Underground Hydrants Still Used in Salem, Mass.
It still isn’t unusual to see a hydrant in the middle of the street being used in fighting a fire in Salem, Mass.
At present, there are 40 Lowery underground hydrants in Salem—far cry from the 232 that existed in 1869. These hydrants were patented by J. L. Lowery of Pittsburgh and were manufactured for Salem from an improved design by the Boston Machine Company of South Boston.
Unlike conventional hydrants, the upper part of the two-part Lowery hydrant is carried by engine companies. The lower part is permanently connected to the water main and the barrel, which includes a shutoff valve and a drain valve, rises to the street surface, where it has a cover flush with the pavement. The connection to the water main is made at a junction of mains under the street so that water flows to the hydrant from more than one direction.
The hydrant head—the part carried by engine companies—is brass and weighs about 80 pounds. Each hydrant head has either four or six valved hose outlets. In Salem, the water supply for these underground hydrants is adequate for six hose lines.
Setting the hydrant
The hydrant man carries the hydrant head from the apparatus and sets it down at the location of the underground hydrant barrel. He then removes an L-shaped tool with a ring on one end that suspends it from one of the hose valve handles. With this tool, he removes the cover from the underground hydrant.
After removing the T-handled, long stem, street valve key from the center of the hydrant and hooking the handle behind his neck, the hydrant man lifts the hydrant by grasping two of the hose outlets and then lowers it into the street opening to engage the threads of the upper and lower barrels. Sometimes this isn’t easy to do because the underground barrel may have shifted slightly off plumb during the years. Once the threads are engaged, the fire fighter turns the hydrant head until the connection is tight. He then inserts the valve key back into the center of the hydrant to engage the underground valve and turn on the water. Removal of the key before setting the hydrant prevents the key from jamming on the nut of the underground valve.
A red marker on a post, fence or building tells the number of feet and direction to the location of an underground hydrant. However, when there is snow on the street, finding the hydrant cover isn’t that simple. I recall many a snowy night when the order would be given to get the shovels out and clear the area designated by the marker until the hydrant cover was bared.
Experience to remember
Every fire department that uses hydrants has at one time or another experienced difficulties with them that become stories to be remembered and retold. I can cite one incident that involved two Lowery hydrants in Salem.
The fire was in a carriage house in the historic Chestnut St. district and flames were showing in the second floor storage area.
The first-in company started setting a Lowery hydrant and laid a line that was to be connected to the hydrant as soon as it was connected.
The fire fighter dropped the Lowery in, caught the threads and turned it to make it up tight. Lines were connected to the outlets, and the T-handle was engaged to open the valve for water from the main. In no time at all, the hydrant blew from the street connection, and water shot up like a geyser.
It was determined the next day that there was a burr on the street threads. When this burr was reached, it gave the false indication that the hydrant was made up tight. However, it didn’t have sufficient turns and the water pressure just lifted it off the connection.
Another engine had stopped to cover another Lowery at the other end of the street. This company was then told to set the hydrant and lay a line to the fire. The operation was carried out and in no time water was on the fire.
Unfortunately, a car approaching the intersection, knocked over the hydrant. Another geyser took place and the hose line became useless.
The chief officer arrived on the scene, sized up the situation and inquired, “What the hell is going on?”
After being told of the two unfortunate happenings, he responded, “Let’s start all over. Get water on this fire.”
A post hydrant was located on another street and water was obtained without any more mishaps.