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SF First Responder Museum Remembers the City’s Firefighters, Police, Ambulance Drivers and More

Written by Christina CampodonicoPublished May. 14, 2022 • 8:00am
Vintage emergency response vehicles are part of the draw at the First Responders Museum. | Christina Campodonico

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After being closed for two years due to the pandemic, the SF Fire Museum—now called the First Responder Museum and Learning Center—reopened this week with a new name and a broader dedication to all first responders. 

Several city officials, including Mayor London Breed, San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson, Police Chief Bill Scott, District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani and Sheriff Paul Miyamoto were on hand to welcome the public back to the museum. Founded under the tenure of Fire Chief William F. Murray in 1964, it was created to honor firefighters and the history of the department, which dates back to the Gold Rush-era. 

The new mission of the museum and its steward, the nonprofit Guardians of the City, is “to preserve the heritage and history of San Francisco’s first responders,” which stretches back more than 170 years if you include the San Francisco police and sheriff’s office, said Guardians of the City President Jim Lee during a press conference on Wednesday.

Tucked into the side of Fire Station 10 in Laurel Heights, the tiny museum hosts numerous antique artifacts, vintage photos, retired equipment and memorabilia from the early days of firefighting in San Francisco—and now some newer items from the San Francisco Sheriff’s Office, police department and emergency medical services.   
The museum is open Thursdays through Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. and admission is free—although calling ahead to be sure it’s open and donations are encouraged. We talked with museum’s curator Jamie O’Keefe about the five most interesting things in the collection in case you decide to stop by. 

Melted Pennies from San Francisco’s 1906 Earthquake-Fire

“Indian Head” pennies fused by heat from San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake-fire. | Christina Campodonico 

The major temblor and subsequent conflagration shoo over 100 years ago, the First Responder Museum still receives surviving items from that infamous natural disaster. Among the more interesting artifacts from that event are pennies from the era “melted and fused together by the heat” of the fire, said O’Keefe. 

One of San Francisco’s Oldest Fire Engines

The reopened First Responder Museum houses one of the first fire engines to serve in SF. | Christina Campodonico 

Made in New York in 1810, this fire engine is one of the first three fire engines ever used in San Francisco and was put to good use as soon as it arrived, according to O’Keefe. 

“While it was on the dock in San Francisco, ready to go to the gold mines, a fire broke out in the city. Somebody remembered that this was on the dock and they said, ‘Hey, let’s grab that piece of fire equipment and put it into service.’ And they did,” said O’Keefe.  

The fire engine was restored to its original blue and yellow hues in 1978. 

The First Fire Engine Made in California 

“Old Broderick” as this fire engine is known was the first built in California. | Christina Campodonico 

Known as “Old Broderick” or “The Fire Eater,” the 170-plus-year-old fire engine was built and designed by William E. Worth in what we now know as the Financial District in 1850. Until that point, all local fire engines had been built in New York or Philadelphia and brought around “the Horn” by boat, according to the engine’s accompanying placard.

Renamed for United States Senator and volunteer fire bridge foreman David C. Broderick after he was killed in a duel in 1859, the fire engine was the pride of one of San Francisco’s volunteer fire companies at the time and was equipped with iron and brass from the Vulcan Foundry and made out of wood from the Sandwich Islands. It took 40 men to pump water by hand from the engine.  

Lillie Coit’s Fire Helmet

Heiress and firefighter enthusiast Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s personal fire helmet. | Christina Campodonico 

The collection holds a few notable personal effects from Lillie 

Hitchcock Coit, the woman whose inheritance built Coit Tower and the “patron saint of all the pioneer firemen in the city,” including her leather fire helmet, which you might recognize from one of her more famous photos.     

“She had a petite little head,” notes O’Keefe. 

Coit was not a firefighter herself but an enthusiastic supporter of the Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5.

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“Everything she had, had a number five on it because she was a very proud member,” said O’Keefe. 

Other items on display include a printing plate for Coit’s calling cards, a gold handled cane that belonged to her family, a table cloth with the No. 5 stitched onto it and a corkscrew.  

Portsmouth Square Fire Bell

This bell was made in Paul Revere’s foundry and hung in Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square until San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake. | Christina Campodonico

Installed in Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square in the 1850s, this giant bell was rung to alert citizens to fire in the area and call for help. It was originally made in Paul Revere’s foundry and came to California around “the Horn” of South America, according to O’Keefe.  

The bell hung in Chinatown until 1906 when that year’s infamous earthquake shook it down, causing it to fall and crack. 

The story goes that it was going to be dumped in a landfill, recounted O’Keefe, but then a group of historic-minded citizens rescued the bell from destruction.  

“They said, we can’t just let it be dumped, so they took it out,” said O’Keefe.

Ironically enough, the word “department” in San Francisco Fire Department is misspelled. 

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Christina Campodonico can be reached at [email protected]




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