A Tower of Concrete and Flame

That’s right, it’s another #SanFranciscoSunday, and I want to talk about the woman who wore trousers and smoked cigars so she could gamble–a woman so famous the city built a tower in her honor using the money she left it.

Lillie Hitchcock Coit was born in West Point, NY, in 1843, and in 1851 her father, a US Army surgeon, moved the family to San Francisco. I’ve read her father “struck it rich” during the Gold Rush, but I’ve had little luck discovering exactly how–not that the city lacked for means of sudden fortune in that era.

Not terribly long after they arrived, while staying on the top floor of the Palace Hotel, the family had to be rescued from a fire. The responding firemen were from Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5, and Ms. Coit never forgot their rescue.

At the time, San Francisco did not yet have a professional firefighting force. Fire departments in almost every city were volunteers, and most cities of any size had more than one volunteer company. San Francisco had many, and they had all manner of names: Knickerbocker, Manhattan, Volunteer Company, and countless others.

Rivalries between volunteer companies were fierce. In the east, volunteer fire companies frequently turned violent when competing to put out a fire. (It still happens! When I was a kid, growing up in the mountains of western North Carolina, I recall local volunteer fire departments getting into fistfights if a fire broke out on the border between two fire districts and both companies tried to respond.)

In San Francisco, however, the rivals tried to exhibit better behavior. Fights sometimes broke out–and San Francisco got its first professional firefighting force after one turned into a riot in 1863–but for the most part the relationship between different companies was competitive in the extreme rather than openly hostile, competing to see who could reach a fire first while slowing the others down.

“Pulling their engines” is an important phrase there. Unlike other cities’, San Francisco’s volunteer fire companies literally pulled their engines by hand using ropes on each side. A horse could die pulling those machines, so humans did the work.

The story goes that Lillie, fifteen years old and on her way home from school, saw the very Knickerbockers who saved her from a fire as a child trying to get their engine to a blaze atop Telegraph Hill, one of the highest peaks in the city. The company was short-handed, and two other companies were clearly about to beat them to their goal.

Lillie threw down her schoolbooks, ran to the side of the engine, and began to pull. According to one account, she shouted at the gathering crowd, “Come on, you men! Everybody pull and we’ll beat ’em!” The crowd answered her call, and Knickerbocker No. 5 was the first company on the scene.

After that, Lillie couldn’t get enough of fires in San Francisco. The city was almost entirely constructed from wood, yet fire was necessary to do almost anything: cooking, heating, lighting, industry, and more. Fire companies were worshipped as heroes at the time. Residents often kept sketches and paintings of firefighters in their homes as something between a lucky charm and a religious icon.

The city of San Francisco loved firefighters, and the Knickerbocker Engine Company loved Lillie Hitchcock. She’s frequently described as their “mascot,” having been given honorary membership in the company and constantly wearing the company’s badge.

Lillie’s life was not confined to one city. She spent time in Paris as a teenager, waiting out the Civil War with her mother–a native of North Carolina–and mixing in high society. She was a “notable figure” at the court of Napoleon III, befriended one of the Maharaja of India, and built a country estate and hunting lodge in the Napa Valley. Ultimately, though, she moved in a sort of eccentric orbit around the city she considered home: San Francisco.

Throughout that time, she also maintained her devotion to the city’s firefighters. She attended the annual ball, she visited firefighters who were injured or sickened, and she mourned the ones who died. At all times she wore her fireman’s hat and her fireman’s badge. She stitched the number “5” into her underwear. When invited to a formal ball at the court of Napoleon III, she attended in a full San Francisco Fire Department uniform.

By the time she was in her late 30’s, she’d inherited substantial money and land from her father, grandfather, and her estranged husband, on each of their deaths. So it was that for the last decades of the 19th century and first of the 20th, she routinely stayed at that same Palace Hotel from which she had to be rescued as a child.

Coit took up smoking cigars and, in the parlance of the time, “disguised herself” as a man so that she could play poker in men-only gambling dens in San Francisco’s North Shore neighborhood situated at the foot of Telegraph Hill. I’ve even read that she shaved her head so that the wigs of her “disguises” would fit better for her nights on the town.

If you read that last paragraph and heard a bunch of bells ring in the key of LGBTQ, you and I are on the same wavelength!

When Coit died in 1929, she left 1/3 of her sizable fortune to the city for “adding to the beauty of the city.” After a couple of false starts–and at least one fight with the estate’s lawyers, who defended Coit’s wishes–the City held a design competition for a feature to be built on Telegraph Hill, the place where Coit first became famous for helping lug that old hand-engine to a fire.

The winner was a 210-foot high tower of reinforced concrete designed by Arthur Brown, Jr., who designed a ton of things in San Francisco and elsewhere, including City Hall.Coit Tower itself has an intensely fascinating history as the home of controversial art. I hope to talk about it next time. For now, though, I want to keep the spotlight on Lillie Hitchcock Coit.

There’s a scene in SHUT THE GATES OF MERCY, the forthcoming third book in my SERVANT/SOVEREIGN series from Falstaff Books, in which certain characters have a showdown at the base of Coit Tower. It’s a place where they talk about whether love is enough to sustain a life, and what it means to know that, for some people, it is not.

It’s a place where ambitious people talk about what they did and why, and how that means they’ll be at odds forever. I can’t think of a better place than the city’s largest memorial to one of its largest personalities. Coit traveled the world, danced with royalty, drove her own stagecoach, got rich and–unlike so many others–stayed that way.

She chased fires in a city made of wood, and when the city set out to honor her they built a tower of concrete and iron to put her name on.

Some other sites to check out if you found this interest, all of which were important to my research:

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