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Curator’s Log
June 2014
Citizens Rejoice as the Ancient Town of Bristol is Protected from Fire

The above are the words the Boston Globe used to describe the delighted citizens of Bristol following the March 15, 1876 test of the town’s new fire protection system.  Drawing water through pipes to the harbor the new system attained a steady fire main pressure of 125 psi within 6 minutes of the alarm to light the new Herreshoff Patented Safety Coil Boiler. It placed Bristol at the forefront of American cities that would opt for the new technology and the envy of a less well-protected city of London.
In 1855 the first water pipes for fire protection were laid in the principal city streets of Bristol. Power was supplied by several corporations, but as the town grew it could not keep up with demand. An expanded fresh water system was deemed to expensive, therefore the decision to draw water from the harbor.
The new system, considered a bargain at $17,000, consisted of a pumping station just off Thames Street, a 400 hp Knowles Patent Steam Pump ($2300), the Herreshoff Patented Safety Coil Boiler constructed of 550 feet of 3-inch pipe, standing 12 feet high by 5 feet nine inches in diameter and costing $2500 including its connecting piping, about 12,000 feet of cast iron pipe buried to a depth of 4½ feet and forty-two hydrants (twenty-one new). [i]
The quick response time of the system was due to the Herreshoff Safety Coil Boiler patented by James B. Herreshoff in 1874. It was a game changer. In the words of W. P. Stephens, it “occupies less space; takes less metal and less fuel than other boilers; steam can be produced from cold water in two to five minutes; and it is non-explosive”.[ii]
The furnace of the boiler was kept charged with pine wood and the boiler dry. On the alarm of a fire the watch engineer, who lived in the pump house, doused the wood with petroleum and ignited the fire. When the boiler was sufficiently heated, water was emitted, and within a short five minutes after light off the pump was started, pressurizing the town fire mains to as much as 140 psi. [iii]
The March 15th contract trial for the system was witnessed by a number of citizens, the Bristol Town Committee, Chief Engineers of the Providence and Pawtucket Fire Departments, James B. Herreshoff, and other equipment representatives. The Bristol Fire Department attached seven hoses to hydrants at the highest point in town (on the hill opposite the rubber works); some 3500 feet of pipe from the pumping station and 42 feet above it. The seven 1-1/8 inch nozzle streams reached the height of 135 feet despite a prevailing high wind. [iv]
High-pressure fire protection systems, such as this, were not the norm. In 1879 the Engineering of London put things in perspective when it chastised the City Press (London) for claiming that with the addition of some new hose stations London would be the “best protected city in the world from fire”. Engineering described the capabilities of the Bristol system and noted that London’s hydrants were limited to 30 pounds pressure; creating a “feeble and ineffective jet” when trying to fight a building fire from the street.  [v]
The citizens of Bristol had good reason to be proud of their new fire protection system.
John Palmieri

[i] How the Ancient Town is Protected From Fire. Boston Globe March 16, 1876.
[ii] Steam Yachting in America, Chapter XXI of W. P. Stephens, American Yachting. The MacMillan Co. London. 1904. Page 601.
[iii] The Herreshoff Steam Generator, Engineering. London. February 7, 1879.
[iv] The Boston Globe and Engineering articles differ in some details. These ‘facts” are taken from the Boston Globe article that was written at the time of the test.
[v] The Herreshoff Steam Generator, Engineering. London. February 7, 1879.

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