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The San Francisco call. (San Francisco [Calif.]) 1895-1913, December 08, 1912, Image 2

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Mrs. Clarence E. Todd
IN Portsmouth square in Brenham
place there stands a flagpole that
on gala days boasts a 40 foot flag.
Do you know, San Franciscans, what
it stands for? It is the property of
the Exempt Fire company of the city
and county of San Francisccu and to-,
day stands opposite an empry lot, a
lot once occupied by the firehouse of
the Exempts. The history of this flag
staff well represents the spirit of its
old time owners. It was one of the
lew flagpoles in the city that passed
through the great fire with its hal-
yards unburnea. rt rs so neat looking
that you would think it was erected
only yesterday, yet it is over half a
century old and has been cut off three
times when it has bec6me worm eaten
at the base. In the sunlight of today it
Is hard to believe that the flames which
I'.stroyed blocks of buildings on all
four sides of it, ypared even the ropes
that hung from this old time relic.
At present, I was glad to learn, the
pole is embedded in concrete. The
ipts met by that flagstaff the
morning af*cr the fire of April, 190 G.
It is their rallying place, and today
it represents ail that they loved and
fought for in the gtorv of their young
A natural confusion has grown up
In disting.ishing the different veteran
fliemcn's associations m San Francisco.
Ther» ate three such associations at
present. The "Veteran Volunteer Fire-
men" draw their members from all
over the world; the 'Veteian Firemen's
lation of San Francisco" is made
I the veterans of the present fire
department, which wa» organized in
ISC6; an- 1 the "Exempt Fire Company
of the City and County of San Fran
is composed of all that are left
of th: men who volunteered their lives
t*»at t>e young city might live in those
often troublous years from 1849 to 1866.
And who will question me when I say
that they, perhaps better than any
others, represent the nobility, the gen
erosity, and the bravery of the pio
net rs? Some of these last are me
of one or both of the other companies
but there are others who claim mem
bership with the Exempts only.
Father Time is reaping his harvest of
old men fast, so let me refresh your
memories a little before it becomes too
late to pay their due of homage to the
old Kxemp'.c It is; so long since the
present paid department was organized,
In 1866, that the majority of the people
living in the city probably do not know
that the qarly safety of San Francisco
was guarded by a volunteer department.
So let us go back to "ancient history."
If any remember, in 1849 San Francisco
was a group of stores and dwellings
roughly contrived out of the nearest
lumber; often there was not wood
enough at hand, and canvas served as
a roof. The whole primitive contrivance
stood ready, an easy prey to the Are
devil. And in a place where there was
more than one careless inebriate, ant
where cooking was done under difficul
ties, it is a wonder to us that there was
no blaze of any consequence until the
year above named.
On the evening of December 24, 1849,
at 6 o'clock, the fire commenced in Den
nison's exchange, on the east side of
the plaza, laid in ashes nearly all the
buildings in Kearny street facing the
open space and traveled down the south
side of Washington street to Montgom
<■! y. A million dollars' worth of prop
erty was destroyed in three hours. The*
people turned out as volunteers, and
with bucket lines and sacks and mud
and water from the nearest well they
finally conquered.
One lesson was enough. In the little
community were men who had been
members of volunteer fire departments
in New York. Boston, Baltimore and
Philadelphia, and these realized imme
diately that provision must be made for
the future. On the evening of the same
day, Christmas eve, 1549, a special
meeting of the ayuntamiento, or town
council, was called and the following
resolution was passed:
"Whereas. The town suffered se
verely this morning from the want of
necessary organization and means to
meet tne devastating element of fire;
therefore be it
"Resolved. That the citizens be re
quested to meet In Portsmouth square
on Wednesday next at 12 o'clock to
take such measures as may be deemed
advisable- 1 to protect the town against
another such calamity by organizing
fire companies, and that the town
council will supply the hooks, ladders,
ropes, etc., to be kept by said
companies. '
The meeting was held and the first
company organized adopted the name
Offen the Exempts Hove Saved
the Town — flew the Town May
Save ihe Exempts
of the "lnaepenti*.,,,. w Ax com
From tiiis time on the growth of the
volunteer companies was very rapid
They were formed in all parts of the
city and numbered among their mem
bers many leading citizens, bunkert.
lawyers and merchant princes.
The Volunteer Exempts, as a depart
ment, took a large part in the social
activities of the growing city. They
were called upon to fill places of the
highest honor, to make speeches on all
public occasions, to lay corner stones,
to welcome distinguished visitors to
the city. Their halls werolstate affairs.
There was no public rejoicing at which
they did not turn out in red shirts and
fire hat", leading the old engines Juid
baring their company banners. No
brief account such as this can giOf an
adequate idea of the place they held
in the hearts of the people.
The organisation of the Exempts
was strictly democratic, and, as far as
possible, independent of city sup
As mentioned in the above resolution,
the lire apparatus v. as nearly all sup
plied by the city, but ihey supported
their houses r»y private communions,
and their services as firemen were ren
dered without any pay whatever, and
often at a loss of sleep or business.
For failing to appear at a working
.ire an Exempt might be fined $1; for
not taking part in a run, 50 cents If
the fine was hot paid, he was subject
to expulsion from his company, and it
Was a matter of honor with all that a
man who had been expelled rrom one
company should not join any other.
This ruling soosgp over harsh at first
reading, when one considers that the
work was entirely voluntary and done
out of a spirit of loyalty, but we must
remember that the highest respect and
honor was paid every Exempt and they
imposed these rules upon themselves to
help keep keen consciences that needed
no Watching, in telling me of his own
.<<•■ Kxempts said that at
U*M ■/hao he ran to a fire during
wording hours being employed then
at the foundries under Peter Donahue,
rt* v.-a.« dismissed from the pay roll.
Chief Scannell was at once Informed
tt the matter and wrote to Mr. Dona
iue in behalf of tiie dismissed fireman,
who was Immediately reinstated.
Everywhere the sentiment prevailed
that the work of fighting the fire must
take precedence of everything else.
This brings to mind the stories old
timers have told me of Lilly Hitchcock
Coit, Lilly Hitchcock at. the time she
berate an honorary member of Exempt
Company Knickerbocker Ho. 5. A so
ciety hello, she was often at some social
affair when the big bell boomed warn
ing of fire, but wherever ehe was, and
however dressed, she would run out
and join her engine. The other day at
the Park Museum. Prof. Barron told me
of her iast run with Engine No. 5. In
1806, Virginia City bought this engi-ne.
A number of the members of the com
pany escorted it by stage to its desti
nation;'with them went Lilly Hltch
cock Colt, the only woman in the party.
At Virginia City a dinner was given
in honor of the guests, and N Mrs. Coit
was called upon to speak. "Gentlemen,
I'm not a speechmakcr," she said, "but
I can say that I have one regret In
life, that I -cannot -ide to another fire
on Knickerbocker No. 5." As she sat
down, one of the Virginia Ciiy men
slipped quietly «out of the room. In a
few minutes, there was an alarm of
tiie. Ail jumped to the rescue. Mrs.
Coit was seated on the engine and
according to her wont rode to the Are.
The San Francisco Sunday Call
Standing, left to right—Kobert T, Brown, Godfrey Fisher, Captain J. H.
IWIMmiIMJ Richard Caverly, John J. Mundwhyler, Edward StatTelbach, Henry
Hock, James Grady, J. J. Gulifoyle. Seated, left to right—E. Valeada, D. A.
Finn, H. D. Hudson. M. J. Dolan, S. S. Cohn, A. J. Je»sup. Picture taken roceutly
la front of the Exempt Fire Company's »He In Brcnnan place.
The blaze was soon extinguished and,
needless to say, the man who had
quietly disappeared from the roor.i was
not prosecuted for arson. ,
Did you ever hear of that spirit of
rivalry among the different Exempt
companies in San Francisco? It Is
hard to realize today that the city was
still so small in the early sixties that
all companies but two ran to every
fire that was sounded. A lookout on
top of the old city hall kept watch for
any sudden smoke during the day or
red glow at night and at even a sus
picion of fire rang the big bell. The
city was divided into eight districts,
and the bell rang once for district No.
1, twice for No. -' and so on. Many a
night in a spirit of rivalry and love
of the race, the Exempt boys would
start a bonfire in a vacant lot just to
have a "run," for remember that in
those days the men themselves dragged
the engines. They would rush out of
their engine houses no matter the time
of night, each little groi ip of men try
ing 10 reach the bla::e I vat. No one
knows today just when tt| the boys
of Crescent No. 10 concc.vud the bright
idea of owning a fox brush. Howbeit,
he got one and stuck it up in front of
his engine, and in the pride of his
company's prowess, dared all the rest
to win the fuzzy prize by passing No.
10 in the race. Crescent No. 10 kept
the fox brush for some time, too long
as the otners thought, so one night
Manhattan No, 2 started a nre in tnftir
district, and waited on the corner till
No. 10 came up panting, and then Iresh
for the race, arrived first at the Are
and won the fox tail. Thereafter It
passed from one company to another
in fair play down the line.
This same spirit of rivalry came out
in other directions. His particular en
gine house was the pride of each fire
man's heart, and he did all he could to
embellish it. Any innovation was wel
comed as a way to outdo all the rest.
In 1562 Pennsylvania No. 12, thinking
to lord it over the others, quietly sent
to the "States" for what they hoped
would be the first steam engine in San
Francisco. But No. G got wind of tifis,
gathered the necessary funds'and sent
post hasfca by pony express to Balti
more to have the first "steamer" avail
able sent by way of the isthmus, the
short freight route to San Francisco.
No. 6 won out. The rage of No. 12 can
be imagined. Later on, however, No.
12 got the credit of introducing the
first engine horses. They were ridi
culed on this account and called the
"kid gloved" firemen. But the good
sense of this move- was soon proven
and the rest followed suit.
In 1865 It was proposed to organize a
paid department. The exempts recog
nized the need of a more regular sys
tem but resisted the idea that the for
mation of such a department neces
sarily entailed the disbanding of their
own Organisation. Much unnecessary
bad feeling was shown at this issue by
those who were too zealous irj the sup
port of the new proposition. Let it be
said to the great and lasting credit of
the exempts that in spite of these at
tacks upon their honor they loyally
followed their accustomed duties while
the new department was being organ
ized and until it was ready for active
and effective service. Many of the ex
empts joined the new companies, but
the majorty of the new firemen were
amateurs at the work. It would be
unfair to judge the new department by
its first year's results, but it is inter
esting to turn to the statistics of the
time for a comparison of the efficiency
of the two departments—the one un
paid, but experienced; the other paid
and for the greater part inexperienced.
We Bad that the loss from fire frorq
December, 1865. to June, 1866, in the
last year of the exempt's service
amounted to $172,52T, and that during
the corresponding months in 1566 and
1 ,:7. when -the new department was
hi Dfl initiated, the fire losses were
?17T,:;7G. The volunteer department
cost the city $50,000 a year for running
expanses, while the new department
co. t at the outset about $30,000 per
Their active work in fire fighting was
done, but the Exempts did not disband—
the old associations held them together
and there was still the widows and or
phan.; of those who had died in the
service to be provided for, and still help
fo be extended to any one of their num
ber who encountered misfortune.
They had uc-n organized according to
law by the: legislature of 1860, and by
that law any fireman who had served
five years was allowed the membership
and benefits of the department. Among
these benefits were exemption from
military and jury duty, hence the nam*
"Exempts." In 1866 all who had served
up to that date were admitted to ben
efit. The charitable fund that had been
raised by benefits and increased 'by pri
vate generosity was vested in the Ex
empt company by the legislature (Stat
utes of California, 1865-6, page 851).
Noteworthy contributions in 1852 were
those of Palmer, Cook & Co. of f 1,000:
the Chinese merchants, H.dOO;
J. L. FoJsom, 5500; Page, Bacon & Ccr?T
$500; London and Liverpool Insurance
company, $500; Adams & Co., $300; Par
rott & Co., $390; B. Davidson, $300; the
Bateman children, $854.50, arid F. Chaur
teau, $500. Many actors and act]
gave benefits for this fund, chief arm n •
whom were Katherine Hays, Lola Mon.
tea, the Guggenheim sisters, the Worrrl
sisters, Mrs. Woodward, Slgnora Biscac
cianti. Slgnor Eugenio and Madam Gio
vannina Bianchl and, last but never
least, the well beloved Lotta Crabtree.
By 1858 the fund had increased to
There must have been many whose
names are now lost, who did those
little acts of kindness that no money
can pay for in time of trouble; one
there is whose name is still praised
for her continuous devotion to the
sick, Mrs. A. J. Jessup.
Deprived of their home in Brennan
place bythe fire of 1906. the Exempts
who had stood together so many years
determined that they would not dis
band. They obtained permission of
the veterans of the present department
to meet In their hall, 168 Fell street,
on their appointed day, the third Mon
day of every month, at 2 o'clock.
The old bell which had summoned
them to early fires had been placed
on the roof of their engine house, and
fell In its debris. Thereafter, It was
guarded from vandals day and night
by some member of the company or a
policeman detailed by the city, until
it was removed to the Park museum,
in 1908, where you may see it In the
first room to the left of the entrance
together with all other relics of the
volunteer companies that were*spared
by the fire.
Today there are less than 20 on the
rollcall of due paying members and the
expectation of life of the youngest
who is 70 years old, according to in
surance figures, is only nine years
The oldest, E. Valencia, is 90 years old
and a native son of Spanish parentage
who ekes out a living at wood chop
ping. There are many others like
him who are almost entirely dependent
upon the city The number tntltled
to benefit is about 50. The reserve
fund of the Exempts is almost ex
hausted. The present city ordinance
approved July 19, iyo3. provides $5 00*
a year, all too little when one con
aiders that 60 are dependent upon It
for at that rate it would only be possi
ble for each to receive than $9 .
month. Jn all large cities where the
change has been made from a volunteer
to a paid department, provision
been made for the pensioning of the
volunteer department, and in
York, Philadolnl.u., Chicago. Baltimore,
Boston and other.-, the provision made
is larger than that of Sun Francis™
A committee appointed for the pur
pose, Messrs. Godfrey Fisher DA
nL n V?u Rlchard Caverly. have pet?-'
tioned the board of supervisors to nut
Deter.*,?.' ° f r r :?in?r th *
before the people, and a resolution hen
been drawn, which is herewith a*
pended, and will be voted upon as «>
ter amendment No. 17 on December To
It reads as follows:
n JT> an!l sottln ? f»rth a nro
posal to the qualified electors of the
?# 3 £!KS rounty of San Francisco. state
or California, to amend me charter of
said city and county by amending sub
.T? ~: !ti of Bectlon ». chapter 11 of
article 11 thereof relating to the .-
The board of supervisors of th*s ,-ii>
and county of San Francisco hereby
submits to the qualified electors of the
city jind county of San Francisco. «t a
special election to be fcaul on the ten-n
of December, 1912. a rroposal to
amend the charter of said city and
county, as follows.
"36. To allow not to exceed the sum
of seven thousand five hundred dollars
a year for the relief of aged indigent
and infirm exempt firemen who serve,.
in the volunteer fire department be
tween the years of 1850 and IS6S."
Men and women of San Francisco,
thte is your chance to put yourselves
on record, as you do so often, as be
lievers in a "square deal." Vota for
amendment No. 17.

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