Heritage Server > Story Bank > San Francisco History > Fire Engine Lady
From the Fireman’s Fund Record, November 1954.


High on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill rises a gleaming white shaft, one of the nation’s most unusual structures, the Coit Memorial Tower. Floodlighted at night, visible to ships entering the Golden Gate, it becomes a warming beacon of America and home.

Officially, the column is a monument to the memory of the city’s pioneer volunteer firemen. Unofficially, it salutes the memory of a singular woman, Lillie Hitchcock Coit.

A little over a century ago, in 1851, a schoolgirl of 10 was trudging up Telegraph Hill with her schoolbooks when she heard men running. There was a fire, a home burning. Members of three volunteer fire companies were laboring up the hillside, pulling at long ropes attached to their fire engines. It was a race against each other, but the winner threatened to be the fire itself. Manned by a skeleton crew, Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5 lagged behind.

Crowds watched. Nobody did anything to help—nobody, that is, except a slender, dark-eyed, brown-haired schoolchild. Lillie Hitchcock dropped her books and grabbed the Knickerbocker rope, thin arms and legs straining. Fired by her example, other onlookers bent to the same task—and it was Knickerbocker 5 that reached the blaze first and quenched it.

From that day on, Lillie was the Knickerbocker mascot. She rode their engine to fires, often helped fight the flames. As for the firemen, they worshipped her, usually even obeying her commands. In time, she was made an honorary member of Knickerbocker 5, the only woman so honored in all San Francisco’s lusty, firefighting history. For the rest of her life, she wore the company’s badge, a gold, diamond-studded emblem. She ordered "5" embroidered on all her clothing, and when she signed her name it was always "Lillie Hitchcock 5." Whenever she could, she attended the company’s annual banquet, part of her inevitable garb being a fireman’s red shirt and fireman’s helmet, and if abroad she would send a cablegram.

Because of her audacity, wit and independence, many wondered how this daughter of a West Point army surgeon managed, year after year, to hold her high place in society, but she never lost it. Society’s strict codes meant nothing to her. She smoked openly while the dowagers gaped, won medals as a rifle shot, rode horseback like the wind, played a sharp hand at poker.

In 1868, during the bonanza days of the Comstocks in Nevada, she married Howard Coit, a young financier. On an around-the-world honeymoon, she was presented at various courts of royalty. Seventeen years after the marriage, her husband died and she moved to her childhood home near St. Helena, California. Life there proved dull. She took up permanent residence in San Francisco’s Palace Hotel where she could watch the fire engines race by.

One day there, J. W. McClung, an old friend, was fatally shot by a deranged rent collector, a distant relative of Mrs. Coit. Upon the slayer’s release from San Quentin, Mrs. Coit feared for her own life and fled to Paris. In 1924, when 83 years old, she came back to the city of her choice, the city by the Golden Gate. Five years later she died, badge No. 5 still upon her.

When her will was read, it was found that she had left one-third of her fortune to the city of San Francisco—"to be spent in some way to beautify San Francisco, the city I have always loved"—and to build a monument to the city’s pioneer volunteer firemen.

On a square block purchased by the Society of California Pioneers—a block bounded by Montgomery, Kearny, Filbert and Green Streets—rose Coit Tower, a column soaring 180 feet above the tree-clad eminence. A shaft-like, grooved pillar designed by Architect Arthur Brown, Jr., it is 36 feet in diameter at the base, tapering up to 27 feet at the top, with a balconied, "suicide-proof" structure at the top, providing a panoramic view of the city.

Inside the Tower, as one San Francisco newspaper put it, the Tower "glows like a jewel and its walls are peopled with hundreds of frescoed figures." The art decorations on the inside walls of the Tower were a Public Works of Art project. Fifty-two California artists, paid little more than day laborer’s wages, created the murals representing the present age, stressing commercial activities of every sort—a colorful history of our times.

The Tower, containing two floors, both decorated, is open to the public, of course, and is self-supporting. The cost of riding the elevator, which rises 147 feet, is a nominal 25 cents. As many as 6,000 persons have visited the Tower in a single day, paying their respects to the valiant volunteer firemen of old.

The highly efficient fire departments of today, together with such fire-safeguarding agencies as the National Board of Fire Underwriters, a public service organization supported by the capital stock fire insurance companies, are a far cry from the times when fire engines were hand-drawn. But spectacular Lillie Hitchcock Coit would debate the point. If she were alive now, she’d probably be puffing stoically at her tobacco, maybe playing a little stud poker with the boys, and hotly insisting that no fire laddies on earth could ever equal the sterling members of good old Knickerbocker No. 5.

[Fireman’s Fund Archives: 4-1-3-4-67; 0412]


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