Monday, September 14, 2009

Coit Tower

The Coit Tower is a San Francisco landmark built in 1933 at the bequest of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, an eccentric socialite who left one third of her estate for the Supervisors of San Francisco to "expend the same in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of said city which I have always loved." The bequest amounted to $225,000 in 1929 dollars or about $2.7 million today. All things considered, this is not a bad price for enduring fame. I doubt that Donald Trump will be more than a historical footnote in 75 years despite all his building projects.

Lillie Hitchcock Coit first gained notoriety for her devotion to the San Francisco firefighters. She was known as "Firebelle Lil."

From a 1939 biography by Frederick J. Bowlen, Battalion Chief, San Fransisco Fire Department:

One of the most unusual personalities ever connected with our Fire Department was a woman. She was Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who was destined not only to become a legend but to attain that eminence long before her life ended.

She came to this city on the ship Tennessee in 1851 from West Point, where her father, Dr. Charles M. Hitchcock, was stationed. Dr. Hitchcock served in the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars. During the Mexican War he performed a splendid piece of surgery on Colonel Jefferson Davis, saving his leg. Davis went on to be U.S. Secretary of War and President of the Confederacy.

Seven years later, when only 15 years old, she began her famous career with Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5. On one afternoon that pioneer fire company had a short staff on the ropes as it raced to a fire on Telegraph Hill. Because of the shortage of man power, the engine was falling behind. Oh, humiliating and bitter was the repartee passed by Manhattan No. 2 and Howard No. 3 as the total eclipse seemed to be but a matter of seconds. Then suddenly there came a diversion. It was the story of Jeanne d 'Arc at Orleans, The Maid of Sargossa and Molly Pitcher of Revolutionary fame all over again.

Pretty and impulsive Lillie Hitchcock, on her way home from school, saw the plight of the Knickerbocker and, tossing her books to the ground, ran to a vacant place on the rope. There she exerted her feeble strength and began to pull, at the same time turning her flushed face to the bystanders and crying: "Come on, you men! Everybody pull and we'll beat 'em!"

Everybody did come and pull and Knickerbocker No. 5 went up the slope like a red streak and got first water on the fire.

That was a famous day for Lillie. From that time on she caught the spirit of the Volunteers and Dr. Hitchcock had difficult work attempting to keep his daughter from dashing away every time an alarm was sounded. As it was, there never was a gala parade in which Lillie was not seen atop Knickerbocker No. 5, embowered in flags and flowers. She was, literally, the patroness of all the firemen of her city.


After her 1868 marriage to Howard Coit, a caller at the San Francisco Stock and Bond Exchange, she traveled extensively in the East, in Europe and the Orient. Notwithstanding all her wanderings, her love for California was steadfast and she at length made it her permanent home.

She was a notable figure even at the court of Napoleon III and a maharaja of India, and later when she came back to San Francisco to live she brought with her a remarkable collection of gifts from royalty and others. They included gems of rare value, objects of art, mementoes and souvenirs, some of them priceless.

It appears that her life was unconventional, bordering on scandalous. She was a trouser-wearing, cigar-smoking dame that delighted in the manly diversions of hunting, poker, and prizefighting. This colorful behavior makes for entertaining biography but puts a strain on domestic relations. Her husband grew weary of her madcap ways, and the two separated, though never divorced.