New Yorkers Have Been Turning Fire Hydrants Into Sprinklers Since 1896

By Alissa Walker on at

No image says American summer more than a cracked-open fire hydrant spewing city water into a New York street. Although not intended as their primary role in the metropolis, it turns out that fire hydrants have served as guerilla heat relief for 120 years.

At Atlas Obscura, Dan Nosowitz gives a fascinating infrastructural history of hydrants and their dual job of keeping New York City cool.

Hydrants are managed and maintained by the New York Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which oversee a network of 109,000 all over the city. Although hydrants have evolved from buckets of water stationed on corners, to actual “plugs” in water mains made from hollowed-out logs, the current design has remained largely unchanged since 1869, when an above-ground iron hydrant was needed to control the newly pressurised water system.

The first instance of the city opening a hydrant came during the deadly heat wave of 1896, when Manhattan’s poorest were dying after being subjected to temperatures topping 37 degrees C indoors. The hydrant wasn’t exactly intended for recreation, but it ended up being used that way:

Eventually, with the death toll rising sharply, the police commissioner, a young Teddy Roosevelt, demanded (among other efforts like allowing people to sleep in parks) that the fire department plug into the fire hydrants in lower Manhattan and spray down the streets, cleaning off the garbage, filth, dead animals (many many horses were killed and left on the street if they got too hot), and various other horrible substances and smells that were plaguing the city. New Yorkers, enterprising as always, treated this like a water park. Writes Kohn, quoting a letter written by the head of the fire department at the time:

“It was a great boon to the poor people in the tenement district. Parents literally brought their children in the street to have the water poured on them and there was at least 50,000 little ones to whom it was a perfect holiday. Many of the adult citizens thanked me and everybody seemed to think it was a good thing.”

During the 1900s opening a hydrant became a ritual of summer, but it also proved to be dangerous (the blast of water could seriously hurt someone) and annoying (it causes water pressure to drop in the neighbourhood). Because of the inherent risk, the city doesn’t want people disabling a hydrant to turn it into a sprinkler on your own, so the fire department will do it for them, installing a spray cap that helps save water.

The law-abiding part kinda takes the fun out of it, huh? But it’s good to know the next time the weather is sticky and disgusting in NYC. It's just a shame we don't have that sort of thing over here, you know for next year's annual 'complain about the heat day'. Not sure Boris's water cannons would work quite as well...

Make sure to head over to Atlas Obscura to check out the whole, fascinating history.

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews