It was 1858 in San Fransisco, California. Gold had been discovered at nearby Sutter’s Mill just ten years before. Initial planning for the nation’s first transcontinental railroad was underway, and Congress had recently authorized funding for any company which could ensure stage coach delivery of mail from St. Louis to San Francisco in less than 25 days.
Following San Fransisco’s first great fire of 1849 and a series of destructive fires in the early 1850s, the booming port town formed a volunteer Fire Department and, in 1858, installed its first fire hydrants.
As one San Fransisco museum describes, “The men comprising the first volunteers of the Fire Department consisted of some of the most influential men of the community. None were so high in office or so proud of position that he was not honored by a membership in the early fire brigade.”
While the volunteers put pride aside when a fire was particularly serious, individual fire companies were notoriously competitive, always seeking to put “firs water” on a fire – a competition which “led to many physical combats, and some of the fights reached riot proportions.”
Following the alarm bells one afternoon, the poorly under-manned Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5 was falling behind, much to the mockery of rivals Manhattan No. 2 and Howard No. 3. A fifteen year old child from a locally prestigious family saw the Knickerbocker’s plight while walking home from school. The teen immediately jumped into action, helping to man the fire truck’s ropes and shouting, “Come on, you men! Everybody pull and we’ll beat ‘em!”
The teen was no man. She was Lillie Coit, who continued to play an important role to Company No. 5 and San Fransisco firefighters for the rest of her life.
As a woman, she never officially occupied the same role as her male counterparts. She was elected an “honorary” member of the Knickerbockers in 1863 and is commonly referred to as the “patroness” of San Fransisco’s volunteer fire companies. But throughout her youth, she played an active role in the company – always dashing off at the sound of the alarm and otherwise engaging in activities unseemly for a young lady of her standing.
As an adult she was known for having a number of shocking habits such as wearing trousers, smoking cigars, and gambling. Stories say she often dressed as man in order to participate in the latter activity. And she always remained involved and supportive of her beloved fire company.
Upon her death in 1929, Coit left one-third of her fortune to San Fransisco, “to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved.”
In 1933, those funds were used to build the Lillian Coit Memorial Tower, which stands 64 m tower atop Telegraph Hill. A notable sight along a city’s skyline. And while the story is said to be apocryphal, one can’t help notice the similarity between the tower’s design and the popular story: that in honor of the remarkable Lillie Coit, the tower is shaped like the nozzle of a fire hose.