Just a couple of blocks from Mission Dolores is a tiny, inanimate hero—one that saved the Mission District from ruin over a century ago. The story of San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake is a famous one, but not everyone knows that it’s actually the fire which immediately followed that did most of the damage. With the water mains broken by the quake, most of the city’s hydrants ran dry, allowing the fire to take out whole neighborhoods. In the end 80 percent of the city was destroyed.
In the Mission District, just one hydrant was miraculously still working: the one at 20th and Church Streets. The problem was that the hydrant was perched near the top of the hill, high above the horse-drawn fire wagons stationed along Market Street. The exhausted horses couldn’t pull the wagons up to the hydrant—so the hundreds of refugees gathered across the street in Dolores Park pitched in to help, pulling and pushing the wagons uphill by hand. The entire neighborhood fought the flames when they reached 20th Street, and after a seven hour battle, the Mission District declared victory. And to this day, every April 18 at 5:12 am (the date and time of the 1906 quake), the descendants of those who were there meet to give the “Little Giant” a fresh coat of gold paint.
It’s a great story, full of swashbuckling detail—much of which I’ve had to leave out for the sake of brevity. So I’ll just leave you with my favorite part of the tale: with the water mains and every neighboring hydrant broken, nobody could ever explain where the water came from that kept the Little Giant up and running.