October 6, 2015

The destruction caused by fires is a worry of every city. Access to, and the delivery of, an adequate supply of water is a crucial aspect of fighting fires.

Early in Louisville history, city leaders worked to address concerns over the threat of fire. An 1812 ordinance stated that every homeowner earning more than $40 a year was to keep two fire buckets in his house. A year later, Louisville got its first horse-drawn hand-pumped fire engine. These measures helped to improve the delivery of water, but not its supply.

Louisville Water was founded, in part, to address this dire need; its 1854 charter reads, the company “shall furnish water to the city of Louisville for the extinguishment of fires.”

Here’s a brief look back at how Louisville Water’s involvement with fire fighting has evolved over time.

The Great Fire of 1840

One of the reasons for a water works was Louisville’s “great fire” of 1840, which destroyed 30 buildings on Main Street at a loss of $300,000. Seventeen years later, a newspaper article reported on a fire and noted that before the fire could be put out “the water in the cisterns nearest the fire, as usual, gave out….”

The city clearly did not have a good supply of water to fight fires. 

A professional fire department

In 1858, while the construction of the water works was underway, the Steam Engine Fire Department of Louisville was formed. To give the newly formed professional fire department the water it needed, Louisville Water crews connected the city’s fire cisterns to the water mains. By the end of 1861, 100 cisterns were connected to the water system. The first five fire hydrants, then known as “fire-plugs,” were installed in 1866. 

During the first decade of the 20th century the number of fire hydrants finally surpassed that of fire cisterns.  However, as late as 1954, there were 303 cisterns still used by the city.

Old hydrant photos                              


The cost of maintaining

Louisville Water originally charged the city for the water it used, including that for fighting fires. It was not until 1883 that the company supplied for free the water used to fight fires.   

Hydrant ownership

As early as the 1870s Louisville Water was in charge of installing and maintaining the city’s fire hydrants.

In the beginning, the company’s costs were charged back to the city But by 1936, Louisville Water assumed the cost of maintaining the city’s fire hydrants.

It appears that in 1954 Louisville Water took full ownership of the fire hydrants in the system. The company’s books record the sudden appearance of more than $1.2 million worth of fire hydrants. It is assumed the city transferred its fire hydrants to Louisville Water, but it is not known why this decision was made.


Louisville Water owns and maintains nearly 24,000 fire hydrants in its service area. These hydrants are flow-tested and maintained every year to ensure they are in good working order. This is especially important during winter months when the hydrants are at risk of freezing.

Louisville Water crews replace an average of 200 to 250 hydrants each year.

The company now has a strong partnership with the Louisville Division of Fire and the suburban fire districts. It’s a much different working relationship than the one in 1860, but the shared goal is the same: Keeping the Louisville area safe.