Fire Hydrants, Creepy Inventors, and Sharknados: Why You Should Travel with a Writer

Last week I wrote about the wonderful anniversary trip my husband and I took to the impossibly beautiful and powerful Niagara Falls. And it really was a great trip, complete with a bicycle wine tour through the Niagara wine region and all the romance you might expect from the first honeymoon capital of the world.

But the trip didn’t end there. Because if you happen to marry a historical fiction writer (which you’d only do if you have a quirky sense of adventure), then you occasionally have to make a side research trip.

This is what it's like to go on a quick getaway with a historical fiction writer. That's right. It's awesome!
This is what it’s like to go on a quick getaway with a historical fiction writer. That’s right. It’s awesome!

Fortunately my husband does have a quirky sense of adventure and is generally up for the occasional odd research side trip. So after the falls, we headed next to the little town of Lockport, New York to take a ride down the Erie Canal.

That’s where I was introduced to Birdsill Holly. In 1863, in the then booming canal town, hydraulic engineer and inventor extraordinaire Birdsill Holly brought together several of his previous inventions and introduced the world to his Fire Protection and Water System.

Holly wasn’t the first person to patent a fire hydrant. That honor probably goes to an engineer by the name of Frederick Graff, Sr., who allegedly patented a hydrant design in 1801, though history may never know for certain because the record of it was destroyed (ironically) by a patent office fire.

What Holly can be credited with, however, is putting together a system of pumps powered by water-turbines and steam-engines to bring high pressure water to hydrants placed throughout a town. He started in Lockport, but several cities liked what they saw and Holly’s system was soon in place in major cities across the nation, eventually including Chicago, which unfortunately rejected the system until after the great fire of 1871 when it quickly came around to the idea.

Now I don’t know about you, but despite the fact that Holly is largely responsible for the introduction of modern fire protection and steam-powered central heating systems, and was a friend of and occasional collaborator with Thomas Edison, I’d never heard of him.

And if fire safety and steam heating aren't enough, you should know Holly as the man behind the cave featured in Sharknado 2, if you're into the Sharknado movies, which I guess maybe you could be?
And if fire safety and steam heating aren’t enough, you should know Holly as the man behind the cave featured in Sharknado 2, if you’re into the Sharknado movies, which I guess maybe you could be?

And it turns out the reason why may be because nobody (except perhaps Edison who was impressed by the man’s genius) seemed to like him very much. Holly made himself a social outcast shortly after setting up his company in Lockport by divorcing his wife and marrying his ward Sophia who was around 12 at the time.  Even by Woody Allen standards, that’s pretty creepy.

And then there was the free whiskey he provided for the low-wage workers who dug out the large tunnel through which he supplied hydromechanical power to three Lockport businesses including the Holly Manufacturing Company. His logic was that he could not be held accountable for accidents if his workers chose to be drunk on the job.

An original whiskey barrel from the Lockport Cave. But don't worry, the kids were only allowed one cup per hour while working.
An original whiskey barrel from the Lockport Cave. But don’t worry, the kids were only allowed one cup per hour while working.

But at least he limited how much whiskey was given to the “powder monkeys” (young boys employed to pack and ignite explosives in hard to reach areas because they were 1.smaller, 2. faster, and 3. more expendable). He only allowed the children half the whiskey that the adult workers were encouraged to consume every hour.

All that remains of the Holly Manufacturing Company.
All that remains of the Holly Manufacturing Company.

Of course it turned out that industrial hydromechanical power was short-lived, as easier energy-producing methods came along soon after, but the tunnel is still open for tours.  After our thoroughly informative (and actually pretty fantastic) ride down the Erie Canal, we toured the (drunken) man-made Lockport Cave and learned all about the man who had it constructed, including the wonderful piece of information that the Holly Manufacturing Company, producer of fire hydrants and provider of fire protection systems throughout the nation, eventually burned to the ground. And the citizens of Lockport thought that was pretty funny.

In just a quick (and frankly not exactly exhaustive) Internet search, I have not been able to find reference to that part of the story, but I did with my own eyes see the remains of the destroyed building’s foundation and a picture of the blaze.

Fire hydrant at the edge of the parking lot where the factory once stood. If only Holly had thought to install this one before the fire.
Fire hydrant at the edge of the parking lot where the factory once stood. If only Holly had thought to install this one before the fire.

And that, my friends, is why you should consider traveling with a historical fiction writer. Because you never know what characters you may meet and what great little stories you might discover when you set out on a quirky little research side trip.

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9 thoughts on “Fire Hydrants, Creepy Inventors, and Sharknados: Why You Should Travel with a Writer

  1. This is a brilliant article. No wonder your husband married a historical fiction writer! I rather like the “could not be held accountable for accidents if his workers chose to be drunk on the job”. I think I’ll go out and buy a bottle for myself!

  2. Lesley

    The picture of the “whisky barrel” was actually a calderon that the employees made for Halloween and the fibreglass expanded and they couldn’t get it out so they left it. Lovely story!

I love comments! Please keep them PG, though. I blush easily.

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