Golden Fire Hydrant

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          The Story of the Golden Fire Hydrant

               First NERT's at work: 1906

by: Bill Cereske              
On Friday April 20, 1906, San Francisco was in flames.
The great quake hit two days before, causing a 
conflagration that was steadily progressing toward the 
heart of the Mission district.              
Although damaged, the thriving Mission district was now 
threatened with total destruction.              
Engine 27 had stopped the fire's westward march at Market 
and Guerrero Streets, but the flames were steadily 
progressing South.  As had been the case time after time, 
the engine company prepared to make a stand against the 
oncoming wall of fire, only to find the hydrants without 
water and unmaintained cisterns dry.  They were forced to 
At Twentieth and Dolores, refugees were assembling in the 
park, only recently mixed with Horse manure in 
anticipation of planting a lawn.  The fire came closer.
Word passed quickly through the crowd that there was no 
water to fight it.              
Hearing of this, a city blacksmith by the name of John 
Rafferty was perplexed.  He had seen a fire company 
earlier that very day using the hydrant near his home.  He 
opened it up to test it.  Eureka!  Limitless water gushed 
from the hydrant.  Word was quickly passed to the weary 
firefighters at the bottom of the hill.              
Engine 27 was joined by Engine 19 as they responded to the 
magic hydrant.  Or rather, they tried to.  Their exhausted 
horses were unable to muster enough strength to pull the 
massive Metropolitan steam engines up Dolores Street.              
The refugees in the park, seeing this, responded 
themselves - by the hundreds.  Hands pulled ropes as 
shoulders pushed forward, propelling the magnificent 
steamers up to Twentieth Street.  Now, firefighters could 
make their stand, but the firefighters were few and 
exhausted, and nobody knew how long the water would hold 
Again the volunteers, under the direction of the 
firefighters, went to work.  The line was to be drawn on 
Twentieth Street.  Buildings to the North were torn down 
to slow the conflagration and deprive it of fuel.  On the 
South side, the alarm was raised as citizens prepared to 
defend their property and that of others.              
When the advancing inferno reached the Twentieth Street 
line, over 3000 civilians and a handful of firefighters 
stood shoulder to shoulder to meet it. The fight was described 
as "Hell itself".              
The titanic battle lasted seven hours.              
Hoses were used.  Mops and buckets were used.  Behind the 
fireline, homeowners were on their roofs beating out 
sparks and small fires with blankets, mops, casks of wine 
- anything that could be used.  Doors from the demolished 
houses were used as heat shields until they too began to 
smolder.  Exhausted firefighters would drop in their 
tracks, as volunteers took to their lines.  Nurses moved 
through, administering stimulants.  Through the night, the 
fight raged.              
As dawn approached, the flames began to subside.  By 7:00 
AM on Saturday, the fight was over, the flames gone.  With 
the exception of some small pier fires, the nightmare was 
over.  Rebuilding could begin tomorrow, but today was for 
savoring the effort - and the victory.              
Today, as you go down 20th street you may notice that all 
the buildings on the North are newer and more modern than 
many of those on the South side.  They stand in silent 
tribute to all who fought to keep our City from total 
The magic hydrant at Twentieth and Church was painted gold 
and returned to service, where it remains.  Each April 18, 
it receives a fresh coat of golden paint.  
To this day, nobody knows where the water came from.

Denial of Disaster, By Gladys Hansen and Emmet Conden, 
1989, Cameron and Co.              
Reports of Engine Companies Nos. 19 and 27, April 1906.              
San Francisco Municipal Reports, 1907