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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 retreat.
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 out.
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 destruction.
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.
SOURCES AND BIBLIOGRAPHY
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