Fire hydrant tradition steeped in gold 

When relatives of survivors of the 1906 earthquake spray gold paint on a fire hydrant at 20th and Church streets Sunday, they will continue a long-running tradition that organizers thought would come to an end after the 100th anniversary of the disaster.

“We thought [the ritual] would be over,” publicist Lee Housekeeper said. “But every year, people kept showing up.”

Many residents may know little of the hydrant’s history, but some will never forgot how it marked an epic battle between man and fire that threatened to destroy the now-thriving Mission district in 1906, said Bill Koenig, a 30-year Fire Department veteran who retired in 2000.

At 5:40 a.m. Sunday, families of survivors and current members of the Fire Department will commemorate that battle by repainting the still-active hydrant, a ritual that was started in the 1960s by dentist and historian Doc Bullock, Housekeeper said.

The hydrant became an inanimate hero two days after the quake, when a fast-moving inferno threatened the Mission district and the refugees had assembled on what is now Dolores Park, Koenig said.

Exhausted from the citywide battle, firefighters were dismayed to learn that all the hydrants and cisterns in the area lacked water — until one resident discovered a “magic hydrant” at Church and 20th streets, according to historical accounts.

However, horses pulling fire engines from the bottom of the hill were too tired to reach the water-filled hydrant. So refugees responded by the hundreds, tugging the engines up to 20th Street with ropes.

What ensued was a blazing seven-hour battle involving a throng citizens and a handful of firefighters. Hoses, buckets, mops — anything and everything was used.

In the late 1960s, Bullock asked then-Mayor Joseph Alioto if he could paint the hydrant gold to honor the battle, Koenig said.

“The ‘Little Giant’ came through in a big way for residents of the Mission district 104 years ago,” fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said. “An annual coat of gold paint for this hydrant has become a tradition shared by many.”


As time passes, survivors becoming more difficult to find

All these years after the Great Earthquake of 1906, San Franciscans continue to be reminded that it’s not only The City that’s resilient, but also its residents.

Every time a report emerges that “the last known survivor” of the infamous earthquake and fire has died, a new group of survivors comes out of the woodwork to claim their positions as still-living conduits to The City’s most devastating natural disaster.

Last year, Herbert Hamrol’s death at 106 became a national story because he was thought to be the last survivor. There were fears his death would mean no living reminders would attend the annual April 18 commemoration ceremonies in San Francisco, publicist Lee Housekeeper said.

However, since Hamrol’s death, at least 10 more survivors have been identified. But only one, Bill Del Monte, 104, of Fairfax, is scheduled to attend this weekend’s commemoration. 

Del Monte, whose father opened the Fior D’Italia restaurant in North Beach, made himself known last year in time to attend the 2009 ceremony. However, his presence this Sunday remains in question.

With the first in a series of events kicking off at 5:12 a.m. — the time the quake struck — Del Monte’s family said he’s now using a walker and may not have the strength to show up. “He’s not feeling as chipper as he was last year,” said his niece, Jan Barroca, a Marina district resident. However, Barroca said Del Monte will definitely attend the annual commemoration dinner Saturday at John’s Grill.

Other survivors unable to attend the commemoration include Nancy Stoner Sage, 105, of Littleton, Colo., Ruth Newsom, 108, of Pebble Beach (no relation to Mayor Gavin Newsom) and Rose Cliver, 107, of Santa Rosa.

Asked if anyone has tried to fake being a survivor, Housekeeper said they would easily be found out.

“In this town, you can’t do that,” he said. “Everybody knows.”

— Mike Aldax


Moment of change

Breaking down the quake:

  • 7.8 magnitude
  • 375,000 square miles rattled by quake, half of which were in the Pacific Ocean
  • 80 percent of buildings in San Francisco destroyed
  • $400 million in property damage (more than $8 billion in today’s dollars)
  • 225,000-plus of The City’s 400,000 residents were left homeless
  • 2,700-degree fire (at hottest point) that burned for three days and three nights

Source: 1906 Earthquake Project


Marking 104 years

Commemoration events slated for Saturday and Sunday:


John’s Grill annual Survivor Dinner

When: 4 p.m. Saturday

Location: John’s Grill, 63 Ellis St.

Notes: Reservations suggested; call (415) 986-0069 for info

Cost: $60 donation


104th annual Wreath Laying and Commemoration

When: 5:12 a.m. Sunday

Location: Lotta’s Fountain, Market Street between Kearny and Geary streets

Cost: Free


Golden Fire Hydrant Painting Ceremony

When: 5:40 to 6 a.m. Sunday

Location: 20th and Church streets

Cost: Free


Lefty O’Doul’s annual ’06 Quake Survivors Bloody Mary Breakfast

When: 5:30 to 11 a.m. Sunday

Location: 333 Geary St.

Cost: $20 donation includes choice of breakfast plus a Bloody Mary


Screening of the film “1906”

When: 10:30 a.m. Sunday

Location: Westin St. Francis Hotel, 335 Powell St.

Notes: RSVP required; call (323) 377-4453 for info

Cost: Free


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