The Year Was 1877: Fire and Ice (Part 1)

Articles printed in the Daily Fort Worth Standard of 1877 remind us that 136 years ago basic city services in Cowtown were still rudimentary.

Basic city services such as fire protection and water distribution. Fort Worth, which had incorporated only in 1873, had no “running water” in 1877, no water mains, no fire hydrants. The city had only a few artesian wells, would not build its first waterworks until 1882. It was a dangerous scenario: Water distribution was minimal, most buildings in Fort Worth were made of wood, and people used fire to cook, to heat, to burn rubbish.

This news article shows the inevitable result: conflagration. The Standard called on the city to buy at least one fire engine even if the city had to—gasp!—levy a tax. The M. T. Johnson Hook and Ladder Company, formed in 1873 and named for Middleton Tate Johnson, was manned by volunteers (among them Timothy Isaiah “Longhaired Jim” Courtright). The loss of $18,000 in this fire would be about $380,000 today.

Fort Worth did what it needed to do: In 1877 the city bought its first fire engine. But what about the water that new engine needed to pump onto fires? In this clip the newspaper called for cisterns to store water to fight fires.

This clip shows progress on two fronts: A cistern was being dug. So was a new bank building—made of brick, not wood.

And soon the city’s first fire engine was able to pump water from that first cistern. The “contractors” referred to probably were those building the new courthouse. Why was Tarrant County getting a new courthouse in 1877? Because in 1876 the old courthouse burned.

Looking eight years into the future, this Sanborn map of 1885 shows that downtown by then had water mains and hydrants but also still had fire cisterns.

The Year Was 1877: Fire and Ice (Part 2)

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3 Responses to The Year Was 1877: Fire and Ice (Part 1)

  1. David Williams says:

    I was going to the Sanborn maps online trying to determine the abbreviations and still have a question…were the D.H.s actual water line hydrants or were they in-ground cisterns? Also, do you know how the circa 1880s hydrants were utilized?

    • hometown says:

      David, as I understand it, in 1882 the Fort Worth Waterworks Company (Paddock, Zane Cetti, etc.), in conjunction with the Holly Waterworks Company, installed a water system, which included a plant with pump near the confluence, mains, and “a certain number of fire plugs” (for which the city paid rent to Holly). The city used both artesian wells and the river as sources. I think a double hydrant had connections for two hoses. I assume the water was pressurized at the plant. Even into 1885, using a “belt and suspenders” caution, we still had fire cisterns, rated in hundreds of barrels. But I don’t see any cisterns on the 1889 map.

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