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Lillie Hitchcock Coit, San Francisco's Firefighting Patron
Traditionally, firefighting has been a male dominated occupation. However, a few spirited females such as Lillie Hitchcock Coit (1843-1929) left their indelible mark on the profession. Lillie was an only child and arrived in California in the spring of 1851 with her parents. Her father was a surgeon and a graduate of West Point, the place she was born.
Lillie had always been fascinated by the red shirt and uniforms of the firemen assigned to San Francisco’s Knickerbocker Company, Engine Number 5 and the prospect of watching them battle big fires. Perhaps this was because Lillie was rescued from an upper floor of the hotel where she and her father were staying by them. Soon after whenever the fire alarms sounded Lillie could be seen at other fires cheering her heroes on. It wasn’t long before she became their "unofficial mascot."
Her father however, wholeheartedly disapproved of her presence at such activities. In those days it just wasn’t lady like. Besides at the time women couldn’t become a fire fighter.
In the 1850s, fire engines in San Francisco were powered by men pulling it by rope. One day in 1858 the Knickerbocker Company found themselves shy several firefighters and were having much difficulty getting their fire engine uphill to the scene of a huge blaze. As usual Lillie, now 15, was among the spectators.
While a number of men stood about passively gawking at the fire, Lillie ran forward and took a place on the rope to assist the struggling firemen. "Come on men! Everybody pull and we'll beat 'em!" she hollered. Her words spurred other onlookers to action and Number 5 was first to reach the fire.
From then on she was on hand at nearly every fire attended by Number 5, although she could never join the fire brigade. Later the Company made her an honorary member presenting her with a gold badge. This made her the only woman in the United States to belong to a volunteer fire station. Lillie treasured the badge and proudly wore it every time she showed up to help at a fire.
But it became more difficult for her as she grew into a young lady. Because her family moved in the upper echelons of San Francisco society her father brought pressure to bear on her to give up her interest in firefighting. Gentlemen and ladies of the socially elite had also begun to either snub or humor her.
Finally, she did stop showing up at fire scenes, but never stopped caring for her beloved firefighters. She visited those sick or injured bearing flowers. It’s said the firemen thought of her as their patron.
After her marriage to Howard Coit, she travelled abroad and was a guest in the court of Napoleon III and the maharaja of India. When her wander lust was satisfied she returned to San Francisco and continued to care for the needs of Number 5’s aging firefighters.
Lillie died July 22, 1929, at the age of 86 leaving a third of her estate to the city of San Francisco. The city built 210 foot Coit Tower in 1933, one of the city's most recognizable landmarks, that stands atop Telegraph Hill in honor of her and the city’s firemen.