The annual 4th of July Main Street water fight began in 1981, when H. Flint Ranney challenged Fire Chief Bruce Watts to a water duel. Ranney had acquired by sealed bid the 1927 LaFrance ladder truck that had served Nantucket from 1927 to 1960. According to the challenge, the Nantucket Fire Department would use a historic hand-pumper housed in the Nantucket Historical Association’s Gardner Street Hose Cart House drawing water from the cistern in front of the Pacific National Bank.
Once initiated, the water fights continued and escalated. In 1984, as part of the Independence Day festivities, the Inquirer and Mirror reported that on Main Street “Nantucket firemen battled Flint Ranney’s Wauwinet contingent in a water fight featuring Ranney’s antique fire engine and ‘Sconset’s hand-operated pumper.”
In 1988 the Nantucket Fire Department used its Tanker One to fill a canvas pool in front of the Hub and the cistern in front of the Pacific Bank. As ever, a crew from the NFD showed up with a hand-pumper. The LaFrance pumper overwhelmed the crew operating the hand pumper, but the NFD then brought on its modern Ladder One “with horns and sirens blasting.” Extending its 75-foot ladder, Nelson Eldridge opened up with the truck’s 1,000-gallon-a-minute capacity hose. Spectators scattered as water soaked everything and everyone in the vicinity. Despite this obvious advantage, “a clear winner could not be confirmed.”
The next summer the newspaper remarked that “the fire engine water fight is quickly becoming tradition…The water sprayed everywhere, causing the onlookers to move back as the two teams quickly became soaking wet.” Battling the old hand-pumper, the Ranneys were announced the winners, but the NFD would not accept defeat and once again brought on their modern fire engine to douse the Ranneys and everyone else on the street.
This set the pattern for the Main Street water fights to the present day, with thousands of onlookers and ever more bystander participation. According to Rob Ranney, “The Ranneys claim a perfect record of thoroughly soaking the NFD, spectators, innocent bystanders, and giving Main Street a solid rinse once a year since 1981.”
These mid-summer Main Street soakings courtesy of fire engines have a deep local history. In a letter to the editor of the Inquirer and Mirror published in 1911, the writer, who signed his letter “Yorick,” reminisced about similar joyful soakings in his boyhood. On some sweltering summer nights, word would go out “perhaps from some fellow whose father was a fireman,” that “the ingyne’s going to squirt tonight.” A crowd would gather on the lower square of Main Street. “We could scarcely wait, for to see the ingyne squirt was one of the rare privileges of life.” One of the pumpers would be brought out. It might be the Number 4, the Cataract, the Niagara, or the Torrent. “The next half hour was unalloyed bliss. Any fellow with any sand at all had to show it by running under till he was thoroughly soaked to the skin.”