The Golden Fire Hydrant

Not every city has a golden fire hydrant, but we do. It’s at 20th and Dolores, and at 5:30 in the morning every April the 18th, it gets a fresh coat of paint and usually, flowers. See, much of San Francisco was destroyed by fire after the great earthquake at 5:12 AM on 18 April 1906 because the water mains were broken in many places, and there was no water to fight the spreading fires.

As the fire advanced to the south, it was discovered that the hydrant at 20th and Dolores still had pressure, and word was sent to the closest fire crew. Alas, by that time the crew was pretty much exhausted, and more importantly, so were the horses that pulled the heavy pumper, and they could not get the wagon up the steep hill.

Flash forward to the Marina district fire after the 1989 earthquake, where the local main was broken, so before the fire department was able to lay piping in the street to bring in water from the closest working main, hundreds of citizens had spontaneously gathered kitchen pails and formed a bucket brigade from the bay, several blocks away. Not that they were actually able to put out the fire, but it was just glorious that they saw the problem and acted collectively to attack it.

In 1906, hundreds of citizens saw the horses unable to budge the pumper, and they swarmed over it and by hand pushed and pulled it up to the working hydrant so that its water could tip the balance and halt the fire.

Aren’t those occasions wonderful when everyone pitches in to the best of his ability for the collective good. Alas, nowadays, if a bunch of Americans were in a lifeboat with a storm approaching, the strongest would argue that it would be unfair to ask them to pull harder on the oars than the weakest could.

Here’s one version of the hydrant story.

So now, fresh paint and flowers are provided every year by the San Francisco History Association. It’s the least we can do.

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