Portland Oregon Fire Hydrants - Part 1

Text and Images © 2002-3 Allen McMillan Revised December 12, 2003

    Portland Oregon is the 28th largest city in the United States, with a population of 530,000 people. The City's water utility, the Portland Water Bureau, maintains approximately 2,000 miles of pipe and 13,000 fire hydrants. Portland has an unusually varied fire hydrant population, including designs and manufacturers found nowhere else.
    Most of Portland's newer fire hydrants are common varieties that are already well documented. Bearing this in mind, this city specification page focuses on locally manufactured hydrants and how they fit in to the history of Portland's water system.

    The Portland Water Company, a privately owned business, installed Portland's first fire hydrant in 1864. There was no public water utility and the City's water was drawn from nearby creeks or pumped from the Willamette River. Few details concerning fire hydrants from this time period survive, but they were probably paid for by private businesses desiring increased fire protection. By the 1880s, Portland's fire hydrants (all 47 of them) were operated by The Portland Hydraulic Elevator Company under a contract with the City.
    The Portland Water Board, predecessor to the modern Water Bureau, was formed in 1885. The Board's plan for a municipal water system called for purchasing all water rights for the Bull Run River to the East. The water would be conveyed to the city by means of a 27-mile long conduit. As part of the plan, a new system of 400 fire hydrants would protect the entire city center.
    Portland was a long way from any established fire hydrant manufacturer in 1885, but it was the region's center of industry and the largest port North of San Francisco. There were a number of local foundries and iron works with the skills and equipment needed to manufacture fire hydrants. Although no detailed records concerning these hydrants have been found, some locally manufactured hydrants from the 19th century are still service today.
    The original 1885 plan called for fire hydrants to be installed and maintained by the Water Board's main contractor, P. F. Morey. At some point these duties became the domain of the Fire Department. Concrete information about fire hydrants remains elusive until 1904, when the responsibility for installing new hydrants was given to the Water Board for budgetary reasons. A substantial number of Water Board hydrant records from this period still exist.
    Much of Portland's municipal water system is made up of smaller private water companies purchased by the City as it expanded. These companies each had their own standards and specifications for everything from meters to hydrants. During the early 20th century, Portland's water system resembled a patchwork that defied standardization. Many of the city's hydrants were produced by major hydrant manufactures in the East like Ludlow Valve, Waterous Engine Works or R. D. Wood. A substantial number of locally manufactured designs by Phoenix Iron Works, Oregon Foundry and Willamette Iron Works were already in service as well.
    The joint administration of fire hydrants by the Water Bureau and Fire Department did anything but increase standardization. The Fire Department, in charge of maintaining the hydrants, desired standardization and ease of maintenance in its new hydrants. Some Fire Chiefs also favored additional features like independently gated hose nozzles that added to the cost of the hydrants. The Water Board, which purchased new fire hydrants out of it's own budget, was inclined to favor the low bidder whenever practical.
   The City's hydrant specifications and purchasing decisions reflected the current state of compromise between the two departments, and often changed when their leadership changed. Attempts to satisfy both departments resulted in some unusual compromises like the "Corey" Standard that existed from 1922 through the 1930s.

Hydrant Specifications
    Included below are examples of Portland hydrant specifications past and present. These are representative samples for the time period in which hydrants were manufactured in Portland. Specifications for 1907, 1910, 1915 and many later sets of specifications still exist in the City Archives.
    1911 Hydrant Specifications.   Hydrants for the boom that followed the activation of Conduit 2.
    1922 Hydrant Specifications.   First year of the "Corey" Standard.
    1933 Hydrant Specifications.   Last year that a local manufacturer won a hydrant bid.
    2002 Hydrant Specifications.   Modern hydrant specification.

Painting Specifications
    Portland fire hydrants are color-coded to describe their pressure, special function and other information. There are a number of different color schemes in the City's hydrant color specifications, but most of them are rarely used.
    It should also be noted that most of the fire hydrants shown here do not conform to the current city painting rules. Portland's old fire hydrants are equipped with a nozzle thread that does not conform to the 1911 standard adopted by the National Fire Protection Agency. This "Portland thread" was standard on all City hydrants until the 1920s and it was still considered acceptable on new hydrants through the 1930s. The City's old painting specifications called for black pumper nozzle caps on "Portland thread" hydrants and red pumper nozzle caps of NFPA thread hydrants. Although current painting rules do not make this distinction, there are still thousands of hydrants with the old thread and black pumper nozzle caps in service.

Acknowledgments / Source Material
    This history of Portland's fire hydrants would not have been possible without the invaluable assistance of the Portland City Archives, Portland Water Bureau, and the encouragement of the staff.
    Considerably more information has been uncovered than can be presented here, but a summary of significant source material and its location in the City Archives (where applicable) is included here.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3
Back to Hydrant Pictures