Weekly Gem #228, The little hydrant that could

Published 4/18/20

Location: This hidden gem is located at the intersection of 20th and Church Streets, in San Francisco, CA (see the Clue Me! Map). 

April 18, 1906. The date of the1906 San Francisco earthquake. For decades, residents of San Francisco described it simply as “The Fire.”

Although the city had a modern, extensive, and well-equipped fire department, Fire Chief Dennis O’Sullivan regarded a conflagration as inevitable. The National Board of Fire Underwriters concurred, stating in 1905 that “San Francisco has violated all underwriting tradition and precedent by not burning up. That it has not done so is largely due to the vigilance of the fire department, which cannot be relied upon indefinitely to stave off the inevitable.”

The earthquake began just about 5:12 am, and was finished 90 seconds later. Damage was heavy, with somewhere between 1500 and 5500 buildings damaged or destroyed. But this was just a precursor to the blaze that would raise the tally to 28,000 buildings and 492 city blocks destroyed over the next three days.

Fifty separate fires began almost immediately, but San Francisco had plenty of water, over 20 billion gallons stored in hilltop reservoirs that could push high pressure water to fire hydrants all over town.

Firefighters hooked up to these hydrants and got … nothing.

The pipes connecting reservoirs to the hydrants had suffered over 23,000 breaks during the earthquake. Over and over, the firefighters hooked up their pumpers and got nothing.

Fires merged, and those pushing southward were threatening the beloved Mission Dolores, the building from which San Francisco took its name (see Weekly Gem #227). There seemed no way to save the Mission or the surrounding neighborhoods.

Then a local blacksmith recalled this particular fire hydrant operating the day before. Although it was still 10 blocks from the fires, they opened it up and got … water!!!

The firefighters were notified and sent their pumpers up the long Dolores Street hill. Their horses were exhausted, so the pumpers were pulled by volunteers, up the hill to this hydrant, where they filled the tanks, and pulled them back down again. Back and forth they went, a constant stream of pumpers, and this hydrant never flagged.

Thanks to the water from the 'golden hydrant,' the fire was stopped, literally, at the walls of Mission Dolores. The building next door was burned to the ground. The Mission was unscathed.

For another interesting perspective, check out Weekly Gem #102.


Here's the hidden gem entry from our Clue Me! map.


Water was worth it's weight in gold


The Golden Fire Hydrant

Why It's Interesting

Firefighting efforts after the San Francisco earthquake were often fruitless because hydrants didn't provide water and cisterns were empty. Fire was spreading south, and the Mission District was next. This one hydrant had plenty of water, but was a few blocks south of the line of defense that would save the District. Horses being exhausted, citizens pulled the water tanker(s?) up the hill to this hydrant, filled it, and rolled it back down, repeatedly until the fire was stopped.

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