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The Golden Fire Hydrant of San Francisco

After a massive earthquake rocked the city of San Francisco on April 18, 1906, fires erupted all around the city from ruptured gas lines, overturned stoves and electric wires. This fire would rage for three days causing as much as 90% of the damage brought in by the earthquake. As the conflagration moved from block to block and district to district, every available fire-fighter and fire engine was pushed into service. Unfortunately, along with gas lines water mains were broken too and many of the city’s fire hydrants ran dry leaving the city’s locals and fire-fighters scrambling for water sources.

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Photo credit: David Sawyer/Flickr

From the slopes of Noe Valley overlooking Mission district, citizens watched in helpless dismay as the fire advanced from downtown. The frantic search for a water source finally proved fruitful when a working hydrant was discovered up the hill on Church Street. Word about this “magic hydrant” was quickly passed to the fire-fighters at the bottom of the hill, but the exhausted horses were unable to muster enough strength to pull the massive fire engines up the incline. Mission district’s residents, who had gathered at Dolores Park, responded by the hundreds, tugging and pushing the engines up the hill with ropes. After a seven-hour battle, the flames were stopped and the neighborhood was saved from certain destruction.

In the late 1960s, a dentist and historian Doc Bullock asked the then Mayor Joseph Alioto if he could paint the hydrant in gold to honor the battle. The mayor agreed. Since then, every year on the anniversary of the earthquake families of survivors and current members of the Fire Department gather around the still-active hydrant that saved Mission District and apply a fresh coat of golden paint.

There is now a memorial plaque on the “Little Giant” that reads:

Though 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.

Dedicated to chief Dennis Sullivan and the men who fought the Great Fire and to the spirit of the people of San Francisco who regardless of their losses brought our city from its ruins to be host of the world with their 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition and the building of our Civic Center.

May their love and devotion for this city be an inspiration for all to follow and their motto ‘The city that knows how’ a light to lead all future generations.

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Photo credit: Steven Damron/Flickr

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Photo credit: Marcin Szychowski

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Photo credit: Google Street View

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A horse-drawn fire engine.

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San Francisco Mission District burning in the aftermath of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Photo credit: Chadwick, H. D./US Gov War Department

Sources: SF Examiner / Explore SF / Atlas Obscura

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