More on fireplugs

Alice Faber faber at HASKINS.YALE.EDU
Thu Feb 12 22:02:59 UTC 2004

At about the same time we were discussing fire hydrants and fire
plugs here, there was a parallel discussion on the newsgroup
alt.folklore.urban, under the unlikely subject heading: "The "Country
Plug"  [WAS: Scottish Castle Magic]". Well, not quite parallel. Lee
Ayrton found some illuminating historical detail on fireplugs which
seems germane. I repost the following, with his kind permission.

In article <Pine.NEB.4.58.0402071000090.7292 at>,
Lee Ayrton <layrton at> wrote:

>  On Fri, 6 Feb 2004, Louise Bremner wrote:
>  > Lee Ayrton <layrton at> wrote:
>  >
>  > > On Wed, 4 Feb 2004, Gerald Clough wrote:
>  >
>  > > > Around the fire station, we had an old hydrant mounted on a pipework
>  > > > base, so that it could be brought out for drills. More than once, a
>  > > > passerby asked what it was and was told that it was our "country plug"
>  > > > for fires out in the county where there were no regular hydrants and
>  > > > where we would throw out the country plug and hook up. More than one
>  > > > seemed satisfied with the answer.
>  > > As much as I resisted the etymology the last time I forced myself to look
>  > > it up it appears that the term "fire plug" does, in fact, refer to the
>  > > antiquated practice of drilling holes in water mains in order to obtain
>  > > water to fight fires, then sealing the hole with a removable plug.  The
>  > > would come in handy, and cut down on the mud considerably.
>  >
>  > So it's not a new idea?
>  Apparently not, although, as I said above, I resisted it as too pat an
>  explanation.   It sounded too much like "cop" is from the buttons
>  on police uniforms for me.  See:
>  12. A Brief History of the Hydrant - Revised 1-28-2003
>  <URL:>
>  [quote]----------------------
>     In the photo at left is a shattered section of wooden water main that
>  was dug up in recent years. The hole bored into it is believed to be
>  that of a "fire plug", city of Cincinnati, Ohio, early 1800s.
>  [...]
>     According to author Curt Wohleber, writing in American Heritage "After
>  fire destroyed three-quarters of London in 1666, the city installed
>  new mains with predrilled holes and plugs that rose above ground
>  level."... ..."In the 1700s, valves began to replace the simple wood
>  [unquote]--------------------
>  Another source:
>   <URL:>
>   The above wouldn't connect, for whatever reason.  Google cache:
>  [quote]----------------------
>     Source: Courtesy of Dick Riegler, Philadelphia Suburban Water
>  Company.800_hd08.jpg] Fire plugs and wood pipe. When hollowed-out wood
>     log pipes were first used for water conveyance in the late 1700s -
>     early 1800s, it became apparent that they could also be used as a
>     source of water to fight fires. When a fire occurred, the
>     firefighters (volunteers) dug down, found the log pipe, and augered
>     a hole through it. [Note: In some early water systems, such as
>     Philadelphia's -- followed soon thereafter by systems in New York
>     and Boston -- wood plugs were installed at specific locations (mid-
>     block, etc.) when the main itself was installed, so that the
>     firemen would know where to find a plug in advance.] Water would
>     fill the firemen's excavation,forming a "wet well" to either get
>     buckets of water from, or serving as a reservoir for pumps to pull
>     water from.
>  [unquote]--------------------
>  And, because three is a nice number for sources:
>   16. NOVA | Transcripts | Escape: Fire | PBS
>       <URL:>
>  [quote]----------------------
>     by more fire-resistant brick. Soon, a better water system went under
>     construction. Wooden mains were still used, but now, holes were
>     pre-cut in them. Removable plugs were placed in the hole. And they
>     were made long enough to reach above ground, marking, for the next
>     fire, exactly where the water was. This is the origin of the phrase
>     "fire plug," what some people still call hydrants today. But the Great
>  [unquote]--------------------
>  I couldn't find anything in print in my big shelf of books on words.  If
>  it isn't an accurate etymology, it least it is well-worn.

Alice Faber                                             faber at
Haskins Laboratories                                  tel: (203) 865-6163 x258
New Haven, CT 06511 USA                                     fax (203) 865-8963

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