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SF’s 1906 quake: The lone fire hydrant that saved the city

A young boy touches a fire hydrant known as the “little giant” during the annual painting of the hydrant. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In what has become an annual tradition, San Francisco will commemorate the 117th anniversary of the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 with a ceremony on Tuesday starting Downtown at Lotta’s Fountain, a historic gathering place and one of San Francisco’s oldest monuments. 

The formal event begins Tuesday at precisely 5:12 a.m.—the exact moment the quake struck the city on April 18, 1906—and includes speakers ranging from Mayor London Breed to SF’s only royalty, Emperor Norton (aka Joseph Amster), many of whom will be dressed in period costume. Attendees should plan to gather around 4:45 a.m., as some dignitaries will speak before the 5:12 a.m. start time. A procession to the golden fire hydrant on the corner of Church and 20th streets will follow at approximately 5:50 a.m.  

Lotta’s Fountain
A 38-Geary bus rolls past Lotta's Fountain on the 114th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake. | Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

“We’re remembering our resiliency,” said Capt. Jonathan Baxter, public information officer for the San Francisco Fire Department. “And reminding ourselves of how disaster has struck and will strike again.” 

The golden fire hydrant, as the story goes, was the sole source of water available to volunteers in the city to help extinguish the fire that followed the earthquake. As part of the celebration, the fire hydrant is spray-painted with a fresh coat of golden lacquer. 

A couple wearing vintage clothing walk in Dolores Park after the annual painting of the fire hydrant known as the "little giant." | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

While there are no quake survivors left to attend the ceremony these days, according to Baxter, the annual festivities are well-attended, with groups ranging from 75 into the hundreds, despite the early morning hour. 

The event is also a reminder to come up with an emergency plan. As Baxter noted, another earthquake is sure to strike the Bay Area—it’s only a matter of time.  

The ceremony will include an antique salvaged fire truck, rehabilitated by the nonprofit Guardians of the City. “It’s a cool event for all ages,” Baxter said, noting that many attendees have been coming since their own parents brought them as children. 

“It’s a rich San Francisco tradition,” he said. 

117th Anniversary of the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906

📍 Lotta’s Fountain
🗓️ Tuesday, April 18
⏰ 5:12 a.m. (gather around 4:45 a.m.)