Twin fire hydrants tied to 1906 earthquake lore could get silver honor 

click to enlarge hydrant
  • mike hendrickson/Special to the S.f. Examiner
  • A humble hydrant at Hayes and Buchanan street is believed to be the original fireplug credited for saving the Western Addition after the 1906 earthquake.
Ham and eggs nearly destroyed San Francisco’s Western Addition in 1906.

Water from once-neglected, soon-to-be-silver fire hydrants helped save the neighborhood after the devastating earthquake.

For years, the most famous fire hydrant in town has been the one at 20th and Church streets in the Mission district.

The neighborhood has pre-1906 buildings only because that hydrant was one of the 42 water stations — out of 4,500 or so in The City — that had water on April 18, 1906.

But the gold-painted fireplug isn’t The City’s only esteemed fire hydrant. In the Western Addition, there are two.

With permission to be granted as soon as Tuesday from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission — which is now steward of The City’s hydrants new and old — the two hydrants will be painted silver at a public ceremony. They will be dubbed “The Silver Twins” for their equally vital role in saving parts of The City from its most famous disaster.

Nobody is sure why the hydrants at Hayes and Buchanan streets and at Van Ness Avenue and Ellis Street had water on the morning of the great earthquake.

There are theories — like the myth that the 20th and Church hydrant was fed by a spring, or that the cisterns in the streets just happened to have water — most of which are wrong, according to retired San Francisco firefighter Bill Koenig. Whatever the reason, water thankfully flowed for 19 hours from these hydrants, from 5:25 a.m. on the morning of the quake to after 1 a.m. the next morning.

Pumped to hot spots by horse-drawn pumps through more than 3,200 feet of hose, that’s the water that officials say saved the Western Addition — and anything standing west of Van Ness Avenue — from the breakfast fire that began in a quake-damaged kitchen at 395 Hayes St. The blaze consumed old City Hall and much of the surrounding area.

The original neighborhood-saving hydrant at Ellis Street and Van Ness Avenue is long gone.

But it’s possible that the Hayes and Buchanan hydrant is the original earthquake survivor and savior.

To know for certain would be near-impossible, with the enormous blaze taking most of the Fire Department’s records with it. But the hydrant looks like it could fit the part, anyhow.

“It’s a ball-top hydrant — it’s got the ball on the top that you’d tie your horse to,” said Koenig, a board member of Guardians of the City, a group of police, firefighters and sheriff’s deputies leading the effort to honor the hydrants.

It’s also not entirely certain why the hydrants escaped public acclaim until now.

Every so often at the annual ceremony wherein the Mission hydrant is painted gold, a voice from the crowd would pipe up and ask: What about the Western Addition?

“So few people knew,” said Koenig, who noted that the narrative of the hydrants’ heroics is recounted in surviving firefighter records from the quake.

Now, if only public knowledge could be saved from misinformation.

“There were 410,000 people living in the city at that time, and only 200,000 were left homeless,” Koenig notes. “People say The City suffered total destruction — well, no.”

Thanks to The City’s firefighters. And the twins.

Painting of the Silver Twins

Painting of the fire hydrants that helped save the Western Addition during the 1906 earthquake and fire

Where: Hayes and Buchanan streets

Van Ness Avenue and Ellis Street

When: 10 a.m. April 17

About The Author

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has worked as a reporter in San Francisco since 2008, with an emphasis on city governance and politics, The City’s neighborhoods, race, poverty and the drug war.
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