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7.22.2007 - 41 comments 

I am sure that many of you (like me) have heard and may be even seen Coit Tower on the also famous Telegraph hill in San Francisco. It has provided many visitors to San Francisco (and even the locals), with impressive views of The City since its completion in 1933.

In fact, I could actually see it from the top of the hill on our trip down Lombard Street from two posts back on my blog. But it was this visit that I was told, "Well you know why it looks like a fire hose don't you?" And the truth was, I didn't know. So I decided to find out a little about it, for just that reason. In fact in the many times I had seen the fact that it looks like a nozzle to a fire hose had NEVER entered my mind. But now when I look at it… that is ALL I can see!

One of the most unusual personalities ever connected with the San Francisco Fire Department was a woman who’s name was Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who was destined not only to become a legend but to attain that eminence long before her life ended.

She came to San Francisco in 1851 from West Point, where her father had been an army doctor. Seven years later, when only 15 years old, she began her famous career with Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5.

As the story goes, one afternoon that pioneer fire company had a short staff on the ropes as it raced to a fire on Telegraph Hill. Because of the shortage of man power, the engine was falling behind. Oh, humiliating and better was the repartee passed by Manhattan No. 2 and Howard No. 3 as the total eclipse seemed to be but a matter of seconds. Then, suddenly there came a diversion. It was the story of Jeanne d’Arc at Orleans, The Maid of Sargossa and Molly Pitcher of Revolutionary fame all over again.

Pretty and impulsive Lillie Hitchcock, on her way home from school, saw the plight of the Knickerbocker and tossing her books to the ground, ran to a vacant place on the rope. There she exerted her feeble strength and began to pull, at the same time turning her flushed face to the bystanders and crying: “Come on, you men! Everybody pull and we’ll beat ‘em!”

From her earliest infancy she was curiously fascinated by the red shirt and war-like helmet of the firemen and she gloried in the excitement of a big blaze. Almost invariably, with the energy and speed that the most agile fireman might envy, she hastened to the scene of action. Lillie often said she loved courage in a uniform.

San Francisco society of the day was exclusive and right. As the Hitchcocks were valued members, society frequently agonized over the vagaries of its Lillie. But she seems always to have done exactly as she pleased without giving real offense.

On October 3, 1863, she was elected an honorary member of the Knickerbocker company, and always regarded that honor as the proudest of her life. She wore the numeral as an ornament with all her costumes, along with the gold badge presented at the same time.

Lillie Hitchcock Coit, later in life as philanthropist and admirer of the fire fighters at the 1906 earthquake fire, left funds to The City for beautification of San Francisco. Those funds were used for the construction of the 210-foot tall art deco Coit Tower at the top of Telegraph Hill. The tower’s design is reminiscent of a fire hose nozzle and was quite controversial. The Golden Gate Bridge is another San Francisco landmark with an art deco design.

So, now that you know all of that story, doesn't it make it look more like a fire hose nozzle to you? I thought so!

“The fire which enlightens is the same fire which consumes.” ~ Henri Frederic Amiel