On Friday April 20, 1906, San Francisco was in flames.
The great quake hit two days before, causing a
conflagration that was steadily progressing toward the
heart of the Mission district.
Although damaged, the thriving Mission district was now
threatened with total destruction.
Engine 27 had stopped the fire's westward march at Market
and Guerrero Streets, but the flames were steadily
progressing South. As had been the case time after time,
the engine company prepared to make a stand against the
oncoming wall of fire, only to find the hydrants without
water and unmaintained cisterns dry. They were forced to
At Twentieth and Dolores, refugees were assembling in the
park, only recently mixed with Horse manure in
anticipation of planting a lawn. The fire came closer.
Word passed quickly through the crowd that there was no
water to fight it.
Hearing of this, a city blacksmith by the name of John
Rafferty was perplexed. He had seen a fire company
earlier that very day using the hydrant near his home. He
opened it up to test it. Eureka! Limitless water gushed
from the hydrant. Word was quickly passed to the weary
firefighters at the bottom of the hill.
Engine 27 was joined by Engine 19 as they responded to the
magic hydrant. Or rather, they tried to. Their exhausted
horses were unable to muster enough strength to pull the
massive Metropolitan steam engines up Dolores Street.
The refugees in the park, seeing this, responded
themselves - by the hundreds. Hands pulled ropes as
shoulders pushed forward, propelling the magnificent
steamers up to Twentieth Street. Now, firefighters could
make their stand, but the firefighters were few and
exhausted, and nobody knew how long the water would hold
Again the volunteers, under the direction of the
firefighters, went to work. The line was to be drawn on
Twentieth Street. Buildings to the North were torn down
to slow the conflagration and deprive it of fuel. On the
South side, the alarm was raised as citizens prepared to
defend their property and that of others.
When the advancing inferno reached the Twentieth Street
line, over 3000 civilians and a handful of firefighters
stood shoulder to shoulder to meet it. The fight was described
as "Hell itself".
The titanic battle lasted seven hours.
Hoses were used. Mops and buckets were used. Behind the
fireline, homeowners were on their roofs beating out
sparks and small fires with blankets, mops, casks of wine
- anything that could be used. Doors from the demolished
houses were used as heat shields until they too began to
smolder. Exhausted firefighters would drop in their
tracks, as volunteers took to their lines. Nurses moved
through, administering stimulants. Through the night, the
As dawn approached, the flames began to subside. By 7:00
AM on Saturday, the fight was over, the flames gone. With
the exception of some small pier fires, the nightmare was
over. Rebuilding could begin tomorrow, but today was for
savoring the effort - and the victory.
Today, as you go down 20th street you may notice that all
the buildings on the North are newer and more modern than
many of those on the South side. They stand in silent
tribute to all who fought to keep our City from total
The magic hydrant at Twentieth and Church was painted gold
and returned to service, where it remains. Each April 18,
it receives a fresh coat of golden paint.
To this day, nobody knows where the water came from.