The Rise and Decline of the Water Tower

The Rise and Decline of the Water Tower


Rochester, N. Y., boosted this early Champion tower with its handsome three-horse hitch. This unit was later replaced by a Hole tower which, in turn, was wrecked by falling walls several years ago and cut up

—Photo courtesy Rochester Fire Bureau

Is another famous fire fighting facility to pass into history? This nostalgic account would indicate so—in the name of Progress!

A STORY WRITTEN a few years ago of the Great Fire of 1871 in Chicago, included description of an apparatus which was referred to as the first water tower. One of the drawings which illustrated the narrative gave the artist’s conception of the appliance and showed an elevated platform mounted on a vehicle, from which two men were directing streams into second story windows. This was definitely not a water tower as we think of the apparatus and the units— there were two of them—were designated in Chicago Fire Department annual reports of the period as “Hose Elevators Nos. 1 and 2,” stationed on Marrison St. near Pacific Ave.

We mention the hose elevators only to reject the idea that water towers were in existence in 1871.

While the Chicago conflagration may not be important as part of this history, we know that the Great Fire had a tremendous impact on the American fire service and possibly some of its lessons inspired Abner Greenleaf, of Baltimore, to think of the need of devising means of putting water on fires which could not be reached by streams projected from the ground. Buildings were already reaching such heights without anyone having thought of interior standpipes. One chief engineer had written a paper advocating a system of permanent ladders and piping on the outside of structures so that hose could be carried up and attached to outlets at different levels, and it may be that contemplation of this idea turned Greenleaf’s thoughts to a portable standpipe which could be raised high enough to project an effective stream to the top of the highest buildings of that period.

First water tower

Whatever his inspiration, Greenleaf and a mechanic employed by him, designed an apparatus which was described in the patent application as “a portable standpipe, or water tower.” Patent 184,534 was issued to the mechanic, John B. Hogan, and a half-interest was assigned to Abner Greenleaf, who financed the building of a sample apparatus. This was the first water tower.

Without waiting for the world to beat a path to his door to buy this “better mouse trap,’ Greenleaf loaded his apparatus on a railroad car and took it to the metropolis which he considered his best prospect and on June 14, 1879, demonstrated the “portable standpipe” to the fire commissioners and Chief of Department Eli Bates, in New York. The officials were much impressed and interested, but had no appropriation which could be used for the purchase of the apparatus. Undaunted, Mr. Greenleaf offered to turn the tower over to the department for trial in actual service, the trial to continue for an indefinite period without cost to the City, or obligation to purchase.

San Francisco, Cal., still has Gorter 35-foot water tower as well as a 65-footer. Note unique ball-bearing swivel with most nozzle and electric lamp on nozzle

—San Francisco F. D. photo

The offer was accepted and the tower placed in service with Engine Co. 7 on July 1, 1879, by Special Order 16, of that date:

“A portable Water Tower, for the purpose of delivering an effective stream of water in the upper floors of the buildings that cannot be reached with ladders, had been placed on trial in the Department by the owner. It is now ready for use and located in the quarters of Engine Co. No. 7.”

The tower was assigned to respond on all first alarms below Canal Street, and a signal was established for calling it to other locations when required.

Bank Street fire provides test

The first opportunity for a real test involving a large area in the upper floors of a building came on Nov. 8, 1879. We quote from a news report of the day: “At the fire in Bank Street the water tower was brought into actual service, being raised to a height of 50 feet and a 1 1/2-inch nozzle attached and the lines of Engines 3 and 19 connected to it. It had a perfect sweep of the fourth and fifth floors, and threw an effective stream over and on the roofs of the adjoining buildings. Everyone in the vicinity appeared perfectly astonished and admitted that it was the greatest thing they ever saw, and a valuable auxiliary to the fire service. The universal verdict was that a new and important apparatus for the extinguishment of fire had been added to the equipment of the Department.” Funds for the purchase of the tower were included in the 1881 budget, and so after a trial of more than a year and a half, the Commissioners paid $4,000 to Greenleaf for his apparatus. The first tower proved so satisfactory to the department that the commissioners included funds for another in their 1882 budget. Only three of the Greenleaf towers were built, the third one being sold to Boston, where it was put in service March 20, 1882.

The tower mast of the Greenleaf apparatus had to be put together in sections of several lengths of pipe to secure the required elevation and then manually raised by means of two cranks and gears engaging a trunnion. Assistant Fire Marshal Charles S. Petrie of the Chicago Fire Department, and the department’s shop foreman, John Ashworth, thought that this method could be improved and worked together to design a telescopic tower, on which they took out patents. They constructed one of their machines for Chicago about 1883 and made arrangements with E. B. Preston Co., an apparatus manufacturer of Chicago, to build and sell the apparatus, which Preston advertised in Firemans Journal as the “Petrie Ashworth Patent Telescopic Portable Water Tower.” There is no record that any were sold.

Hale telescopic tower

At about the same time Chief George C. Hale, of Kansas City, designed a telescopic tower which was raised by hydraulic power and on which he secured patents. Fire and Water Engineering reported on December 8, 1886:

“Probably the simplest and most practical water tower yet invented has just been brought out by Chief George C. Hale, of the Kansas City Fire Department. E. B. Preston & Co. is closing a contract for exclusive right to manufacture these towers and are hard at work perfecting plans for placing the tower on the market.”

This report and date do not reconcile with the records of the New York Department which show that a Hale tower was purchased from Kansas City Supply Co. in 1885.

With this selection of a Hale tower by the New York Fire Department, Abner Greenleaf gave up his venture into the fire apparatus field, having failed to recover the investments he had made. In 1886 he assigned his latest patent to Fire Extinguisher Mfg. Co., of Chicago, who enter our story as builders of both the Champion and Hale towers.

The tower mechanism designed by Chief Hale was used, without important changes in the basic design, in a majority of all tower apparatus subsequently built. The Hale principles and structural features were incorporated in the tower built in different periods by Kansas City Supply Co., Fire Extinguisher Mfg. Co., International Fire Engine Co., American LaFrance and Seagrave.

The manufacturer who did the most to develop the water tower and promote its sale in the days of horse-drawn apparatus was Fire Extinguisher Mfg. Co., one of the larger builders, although not engaged in the steam fire engine field. One of their products was the popular Babcock aerial ladder truck which had a ladder raising mechanism employing a vertical worm screw at each side of the ladder base and manually operated by two hand cranks and bevel gearing. Fire Extinguisher Mfg. Co. used the Babcock raising mechanism design in a water tower which they developed from the basic principles of the Petrie and Ashworth tower apparatus. This new tower, which was named the Champion, had the base of the tower at the rear with the mast extending out over the horses. Not having the hydraulic raising cylinder complications of the Hale apparatus, the Champion design was simple and quickly secured a wide acceptance. The first Champion tower was built for Chicago at contract price of $5000. Brooklyn bought a Champion in 1893 and others were built for Cleveland, Detroit, Newark, Indianapolis, Toledo, Rochester, Washington, Buffalo, Springfield, Mass., and Pittsburgh. Our list is probably not complete but will give an idea of the widespread use of the Champion. All of these towers were constructed as horsedrawn machines but most of them continued their active careers until the days of motorized equipment. The Springfield unit was tractorized with a Martin threewheeler and the Toledo Champion had a Christie tractor put under what had been the rear end of the horse-drawn machine, making it a very strange looking contraption.

Memphis, Tenn., bought their tower in 1898. It was tractorized in 1918 and rebuilt in 1938 with crows nest capable of holding four men. It has connections for 22 hose linesSpringfield, Mass., had this Champion tower with Knox-Martin tractor. The hand-cranked model was powerized in the early 1900's, but although the horses went, the old driver’s seat remainedJersey City, N. J., received one of the last of the water towers. This model. Water Tower No. 1, was by American LaFrance. Note tiller and seat. This city has white fire apparatus

Hale towers purchased by several cities

The Fire Extinguisher Mfg. Co. was licensed by Chief Hale to use his patents and designs and began the building of the Hale towers in the early nineties, being then in position to offer both the Champion and Hale types. Several cities, among them New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cincinnati and New Orleans purchased two or more Hale hydraulic towers, and single units were built for San Francisco, Omaha, Kansas City, St. Paul, Louisville, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Oklahoma City, Syracuse and other cities. Not all of these were sold by Fire Extinguisher Mfg. Co. The Gleason & Bailey-Rumsey Branch of International Fire Engine Co. was also licensed by Hale and constructed some of the units. One of the Hale towers still used in New York was built by International in 1904.

A most unique and practical design of water tower apparatus was constructed in 1903 for Pittsburgh and assigned to Engine 19, then on Water Street in a house with Engine 1. This was a combination tower, hose and turret wagon, carrying a 25-foot water tower, two large deluge guns and 1000 feet of 3-inch hose, plus the standard equipment of an engine company tender in a high value district. Later a second unit was bought and assigned to Engine 46. Originally drawn by three horses, these machines were tractorized by AmericanLaFrance and were slightly modified during this rebuilding. The deluge wagons had a great record of service in Pittsburgh and were a most useful and practical type of equipment. The only other one of the kind we have seen was in Atlantic City.

Champion Pneumatic tower

Fire Extinguisher Mfg. Co. were also responsible for the designing of a revolutionary apparatus which they called the Champion Pneumatic Aerial Ladder Truck and Water Tower, and which is illustrated herein. The power for elevating and extending the ladder tower of this forerunner of our modern aerialtower apparatus was stored compressed air, a method first used on the Kaiser Pneumatic Aerial and developed into a widely used ladder hoist for horse-drawn aerials, by Chief Dahill, of New Bedford. Fire Extinguisher Mfg. Co. did not succeed in putting over the Champion Pneumatic but it is a most interesting link in the history of the water tower.

San Francisco purchased its first water tower, a 65-foot Hale, in 1891 and put it in service at 50 Sacramento Street as Water Tower No. l. A mechanic named H. H. Gorter, with inventive talents, and who was employed at the Corporation Yard, the fire department shops, thought that the Hale tower could be improved and worked out designs for a distinctive type of mast to be raised by a water motor, instead of hydraulic cylinders. He used a solid connection between the intake manifold and tower pipe, instead of flexible hose, and also designed a ball joint, swivel type of tower and monitor battery nozzle.

Gorter was authorized to build a tower according to his designs and this was completed and placed in commission in 1898. Another Gorter tower, of 76foot elevation, was also constructed at the shops in 1901. Later these units were tractorized and are still in service as Water Towers No. 2 and No. 1 respectively.

Before: Early combination hose, turret and water tower wagon, built by Fire Extinguisher Manufacturing Co. of Chicago for Pittsburgh, Pa.

When the San Francisco Department was placed on a full-paid basis in 1900, Gorter was appointed Captain and in 1906 was designated Acting Chief of Battalion. On his retirement in 1910. Captain Gorter was employed by Los Angeles to supervise the construction of a tower of his design for the Los Angeles Fire Department.

In 1927 the Gorter principles were used in constructing two 50-foot towers on short wheel base chassis for the San Francisco Department. These were built by Union Machine Company. The four San Francisco towers are in reserve service and are special-called when needed. All four units are equipped with monitor batteries and carry tips from 1 1/2-inch to 2 1/2-inch diameter.

Spring-assist principle applied

The first tower with manual springassist raising device was built for New York City by the Seagrave Company in 1907. The spring-assist principle was applied to tower apparatus with such success that most of the water towers subsequently built were of this type and three of the hydraulic towers in the New York Department were converted to manual spring-assist operation. Both American-LaFrance and Seagrave used the mechanism on tower apparatus constructed for Birmingham, Chicago, Detroit. Jersey City, Newark, Providence, St. Paul, Washington and possibly others.

None of the horse-drawn towers of which we have pictures shows an arrangement for steering the rear end and the tiller seems to be an innovation of the motor age. With the exception of the unit built for New York City, the Seagrave motorized towers are of the four-wheel type without tillers, and of the reversed-mast model, with the base of the tower at the rear. Several horsedrawn units which were tractorized had tillers installed at the time of conversion. The motor-driven towers constructed by American-LaFrance have been of both front-to-rear, and rear-to-front mast types, tractor-drawn. Also some horsedrawn converted units were reversed when tractors were put under them.

Basically, the latest towers built more than 20 years ago were the same as the first design of Chief Male. There were improvements such as spring-assist raising mechanisms, the intermediate mast nozzles with which many of the later units are equipped, and the “crows nests” on the Chicago towers, but the general appearance of water towers has remained as designed 60 to 70 years ago.

A unique application of the water tower was made on an apparatus built for Los Angeles by American-LaFrance. according to the ideas of Chief Ralph Scott, a most progressive officer who never hesistated to depart from the conventional in designing apparatus to meet the specific needs of his department. This unit was a combination tower and city service ladder truck, employing a conventional tower mast and carrying assortment of ground ladders and ladder company equipment. No water tower ever wore out from overwork and Chief Scott wanted a unit which could be useful at the average response in the high value district and quickly available if needed for tower operations.

The first Greenleaf tower was originally fitted with a 1 1/2-inch fixed tip but after some experience the New York Department added a third inlet and substituted a pipe with removable tips from 1 3/8 inches to 2 3/8-inch diameter. A deck-gun was also installed and furnished with variable tips up to 2-inch diameter. As 2 1/2-inch tips are still being used as maximum size it appears that there has not been any material change in the capacity ratings, except that some later units are equipped with intermediate tower nozzles and multiple deck guns. Indiv idual stream discharges remain about the same.

Ladder pipes for use on aerial ladders were introduced in the 1880’s and advertisements of the Hayes aerial as early as 1885 feature the use of the aerial ladder as a water tower. Pipes for permanent attachment to the rungs of the ladder were furnished by Morse, Callahan, Eastman, M. H. Hart, and others. New York conducted a test of a ladder pipe on May 25, 1894, the demonstration being made with the 75-foot Hayes Aerial of Ladder Co. 14, at 125th St. and the Harlem River. The test was pronounced successful by Chief Hugh Bonner but in view of the fact that New York then had three water towers in service and the ladder pipe was limited in its capacities and applications, the chief did not recommend its adoption. More than 40 years later, in 1939. New York fitted several 85-foot wood ladder spring-hoist aerials with fixed ladder pipes for service in areas remote from water tower companies.

Ladder pipes were used by a number of fire departments on horse-drawn aerials but they were not considered a replacement of the water towers in the larger cities until their limitations were largely removed by the successful application of power-operated ladder structures to motor-driven apparatus. The doom of the water tower was decided when metal alloy ladders were offered by several manufacturers in place of traditional wood.

Decline in 1930’s

The “roaring twenties” saw the construction of the last apparatus of the conventional water tower design, and the panic-inspired economy days of the 1930’s witnessed the beginning of the decline of the separate water tower unit as standard equipment of the fire service in our larger cities. During the 77 years since the first Greenleaf was constructed, 103 water towers were sold to American cities, the last one 25 years ago.

When New York City put one of its towers on the auction block recently, one of the bidders was a Long Island collector of ancient vehicles who wanted it for his museum. And so the w’ater tower takas its place alongside tire steam fire engine as a collector’s item!

Acknowledgment: The author gratefully recognizes the assistance of the following in the preparation of this report: Joseph C. Connell and Brian Thompson, Phoenix Society, San Francisco; FIRE ENGINEERING and the New York Fire Department Library.

After: In service as Engine Co. 19, it was later converted by American-LaFrance Fire Engine Co.; the chemical hose was removed and tractor added. Tower raised to 25 feet

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