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Remembering 1906: SF wakes up before dawn to honor city’s losses and rebirth

Mayor London Breed speaks during a ceremony commemorating the 117th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake at Lotta’s Fountain on Market Street. | Jason Henry for The Standard

Some 100 hardy San Franciscans gathered in the wee hours Tuesday morning to celebrate the 117th anniversary of the Great Quake of 1906 that struck the city at 5:12 a.m. on the morning of April 18, 1906. Endurance and rebirth quickly emerged as key themes. 

“This is the most resilient city in the world,” said Bill Scott, San Francisco chief of police. “If this happened today, we’d be ready.” 

The festivities began at Lotta’s Fountain, created in 1875, which stands as the oldest monument in San Francisco. “It was held together with chicken wire and duct tape,” said longtime press agent Lee Houskeeper of the fountain before its renovation, who noted the water was running again in part thanks to a campaign promise made by former Mayor Willie Brown. 

Former SF Mayor Willie Brown speaks during a ceremony commemorating the 117th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake at Lotta’s Fountain on Market Street. | Jason Henry for The Standard

The mood turned ominous after master of ceremonies, actor Bob Sarlatte, read out loud the history of the earthquake and fire.

“San Francisco is doomed to experience it again,” Sarlatte said. “It could happen tonight.” Attendees observed 30 seconds of silence for those who perished in the quake and fire before sirens broke the quiet. 

Spectators dressed in historical clothing gathered during a ceremony commemorating the 117th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake at Lotta’s Fountain on Market Street. | Jason Henry for The Standard

A joyful rendition of the theme song from the 1936 film “San Francisco,” led by Donna Huggins (in period dress and in character as Lillie Coit) lightened the atmosphere before the crowd dispersed and a smaller one met at the golden fire hydrant at Church and 20th streets. 

At the hydrant, which is famous for proving instrumental in saving the Mission, attendees took turns wielding a can of gold spray paint and added their flourishes to the beloved water spout. 

SF Assistant Sheriff Tanzanika Carter spray paints the Golden Fire Hydrant. | Jason Henry for The Standard

It’s the 49th year Huggins has led the spray-painting, and she encouraged every participant to note who they wanted to honor with their squirt of gold. Doc Bullock, a local dentist and historian, began the tradition of spraying the hydrant golden in the 1960s, according to Huggins. In the early days of Bullock’s then-clandestine late night painting forays, he was known as the “phantom.” 

The parade of sprayers were a who’s who of San Francisco celebrities: columnist Carl Nolte, small business owner Manny Yekutiel, Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, Painted Lady steward George Horsfall, author James Dalessandro. 

Spectators dressed in historical attire attend a ceremony commemorating the Golden Fire Hydrant. | Jason Henry for The Standard

A bevy of everyday San Franciscans also took part, sharing the ways in which the city—and its emergency personnel—have offered a helping hand to citizens in need. There was a woman whose family lost their home in a house fire on Feb. 14, a cyclist who was rescued by an EMT after a bike accident, a man whose grandfather fought the fire in 1906 only to die in the 1918 flu pandemic. 

Emperor Norton speaks during a ceremony commemorating The Golden Fire Hydrant. | Jason Henry for The Standard

People sprayed in honor of their relatives, in honor of Herb Caen, in honor of NERTs (members of the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team), in honor of the city itself. 

Also taking up the can was author Melissa Geissinger, whose novel inspired by the 1906 earthquake, Nothing Left but Dust, was released Tuesday. Emperor Norton (aka Joseph Amster) announced that a plaque on the de Young building on Market Street—six years in the making and what will be the first permanent commemoration of the Great Quake—is finally coming to pass.  

Spectators looked at the skyline during a ceremony commemorating the Golden Fire Hydrant. | Jason Henry for The Standard

Multiple speakers encouraged people to take a moment to turn around and appreciate the beauty of San Francisco, as the sky began to lighten the cityscape framing Dolores Park. 

“How magnificent this city has become as a result of that fire,” former Mayor Brown said. 

Julie Zigoris can be reached at jzigoris@sfstandard.com