The Fire Fighting Advance that Wasn’t

In 1899, Davenport was a growing city.  This concerned those responsible for public safety, not only because the city was growing out, but because it was growing up.  From a fire department’s point of view, higher buildings mean higher fires—and in the late 1800s, when firefighting technology was in its infancy, this was no minor problem.

Grain elevators, those looming giants stuffed with a ton or two of flammables, were a fireman’s nightmare.  If one of these monstrosities caught on fire, more often that not it was hopeless to try to contain the blaze.  Standard fire equipment simply didn’t have the reach.

But when the Davenport Elevator Company decided to build a grain elevator in the west end, Davenport Fire Chief Peter M. Gilloley had a cutting edge solution in mind:  sky-high, permanent water nozzles.

According to an article in the Davenport Weekly Leader*:

“Fire Chief P. M. Gilloley of the fire department of this city is deeply interested in a new nozzle which is being adopted by the fire departments of a number of the larger cities and which are permanently fixed in large elevators or other high structures of a like nature where it is hard for departments to combat the flames.  It is so constructed as to retab [sic] automatically sending a solid stream in all directions.”

The idea was that the nozzles would be anchored around the top of an elevator, or other tall structure, and hose or pipe would lead from there to the ground.  In the event of a blaze, the fire department would connect the end to a water source, and the nozzles would send water spraying

In the City Council Meeting held on December 20, 1899, Chief Gilloley presented a report from the Chicago Fire Marshall, stating that the nozzles had saved all but the roof of an elevator in Milwaukee.**  He urged that they be used on the new west end elevator.

The city council tabled the issue twice, and finally decided that it was a private company’s responsibility to install (and pay for) its own permanent fire-fighting equipment as per the legal advice at Although they had no objection to recommending the nozzles to the Davenport Elevator Company, or to others wanting to build large structures in Davenport.  However, if an excessively tall public building were to be constructed in the future, the council would keep the idea in mind.

We could find nothing more about Chief Gilloley’s dream in our resources, but we see no evidence that any sky-high nozzles were used in Davenport three tallest buildings.  Of course, these were all private structures, and the Black Hawk Hotel was built sixteen years later, more than enough time, even then, to render cutting edge obsolete.



*November 21, 1899, p.6

*There was a third nozzle that could have prevented even that damage, but the fire was too intense near the base of its structure to connect it to the water source.  Still, the fire was stopped and the building was still viable.

(posted by Sarah)

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2 Responses to The Fire Fighting Advance that Wasn’t

  1. Adrian says:

    Oh, interesting! And I love the photo of firemen that accompanies it. Esp the cat. :)

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