but they were short on water.

Was it any wonder that, not long after, Albion created its first waterworks? Mains were laid around town, ranging from 4 to 6 inches, looped so water flowed in from both directions. Hydrants, each with two 2 ½ inch connections, were placed at strategic points. A water tower stood high above the town, pressurizing the pipes below. On a good day, with a short hose lay, the hand pumped engine could flow close to 250 gallons of water per minute. Now the firefighters discovered that, in a crunch, they could connect a hose directly to the hydrants, giving them a weak but serviceable second hoseline.

It was cool. That’s not the way they would have put it back then, of course.

Okay – fast forward 100 years.

Sorry, didn’t mean to be so abrupt. Hope you didn’t injure your neck or anything. Let’s take a break, let your muscles heal a bit; next week we’ll discuss how this little history lesson relates to today’s water needs, and we’ll also do some math.

I’m kidding about the math.
Tags: new era, slightly off the mark, weekly column

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