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A blast from the past: 8 things to know about fire hydrant history

From its wooden beginnings to modern ‘smart’ systems, the fire hydrant is a storied icon that represents the evolution of the fire service

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Fire hydrants, those steadfast sentinels of safety dotting urban landscapes, harbor a colorful history. From their inception to their indispensable role in modern firefighting, fire hydrants have not only been pivotal in the evolution of urban safety but also in the annals of municipal innovation.

Learn more about this symbol of fire safety and be sure to check out our deep dive into the legacy of one of San Francisco’s most infamous fire hydrants.

1. Wood pipes preceded the modern hydrant

The tale of the fire hydrant begins in the 17th century, albeit in a form vastly different from what we recognize today.

Wooden pipes buried beneath the streets of cities like London and New York constituted the earliest firefighting infrastructure. These pipes had holes drilled into them, which could be opened to fight fires and then plugged again, quite literally, with wooden plugs. This rudimentary method laid the groundwork for the modern hydrant, a beacon of progress in urban safety and planning.

2. The original patent for the cast iron fire hydrant was burned in a fire

It is widely believed that the patent for the first cast iron fire hydrant was lost in the Great Patent Office Fire of 1836. This calamity consumed thousands of patent documents, leaving historians to speculate and manufacturers to claim the title of “first.”

It’s an ironic twist of fate that a device designed to mitigate fires was itself a victim of one.

3. Hydrant color could indicate flow rate, potable water … or not

Fire hydrants have not just been silent protectors; they’ve also been canvases for communal expression and a reflection of national or municipal standards. NFPA 291 includes a color chart for painting fire hydrants, but the standard is considered a “recommended practice,” not a requirement.

OSHA also weighs in on hydrant color, suggesting that those representing non-potable water sources be painted violet. Many municipalities create their own hydrant color scheme to assist crews responding to scenes.

4. Dogs and fire hydrants are forever linked in pop culture

No discussion of fire hydrants can be complete without a nod to their most infamous admirers: dogs.

The fire hydrant’s status as a favored canine checkpoint is a humorous footnote in urban culture. This peculiar affinity is believed to stem from dogs’ instinct to mark their territory. Fire hydrants, with their prominent placement and metallic scent (and likely the scent of the thousands of dogs who marked their territories before), make for an irresistible target. Some dog parks even include a non-functional fire hydrant just for the canines’ enjoyment.

Have a station canine? Check out these hydrant-themed dog accessories:

5. Roswell, Georgia, boasts nation’s first ‘smart’ hydrant sensor system

Smart hydrants in Roswell are equipped with sensors that provide real-time data on water pressure, flow and even quality, directly to the city’s water department and fire services. Issues such as leaks, potential freezing conditions, or contamination can be detected early, mitigating risks and preventing larger crises. For the fire service, the system means quicker, more informed decisions during firefighting operations, potentially saving lives and property by utilizing the most efficient water sources available.


Profile portrait of Henry Foxall, from a painting now in possession of the Trustees of Foundry Church, Washington, D.C.


6. A cannon maker manufactured the first cast iron hydrant

Henry Foxall was a cannon maker in early America, and was personally invited by President Thomas Jefferson to set up a foundry in Washington, D.C.

In 1802, Foxall was commissioned by the City of Philadelphia to manufacture the first cast iron hydrants, with hundreds installed throughout the city over the next decade.


Photo/Fire Museum of Texas

7. Texas boasts the world’s largest working fire hydrant

Donated to the city of Beaumont, Texas, by Walt Disney Studios in 1999 to celebrate the re-release of the animated classic “101 Dalmatians,” this gargantuan hydrant is not only a visual spectacle but also a fully functional piece of firefighting equipment. Towering at an impressive 24 feet and weighing over 4,500 pounds, the World’s Largest Working Fire Hydrant captivates visitors with its Dalmatian-spotted exterior, making it a unique and photogenic landmark.

8. A fan? See hydrant history on display at a museum near you

For those water supply enthusiasts, there are several collections of fire hydrants at fire and rescue museums around the country. At the Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting in Phoenix, visitors can see more than 100 hydrants throughout the exhibit. In San Francisco, the infamous “little giant” or “golden hydrant” saved the city’s historic Mission District from going up in flames following the Great Earthquake of 1906, when most other hydrants in the city stopped working. The golden hydrant is still in operation today, solidifying its place in the city’s storied fire service history.

Looking for the closest fire museum? We’ve got you covered:

Guardians of public safety

From their wooden predecessors to the high-tech versions of today, fire hydrants have played a crucial role in shaping the safety and functionality of urban environments, reminding us that even the most mundane objects can have a rich history. As we walk past these guardians of public safety, let’s remember the centuries of innovation and dedication that stand behind each brightly painted sentinel.

How one hydrant provided hope after the Great Earthquake of 1906, and what was done to ensure the city would never again have to rely on a miracle

FireRescue1 is using generative AI to create some content that is edited and fact-checked by our editors.

Rachel Engel is an award-winning journalist and the senior editor of and In addition to her regular editing duties, Engel seeks to tell the heroic, human stories of first responders and the importance of their work. She earned her bachelor’s degree in communications from Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, and began her career as a freelance writer, focusing on government and military issues. Engel joined Lexipol in 2015 and has since reported on issues related to public safety. Engel lives in Wichita, Kansas. She can be reached via email.