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This Fire Hydrant Saved The Mission During The 1906 Earthquake

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Image: Braccs via Twitter

Yesterday was the 115th anniversary of the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Today is the 115th anniversary of the day Dolores Park’s “Golden Hydrant” supposedly saved the Mission District in an obscure but enduring bit of possibly-true San Francisco lore.

The SF Fire Department always has a less-attended ceremony right after the annual 5:12 a.m. Lotta’s Fountain bell-ringing downtown. But was this “Little Giant” really the “only working hydrant” on April 19, 1906? Have parts of this story been exaggerated over the last 115 years? Let’s look at what reliable historical records tell us about the Golden Hydrant and whether it really “saved” the Mission.

Note: There is some historical dispute over whether the events described below happened on April 19, 1906, or a day or two afterwards. The landmark historical plaque next to the hydrant says “The water mains were broken and dry on April 18, 1906 yet from this Greenberg hydrant on the following night there came a stream of water allowing the firemen to save the Mission District.” [Emphasis ours.] The SF Fire Department Historical Society’s account says “On April 19th, 1906, this hydrant, now known as THE LITTLE GIANT, was found to have water.” Preserved fire chief and captain records dated April 19, 1906 show great interest in that rare working fire hydrant. 

But FoundSF has a diary entry from a citizen who jumped in on the epic effort, which pegs these events to the night of April 20 “until 4 am the 21st of April.” It is also possible that both versions of events are true. Here’s what we know.

THE FIRES WERE WORSE THAN THE EARTHQUAKE

The earthquake was not the worst part of the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Several days of fires following the quake did an estimated 90% of the ultimate damage to the city. The quake’s jolt burst gas pipes which caught fire all over town, torching the water pipe system with them. Much of San Francisco was essentially without water in the middle of a disaster, and the city’s fire hydrant network was suddenly useless.

Image: Arnold Genthe, Library of Congress

In a morbid example of the fire department’s desperate measures, they resorted to dynamiting buildings to stop the fire’s spread. “Dynamite was used in great quantity to subdue the flames that swept over the city,” a Captain Nichols wrote in records of the incident preserved SF Fire Department Historical Society. “In the hands of competent persons the explosive is a valuable auxilliary [sic] in fighting fire when other means fail.”

THE LEGEND OF THE GOLDEN HYDRANT

At the time of this incident, SF firefighters (and their horse fleet) have been working for about 36 hours nonstop, likely without sleep or breaks. The SF Examiner provides this historical account in their 2010 writeup:

Exhausted from the citywide battle, firefighters were dismayed to learn that all the hydrants and cisterns in the area lacked water — until one resident discovered a “magic hydrant” at Church and 20th streets, according to historical accounts.

However, horses pulling fire engines from the bottom of the hill were too tired to reach the water-filled hydrant. So refugees responded by the hundreds, tugging the engines up to 20th Street with ropes.

What ensued was a blazing seven-hour battle involving a throng of citizens and a handful of firefighters. Hoses, buckets, mops — anything and everything was used.

Here’s the relevant 1906 diary entry of Walter B. Smith, as told on FoundSF by his grandson Michael Smith. It is unclear of the younger Smith is quoting the diary verbatim or paraphrasing:

300 men of the neighborhood vowed to ‘save the Mish’ and ten times pushed a pump wagon up the hill from in front of Mission Dolores down Dolores Street, then right up 20th Street to the Church Street corner, where the only working fire hydrant was, filled the tanks on the wagon, then rolled the wagon, using the brakes, down 20th to Dolores, then left down to the Mission.

For perspective, the path on Dolores and 20th being discussed here is the same steep hill of the annual Dolores Park Hill Bomb skateboarding event that so annoys the police. For more perspective, here’s what our 1906 horse-drawn fire engines looked like. That thing’s got to be at least 2,000 pounds.

THE KNOWN TRUTH ABOUT THE GOLDEN HYDRANT

We do know that the Golden Hydrant was one of just a few in the city that worked after the earthquake. Fire department records show 29 SF fire hydrants were working in the days after the quake. But that’s out of 4,211 city fire hydrants total, so yes, the situation was incredibly dire.

Six separate SFFD captains and chiefs mentioned using that hydrant in their (surviving) records, more than any other hydrant in town, so the Golden Hydrant does deserve decoration as SF’s most significant firefighting water source during the disaster. Here is the preserved report from Captain A. Welch of Engine Co. No. 7:

After a consultation between [Battalion] Chiefs McKittrick and Conlon, I left for 20th and Church Sts., with a wagon load of hose. I found water at this point, and also at 21st and Dolores Sts. I then returned for two more loads of hose, and in connection with Engines #27 & #19 we had sufficient hose to fight the fire down the north side of 20th. St., to Mission St., where the fire was extinguished on the morning of April 20th. at about 10 A. M.   Due to the fact that we were able to obtain a supply of water we were able to stop the fire from crossing 20th St., and destroying the complete Mission district. 

According to Mission Local, SFFD has since designated two other fire hydrants as being equally significant in preventing loss of life and property. “It is now known that the fire hydrants at Hayes and Buchanan, and Ellis and Van Ness, were equal to the actions of the Gold Hydrant,” that site reported in 2015.

ARE PARTS OF THIS STORY EXAGGERATIONS?

For one thing, today’s Golden Hydrant is not the Golden Hydrant. The original 1906 Golden Hydrant is no longer up to current code and has been retired for obvious reasons. The SFFD still has the original and hauls it out for special occasions, but the hydrant that works today at 20th and Church Streets is a more modern, code-compliant fire hydrant. 

There is no verifiable historical evidence of tired horses or citizen brigades hauling fire engines up steep hills, but this is not implausible. Engines could easily have been abandoned in the whack-a-mole triage of the first 36 hours of this disaster (or worse yet, their company officers perished). SFFD certainly used the hydrant, and citizens may have too in the deadly chaotic aftermath.

The wannabe Michael Bay film scene above shows the quirky San Francisco tradition where we strangely celebrate and put on period costumes for the anniversary of our city’s deadliest and most destructive day ever recorded. We certainly don’t do this for the anniversaries of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake or 2010 PG&E San Bruno blast, because those tragedies are real to us, and those memories remain raw. 

“250,000 people were homeless because of the earthquake and the fire,” Mayor Breed said, in glorious steampunk apparel, just before the 5:12 a.m. bell-ringing Sunday morning. “We’re San Franciscans. We go through earthquakes, we go through pandemics, we go through things. But when the time comes we need to rise up like the phoenixes we are, we stand strong, proud and together.”

Such things may be required of you again. Here’s a recommended Basic Disaster Supplies Kit from Ready.gov to help you prepare for when some form of Big One strikes again.

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Joe Kukura- Millionaire in Training

Joe Kukura- Millionaire in Training

Joe Kukura is a two-bit marketing writer who excels at the homoerotic double-entendre. He is training to run a full marathon completely drunk and high, and his work has appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal on days when their editors made particularly curious decisions.

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