214 Year-Old Torrent One Could Shoot Water Over A House
For decades Leroy Johnson has been part of a local network of volunteers who are called upon to rescue bits and pieces of Groton history when a new property owner decides those bits are no longer wanted on the premises. This week Leroy tells us the story behind the rescue of Torrent One, the ancient fire-fighting pump currently housed at the Groton Historical Society.
A little background on firefighting in Groton before Leroy tells his story.
As you can imagine, fire was the biggest threat to Groton’s early settlers. Cooking over fireplace fires meant that even when fire was not used for heating, there was always a fire in the house. Volunteer brigades formed to fight fires in the Colonial and early American periods. These private groups were superceded by town-named groups by vote of town meeting in March 1875, and this marked the beginning of the town’s fire department. But long before this vote, in fact during the presidential term of America’s only third president, Thomas Jefferson, a local inventor designed and built a piece of fire-fighting equipment that is still extant today.
Torrent One was a very advanced piece of fire-fighting equipment for Groton to own during its heyday. It was designed by Loammi Baldwin in 1802 who would later become one of early America’s premier civil engineers, but as luck would have it was a law intern in downtown Groton who experienced first-hand the difficulty of fighting building fires in a rural town.
As an inveterate inventor of various devices and mechanisms, Mr. Baldwin put together Torrent One when he wasn’t performing the legal duties which he eventually abandoned in favor of a full-time engineering career. Examples of his engineering work can be seen from Canada to Virginia. The USS Constitution is currently being repaired in a Boston harbor dry dock originally designed by Loammi Baldwin.
Firefighting in Groton didn’t really come into its own until water and hydrant service for the center was installed by Groton Water Company (later becoming Groton Water Dept.) along the Main Street and Groton Engine and Hose Company was formed. Firefighting apparatus was stored at the back end of Town Hall and Henry Johnson, who owned a livery business on Station Avenue across from Town Hall, hauled the equipment to the scene when the bell at the Meetinghouse tolled the alarm.
This history can be found in more detail in Groton at 350 and in Virginia May’s books, Groton Plantation and Tercentenary. Virginia was married to Robert M. May, founder of May and Hally, and Leroy Johnson is the nephew of Henry Johnson so it was no surprise when on a cool evening in 1950, Leroy got a phone call from then Groton Fire Chief Robert M. May asking him to be part of a crew to move Torrent One from a barn on the Lawrence Academy campus to its current home at Boutwell House.
Lawrence Academy had acquired the Waters house, which is now a part of their hill-top campus, and they were cleaning out the attached barn where Torrent One, a horse-drawn water pump that served as a first defense against fire, was stored. Leroy, joined by Chief May, Bob Blanchard, Alec Buda, Dick Haley and Chief May’s youngest son John, pushed the heavy apparatus across the top of the hill to Route 40 on their way to Main Street.
As they headed Torrent One down Route 40, they discovered that the grade was actually fairly steep and it took the combined strength and shoe leather of six men to get it stopped before it crashed into one of the buildings below. Fortunately, as Leroy puts it, “You would be surprised to see more that one car every 30 minutes on Main Street back in those days.”
After a brief period of time had passed, Chief May reassembled the crew at Boutwell House to fill the pumper with water to see if was still in working order. The crew began operating the pump, but after about 20 strokes, they heard the sound of cracking wood as the bottom blew out of the ancient pumper. At that point Torrent One was hauled to the May and Hally Co. garage on Court St. so that the internal mechanism could be rebuilt (the exterior remains the same as it was when then pump was in active use).
Meanwhile at the May and Hally garage on Station Ave., Chief May was busy restoring Torrent One using a mysterious process involving local lumber and hydraulic cement. Once repairs were complete, it was hauled back up Station Avenue to Boutwell House for a final test. With the team reassembled they once again filled the pump and began pumping and this time mighty Torrent One sent a torrent of water well over the top of the two-story Boutwell House.
As far as Leroy can remember, Torrent One has remained in residence at the Historical Society except for being featured for a day of fireman’s muster celebrations and a dedicated fire-fighting parade organized as part of Groton’s 300th anniversary in 1955. It has not pumped water since its rescuers tested it in 1950, nearly 150 years after it was built.
PHOTO: The ancient and honorable Torrent No. One, out for an airing behind Groton Historical Society's Boutwell House home.