History of the Term Fire Plug & Plug Ugly April 27 2016, 3 Comments
The term 'fire plug' dates back to the early 1800s, when water mains were made from wood. The fire department (usually volunteers) would head out to the fire, dig up the cobbles down to the main, then chop into the main so that they could secure the hoses from their pumpers. When finished fighting the fire, they'd seal the main with -- you guessed it -- a "fire plug." The next time there was a fire in the neighborhood, they'd dig up the plug and not have to cut into the main. Hence the term fire plug.
The first firefighters to put water on the fire were paid by the insurance companies. The competing local fire departments would often fight, coming to blows, over the privilege and the payout afterward. Engine crews, knowing that whoever controlled the water would extinguish the fire, would send the meanest, toughest, goons they had ahead of the pumper to guard the plug. Anyone from another crew who came near it would have to fight him. This is where the term plug ugly comes from.
Now-a-days firefighters have automatic and mutual aid. But we've never seemed to shake the competition and the rivalry created by our forefathers. And sometimes, I think, a little competition is a good thing.
New design for the old-school bent-nose brawlers
David Lewis on June 12 2018 at 07:46AM
Ahh, the ol’ “Fire Plug” story . . .
=========== The term "fire plug" dates from the time when water mains were made from hollowed out logs. The fire company (usually volunteers) would head out to the fire, dig up the cobbles down to the main, then bore a hole into the main so that the excavation would fill with water which they could draft using their pumper. When finished fighting the fire, they'd seal the main with -- you guessed it -- a "fire plug". The next time there was a fire in the neighborhood, they'd dig up the plug and not have to cut into the main. ===========
Sorry fellas – It’s a VERY common myth, but the story about ol’ tyme firefighters finding a wooden water main, drilling a hole, and inserting a wooden “plug” in following the fire, is a bit “firemanicized.” . . . .
First let me digress into a short lesson fire hydrants (plugs).
The modern above-ground post or pillar fire hydrant was developed in Philadelphia about 1801. Shortly there after most cities with any type of water system (water mains) had above-ground stand-pipes connections (often insulated in wooden boxed and/or barrel-shaped structures that were insulated with sawdust to keep the residual water from freezing.
London Fire Plugs
Prior to 1801 we suspect most American water systems were similar to those used in London — as is described in this 1876 book, “Fire-Protection-A-Complete-Manual.” It did indeed utilize wooden “plugs” but they were predrilled and insulated in cast-iron sockets — (see the description on Pg 25-26)
From the book:
Fire protection, a complete manual of the organization, machinery…
By Eyre Massey Shaw (sir.)
“These fire-plugs consist, as their name expresses, of plugs or conical pieces of wood, which, when in use, are stuck into corresponding hollow iron sockets, cast on and forming part of the pipes, and these sockets communicate directly with the waterway inside.
The socket is generally some two feet or so below the ground level, and the water is kept in simply by the conical plug being hammered tightly into the tapered opening, but without any other fastening whatever. The top of the wooden plug stands below the street level, and is protected from injury above by a small iron plate or paving" box, which, either partially or completely, covers’ the hole leading to the socket. The plug is also supposed to receive additional steadiness in its position and protection from frost by the hole being stuffed all round the head, and up to the Is street level, with horse litter or some such material, assumed to be a non-conductor; but, unfortunately for this theory, it occasionally happens that not only the pipe and plug become frozen together into a compact and rigid mass. . . .
In order to draw a plug, it is necessary for the turncock, as a general rule, first to pick out the stuffing, and after this to insert an end of one of the tools, and to pinch the head of the plug to either side, until the lower end or conical part becomes loose in the socket.
Then, if the pipe be charged under pressure, the wooden plug will fly out; but if the pipe be not charged, it is necessary to stick the pointed end of the tool known as the spoon into the top of the head, and by this means draw the plug within reach of the hand, and so remove it, after which the sluice-cock is opened to admit the water from the main.
For our ordinary purposes, it is usual to place over the plug-hole a canvass J cistern or dam, with a hole in the bottom 8 of about the same size as the street opening, to allow the water to run in and fill the dam, and then to pump it I into an engine and out again, through hose, to wherever it is wanted.
When the water is used with the pressure of the main only, a stand-pipe is inserted, the lower end or shoe-piece fitting into the socket, and being secured by wedges driven in round it at the ground level or paving box; a hose is attached to the stand-pipe, and the water is forced through it by the pressure due to the height of the reservoir or source.
American Fire Plugs
Author/historian Kennith Dunshee talks about "fire plugs,” on page 32 of his pivotal book, Enjine-Enjine, but rather than the popular drill’em-n-fill’em story he describes, something more akin to the London system:
From the book:
By Kennith Dunshee
“New York’s first attempt at organizing a more dependable system of water supply resulted in the forming of the Manhattan Water Company toward the close of the 18th century. Elaborate plans to pipe water from Harlem were never carried out, the Company merely erecting a reservoir and pumping water into it from wells sunk in the vicinity. This water, what there was of it, was distributed by means of mains in the form of hollowed-out logs. A cross-section of one of these is shown here. * It was from the large wooden plugs that were used to close the taps in these wooden pipes that the present day term of “plug” or “fire-plug” was derived in referring to hydrants. *
The first hydrant, which was covered by an octagon-shaped wooden enclosure held together by iron straps, was located in the front of the Frankfort Street home of George E. Smith, a member of Engine Company No. 12, in the year 1817. The Manhattan’s water system never being satisfactory, this hydrant saw but little use, although it was the start of the hydrant system in the city.
Before fire-engines were equipped with suctions, bucket lines had to be formed to serve the engines with water from the pumps or, wherever possible, the feeder-box of the engine was placed directly under the pump spout or trough. The minutes of Engine Company No. 13 for May 9, 1809, record that "The engine (at 4:30 A.M.) was taken to the place in good time and placed under the Old Manhattan Pump, when we played with good Effect for at least three hours” the Fire was truly alarming, being principally Wooden Buildings, did great Execution among them.
Wooden Water Mains
Lets be clear, wooden water mains, were used at various times in various places for both municipal water supplies (such as firefighting) and sanitary sewer pipes. Many surviving examples of these wooden water mains have small “holes” which have been touted as evidence of the firefighters drilling a hole and fitting in “fire plugs” — but I would counter that these small lateral holes have other (more logical) rival explanations such as other pipe connections and such. There is a lot of interesting stuff about wooden water mains to be found on the website:
. . . . .but wait — even this website cites the drill’em-n-fill’em “fire plug” myth (nearly word for word the same as all other instances of it on the interweb). . . It is as if someone had some of the facts, but not the entire story (must have been a fire chief – wink!) and so they concocted this good story, and — as good stories are apt to do — it was memorable, got passed around (and embellished a bit) and — poof — it’s gone “viral!”
I don’t have much evidence to refute the story, rather we find NO evidence to support the story in the first place. We’ve found no contemporary accounts of the firefighters “chopping a hole?” Nothing in newspapers, or fire company minute books, We have several of tales (and illustrations) of them using and “guarding” plugs (hydrant) in the early 19th century — but nothing about chopping a hole or even removing a plug (stopper)?
. . . Putting on my MYTH BUSTERS hat! . . .
If the story is to be believed, such a hole would would need to be “drilled” (not chopped) because you’d want a semi regular hole what a “plug” could fit into and seal. With that said, I’m not aware of any no hand-drill/auger with a fire company logo — and you and I know they loved to put their name on things! I haven’t even seen an engine, or hose wagon that has any type of convenient holder/bracket to carry drill/auger . . . . And in fact seeing how small the tool-boxes are on the late 18th century hand engines I doubt an drill would FIT (along with a wrench, a nozzle, and whatever-else). . . . I don’t think I’ve even heard mention of a drill/auger in any volunteer fire company rule book or annual fire company inventory — and neither have I heard of (or seen inventoried) a supply of the extra wooden plugs that (presumably pre-made) would need to be carried at the ready to stop-up the hole after an impromptu opening was made, and the flames quenched.
Again, I don’t doubt that some early cities with water-works (Boston, Philadelphia, etc) indeed may have had plugs, rather what I contest is the whole, “spontaneity” of firefighters locating a main, digging, drilling, and then plugging after the fact. I contest that prior to the 1810s fire fire plugs may have been just that — manufactured, predetermined, easily accessible, “plugs” (stoppers) that could be opened up in case of a fire.
It’s also important to note (see above website) that wooden water mains were used (installed new) up throughout the 19th and into the early 20th century — and yet, we know that cast iron fire “hydrants” were widely used by the post-civil war. That means many of the wooden mains discovered (uncovered) would never ever have HAD wooden plugs, because they were manufactured and installed in the post-plug (late 19th, early 20th century) “hydrant” era.
Ironsman on May 09 2016 at 07:01PM
High quality hoodie please, I am willing to pay for a good one…
POP POP on April 29 2016 at 09:43AM
I’ve been around along time, 39 years on the job, humping hose till the end. I know what a fire plug was and how we got the term, I even tried to explain it a few times to the young guys. But, I did not know the history of or the term PLUG UGLY. Two fists, the brawling tough guy, probably the original hydrant man. I don’ know if anybody remembers doing hard suction hook ups, sure you do. What a great piece of our history, THANK YOU. Knuckle tats and two fist images have been around along long time and I love the way you put that image together with PLUG UGLY on your T shirt. Again the history with the image you created is perfect.Thanks Again POP POP