Noe Valley Voice April 1999

Remembering the Little Hydrant That Could

By Suzanne Herel

Survivors of the 1906 earthquake and San Franciscans wishing to commemorate those who perished in the disaster will gather for their annual fire hydrant painting ceremony on April 18, the 93rd anniversary of the Great Quake.

Located at 20th and Church streets, the hydrant--known affectionately as the "Little Giant"--is repainted gold each year in memory of its service during the raging fire that followed the earthquake. While other hydrants failed, the Little Giant continued to supply water to firefighters, allowing them to stave off the conflagration and save the Mission District.

The earthquake, which would have registered between 7.9 and 8.3 on today's Richter scale, lasted about 75 seconds and sparked a fire that burned for three days, destroying 28,000 buildings and killing more than 2,000 people.

Traditionally, the memorial ceremonies begin around 5 a.m. -- the 1906 quake started at 5:12 -- at Lotta's Fountain at Market and Kearny streets, which served as a low-tech communications center after the earthquake. When those festivities die down, the crowd makes its way over to the hydrant, arriving around 6:30 or 7 a.m.

Years ago, a local man rose before dawn to repaint the hydrant anonymously each year -- until he was discovered by a TV news reporter. The ceremony was then adopted by the St. Francis Hook & Ladder Society, said Secretary Susan Stacks. The society's 1930s coffee truck, which used to provide refreshments to firefighters, will be on display at the event.

Few survivors are left, but Stacks expects some to be in attendance. The oldest survivor is usually the first to spraypaint the hydrant, but anyone, including children, can take a turn, she said.

"The whole thing is in memory of the Little Giant that could pump."