New Orleans' oldest fire hydrant: Bayou St. John
Given the recent rejection of a property tax by New Orleans residents to help fund firefighter backpay, I figured I would focus on a little-known historical landmark on the bayou’s shores.
Rumor has it Bayou St. John is home to the oldest fire hydrant still standing in the city of New Orleans. (If you know of an older one, tell me where it is!)
This proud little dude stands at the corner of Grand Route St. John and Moss Street, and, according to his markings, was installed on September 14, 1869. It’s an example of a “Birdsill Holly” hydrant, named for its inventor. Until 1891, the fire department in New Orleans was purely volunteer-run; for 62 years, the Firemen’s Charitable Association sought to protect the city of New Orleans from “conflagrations,” and was organized into several “companies,” or groups, each with their own engine.
Apparently, around the time of our friend’s installation, spectators would gather around to see which engines could “throw” water the farthest. In 1876, four engines were competing for the record: Creole No. 9, Mississippi No. 2, Crescent No. 24, and James Campbell No. 7.
No. 7 was by far the reigning champion, having thrown 320-feet-2-inches, until a final contest was called for June 25, 1876, on the banks of Bayou St. John.
The Times-Picayune reported: “At a late hour of the night the decision of the judges on the engine-throwing match, was received, and Mississippi No. 2 once more is proud to be the winner of the champion horns. The match was for $100, through 100 feet of hose, and came off near the Magnolia Garden, on Bayou St. John.” 
We don’t know how far Mississippi No. 2 was able to throw that night, but we know she was the winner. Is it possible our Birdshill Holly hydrant supplied the water for such an occasion? Magnolia Gardens, after which Magnolia Bridge (a.k.a. Cabrini Bridge) was named, would have been fairly close by, so we can let our minds wander and guess.
In my travels researching the hydrant, I came across this photograph of a carving in Cypress Grove Cemetery—featuring none other than “No. 2,” our reigning champion!
Well, I don’t know that for sure, but given the 19th century origins of this carving and the fine reputation of the Mississippi No. 2, one can only assume. Someday, I will go check it out for myself. For now, I will content myself with visiting Mr. Birdshill (he told me to call him “Birdie” for short) on the banks of my favorite bayou.
- "Sunday Amusements. All the World in Search of Pleasure A Chronicle of Pic-Nics and Other." Times-Picayune 26 Jun. 1876: 1. NewsBank. Web. 18 May 2016.
Cassie Pruyn is a New Orleans based poet who is currently working on a narrative history of Bayou St. John in New Orleans. You can see her posts and poetry on her website.