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The Story Behind San Francisco’s Golden Fire Hydrant That Could

Written by Sophie BearmanPublished Sep. 15, 2022 • 10:07am
Bob Hillman, historian for Ghirardelli, spray paints the fire hydrant on Church and 20th streets in San Francisco, Calif., to commemorate the 105th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake on Monday, April 18, 2011. | Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

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Every year on April 18, the anniversary of the devastating 1906 earthquake-fire that destroyed so much of San Francisco, relatives of survivors, city firefighters and lawmakers gather around a golden object in the Mission District—a fire hydrant, to be exact.

This hydrant may be small, but it’s mighty. As the story goes, when all other hydrants failed in 1906, this one drew on a water source and single handedly kept the Mission District from burning down.

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Ever spot this golden fire hydrant in San Francisco’s Mission District? There’s a story behind it… ssanfranciscoeearthquake11906earthquakeffirefighterhhistorybbayareawwaterfyp

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“Though the water mains were broken and dry on April 18, 1906 yet from this Greenberg hydrant on the following night there came a stream of water allowing the firemen to save the Mission District,” reads a memorial plaque near the hydrant.

In honor of this unlikely miracle that helped save the neighborhood, the hydrant gets spray painted gold once a year, a ritual that began in the 1960s by dentist and historian Doc Bullock, according to the Examiner.

Water gushes against the ruins of a building in San Francisco. The source of the water is not apparent. | Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

That ritual almost always goes according to plan, though in 2012 the San Francisco History Association’s president and founder Ron Ross accidentally purchased three cans of silver spray, and didn’t realize his mistake in the early morning light until a layer had already been applied to the hydrant.

The error was then caught, and the hydrant was swiftly repainted gold that very same morning.

Today, the golden hydrant remains in service, though when we visited it was unfortunately blocked by an illegally-parked car.

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A young boy touches a fire hydrant known as the “little giant” during the annual painting of the hydrant on April 18, 2006 in San Francisco, Calif. | Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

After the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco built a new emergency water supply system, called the Auxiliary Water Supply System, which is meant to ensure the city is protected should anything as devastating as the 1906 earthquake happen again.

San Francisco’s fire hydrants are also color-coded. Black-topped hydrants are fed by the Twin Peaks Reservoir, red-topped hydrants are fed by the Ashbury Street tank and blue-topped hydrants are fed by the Jones Street tank.

The full Auxiliary Water Supply System consists of a collection of reservoirs, pumps, cisterns, hydrants, fireboats and more.

Reporting contributed by Yinuo Shi.

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Sophie Bearman can be reached at [email protected]




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