Updated: Apr 10, 2019
Sandon is an interesting place for many reasons. One remarkable but perhaps under-appreciated aspect is that it is (or ought to be) a Mecca for antique fire hydrant aficionados.
At one time the town had 11 hydrants. Today there are nine, pictured below, although only two are original to Sandon.
Top row, from left: 1) Next to old laundry in upper Sandon. This one is several feet tall and is the most photographed Sandon hydrant. 2) At corner of unfinished replica building near museum. 3) East of Prospector’s Pick, in parking lot. Middle row from left: 4) West of Prospector’s Pick. 5) In lower Sandon, red light district. 6) In front of museum. Bottom row, from left: 7) Near the southeast corner of the bridge entering Sandon. 8) Near the public washrooms. 9) Along the K&S right of way; right hand side when leaving Sandon.
The earliest ones were installed in 1897 by John Morgan Harris, who owned much of the town, including the Sandon Water and Light Co.
The Sandon Paystreak of July 31, 1897 reported: “Mr. Harris is going to a large expense to give the town an ample supply of water for fire purposes, with new mains and plenty of hydrants…” The same issue elaborated:
PLENTY OF HYDRANTS
A number of additional hydrants are to be erected to give fire protection to the new residences. There will be one on the Wonderful trail to protect the houses on that hill; another on the K&S track that will bring the sawmill within range; another close to the CPR depot which will protect the Reco concentrator from below, Black’s hotel, and buildings in the immediate neighborhood from the back; another on Slocan street near Hammond's livery stable; the next on the corner of Ivanhoe street, and the next near the power station to cut off a fire coming up from below. Reco avenue is at present well supplied with hydrants …
Further hydrant items from The Paystreak that fall:
Oct. 2: “J.M. Harris states that pipe and seven hydrants have been ordered and will be in place 15 days after their arrival. A pipe and hydrants will be put along the K&S tracks.”
Oct. 23: “Five fire plugs will be put in from which any part of Reco Ave. can be reached form the rear. A plug will also be put in on the K&S tracks, below the church.”
Nov. 13: “Six hydrants have arrived and are being put in place.”
By mid-November it sounded like they were still being installed. In February 1898, Harris offered to rent nine hydrants to the newly-incorporated City of Sandon at $15 each per month. Council accepted, although later they tried to bargain the price down to $10.
In July 1899, Harris accused the assistant fire chief of damaging hydrants and other parts of the water system. A committee was appointed to investigate, but I don’t know the outcome.
Later that summer, council asked the company to move the hydrant on the Wonderful trail “to a point equidistant and between the hydrants at the city gaol and Hammond Bros. livery barn,” but I don’t know if it happened.
One classic photo of Reco Ave. shows a hydrant built directly into the front stairs of Harris’ first Reco Hotel.
Ironically, the hydrants weren’t much help in the city’s devastating fire of May 1900 that burned most of the business district.
Harris insisted the system had ample water and lost pressure “only after a number of lines of hose had been permitted to burn up while attached, leaving the hydrants to flow unchecked in the streets.”
However, fire chief Frank Sewell replied:
The water from the hydrant in front of the Reco Hotel played out in just half an hour from the time of the first alarm, and if the fire spread with such rapidity that in half an hour the hydrants supplying ‘a number of lines’ became too hot to stand by, thus causing failure of the upper hydrant, any man outside of the brigade could be excused for deserting the hydrant and forgetting to shut it down. But if the hydrants were left open how was it that they were not still running in the morning when the ruins became sufficiently cool to reach them?
Several hydrants were badly damaged in the fire and had to be replaced. The Sandon Water and Light Co. agreed to repair the system and provide 11 hydrants at a rate of $12.50 per month, or a total of $1,650 per year.
The contract signed with the city obliged the company to both supply water to the hydrants and clear snow around them.
Late in 1900, The Paystreak reported that “The people of Cody Avenue want another fire hydrant and should have it. That part of the town is poorly supplied with fire protection.”
As of March 1901, only eight hydrants were in working order. It’s unclear what the problem was with the other three. Also that month, the company claimed the city had only paid three months’ rent since October 1899 and “unless the accounts due … are satisfactorily settled … the service will be discontinued and hydrants dismantled.”
Mayor Herbert Pitts, who was in the midst of an unrelated dispute with Johnny Harris, refused to sign a contract renewal. He said the city would not pay Harris because he was in arrears on his municipal taxes and the hydrants had been tested and only six of the eight actually worked.
This hydrant went missing around 2007. The following year, Dr. Gomm’s house, seen at left, burned down. But the hydrant would not have done it any good.
The company set about “repairing the hydrants that have been out of commission for several months. All the hydrants but two will be in an efficient condition in a few days.” Harris and the city ultimately settled their differences.
In June 1901, a problem arose with the hydrant near the CPR depot. The railway was built a platform that would cover it over. City council instructed the fire chief to ensure that it wasn’t put out of service.
In the spring of 1902, The Paystreak reported problems with several hydrants: “The hydrant at the Paystreak office. The one at the CPR depot and the one on the old Reco corner are all out of commission and two or three at the lower end can not be depended on.”
The contract was renewed annually at least through 1911, with the wording and number of hydrants unchanged. It is not clear how long they continued to be functional. Sandon’s Hal Wright told me:
In order to keep them from freezing, horse manure was piled high around each hydrant at the beginning of winter. The warmth of the rotting manure kept them from freezing. In searching through the old City of Sandon records at the BC Archives I discovered that the city issued an annual contract to have a local supplier provide the manure.
Wright also notes that the water supply for Sandon’s mains and hydrants was a 60,000 gallon wooden reservoir high on the hill. It doubled as the supply for Johnny Harris’ power plant.
Water pressure in the mains (and the power plant) was 180 psi, twice as much as is the normal today for fire hydrants. Imagine trying to hang on to that hose! A probable reason that fire hydrants ran short of water in the big fire was that the power plant was running at the same time. Water should have been shut off to the turbine but chances are nobody thought about it during the confusion.
By the mid-1950s, the few remaining hydrants captured the imagination of writers, artists, and photographers. With weeds growing around them, they became a symbol of Sandon’s decline as a mining town.
Nanaimo Daily News, Sept. 19, 1955: “Its [Sandon’s] water system and six-feet-high water hydrants, built so because of deep winter snows, were installed by Harris 63 [sic] years ago.”
The Province, July 14, 1958: “J.M. Harris’ … foresight resulted in a water system with hydrants six feet high, which could be handily reached when the snow lay deep in the valley.”
One of those six-foot hydrants was depicted in the summer 1964 edition of Beautiful British Columbia magazine, in the debut issue of Canada West Magazine in 1969, and the book Pioneer Days in British Columbia, Vol. I (1973).
Moira Farrow, in her 1975 book Nobody Here But Us, wrote: “Not only was Sandon well serviced by power much earlier than most of BC, but it also had excellent fire fighting equipment in the form of high-pressure hydrants. These were the famous six feet high hydrants that stood out even in deep snow.” She also quoted resident Gene Peterson:
They provided very high-pressure water and there’s only two left in town now … I keep an eye on them, otherwise they’d have been dug up long ago. We keep water running out of them to show that they are still in use, but we still have to chase away guys who want to take them as souvenirs.
Of the hydrants of the six-foot high variety, there is now only one, near the old laundry at the upper end of town. (I haven’t measured to see if it’s actually six feet tall. I suspect it is more like four feet.)
This is the most photographed and remarked upon hydrant for several reasons. In addition to its height, it used to have a long pipe extending from it — and indeed, water streamed from it at least into the 1980s. It didn’t gush full blast, but was much more than a trickle. You can catch a glimpse of it in the 1973 film Sandon on the Silvery Slocan, as seen below.
There’s another quick glimpse of the hydrant in winter during the credits at 26:50. It’s also featured in colour footage of Sandon in the National Film Board of Canada’s 1966 film Ghosts of a River.
This hydrant and one other still in Sandon bear the inscription “Michigan B & I Works/Compression Hydrant/Detroit, Mich.”
According to firehydrant.org, the central repository for all things hydrant-related, not much is known about the company. But other examples of the same hydrant can be found in Illinois and elsewhere.
The 1955 washout that undermined much of the town destroyed Harris’ water system. However, the gulch area, and its two hydrants, were not affected. Hal Wright recalls:
Eugene Peterson and Tony Maxinuk cut the water main off near the old K&S station and drove a big wooden plug into the end of it. Then they created the present water intake up the Cody gulch from a spring across the creek. It kept that end of Sandon supplied with water until I replaced the original water mains in the 1990s. The pressure was much less than Harris’s original system but it was better than nothing. The water was kept flowing out of both hydrants to keep them from freezing and to deter thieves.
However, just before Peterson’s death in 1989, one of the hydrants, which once stood near the office of the Sandon Paystreak, was knocked over by a Ministry of Highways snowplow. The hydrant was irreparably damaged, much to Peterson’s frustration. Wright dug a hole and replanted it, but one day it went missing.
“Somebody pulled it out of the ground, probably aware that it was not anchored by a water main,” Wright says. “The laundry hydrant was not repairable when we put in the new pipes in the 1990s and without spending a huge amount of money to fix it, we just had to let it be dry.”
A second hydrant in this style is found in front of the Sandon museum, minus the tall barrel. I don’t know where the third originally stood, but at some point before 1989, Johnny’s wife Alma donated it to Silverton’s outdoor mining museum. It’s pictured above. It has since been moved across the road and now sits next to the Fingland Cabin, close to the village’s old fire truck.
Seven Sandon hydrants bear the inscription “The Kerr Engine Co. Ltd./Walkerville, Ont.” This foundry was founded in 1872 in Sandwich, Ont. and moved to Walkerville four years later. It was incorporated as the Kerr Engine Co. Ltd. in 1890.
Wright explains that these hydrants all came from Kaslo and were in use until the late 1980s, when the village installed a new water system.
The old hydrants were slated for the scrapyard when Wright asked council to donate them to Sandon to make up for ones that had been stolen or otherwise gone missing over the years. (Gene Peterson wasn’t kidding when he talked about people swiping them, despite their weight.)
They generously donated the hydrants and I used our backhoe and my children’s help to install them, mostly as close to the original locations as possible. In some cases, the broken base and the centre rod still was in the ground from the original hydrants which had just been ripped out crudely by souvenir hunters. Even stuff that was bolted down got stolen! They only had about four feet of pipe below ground so we could not install them in the tall way that the original ones were. That is why these ones are installed at ground level. None of these are hooked up to old water mains.
One of these hydrants took the place of the one by the former Paystreak office that was stolen — but this one was also stolen. Another hydrant once stood in the field west of the Gomm house, which burned down in 2008 along with the Tin Cup Cafe (the former Tattrie house). I noticed it missing in 2007, but it would not have done any good for the house and cafe.
The remaning hydrants are found in Sandon by the public washroom, at the corner of one of the unfinished replica buildings near the museum, behind one of the buses parked near the bridge over Carpenter Creek, on the west side of the Prospector’s Pick (formerly City Hall), near the former Molly Brown brothel and, most incongruously, along the Kaslo and Slocan rail grade, a little ways up the hill on the north side of the valley.
One other hydrant, on the east side of the Prospector’s Pick (pictured here), bears the inscription “Willis Chipman/1901/Engines.”
Chipman had a distinguished engineering career and worked for the Kerr Engine Co. Hydrants bearing his name were also made for London and Petrolia, Ont. (the latter is the town where Kootenay newspaper publisher Robert T. Lowery hailed from and started his first paper).
One of my prize possessions, a Christmas gift from my in-laws, is seen below. It is an original painting of the (allegedly) six-foot hydrant by the old laundry, created in the 1970s by Slocan artist Dave Love.
Updated on April 9, 2019 to add comments from Hal Wright and correct the fact that seven of Sandon’s nine remaining hydrants actually came from Kaslo in the 1980s.