Not many people will have their ‘superhero’ moment mainly because superheroes are fictional and very few people look good in spandex. I mean, I haven’t tried spandex but I imagine I’d be better off in pregnancy trousers, preferably with a loose shirt, you know, to hide the pot belly. Of course, I don’t have any superhero powers just yet so when I turn up the mega-disaster, I’m just some pale, lanky bloke wearing a dreadful outfit clearly unable to help. Lillie Hitchcock, on the other hand, was not me. At just 15, she got her superhero moment and it came with the famous Knickerbocker firefighters. What were you doing when you were 15? I bet you weren’t running into a burning building, which you definitely should have been. No wait, that’s terrible advice, scratch that…
The Littlest Cheerleader of Engine Number Five That Was Not-At-All Suspicious
Shortly after Lillie Hitchcock and her family moved to San Francisco, they had their first brush with the city’s firefighters, whom they came to love. Well, that’s a great introduction to the city. Thank heavens there are no more major disasters right around the corner…
Lillie was just seven-years-old when the hotel the family were staying in kinda… caught fire. The city’s famous Knickerbockers Engine Company Number 5 volunteer firefighters rescued little Lillie but rather than being traumatised, she was inspired. Not necessarily to become a firefighter, or at least not yet, but to become the Knickerbocker’s littlest cheerleader. All together now:
Lillie became a devotee of the firefighters and always showed up to watch them put out the fires. She was always there, standing on the side-lines, cheering them on. Lillie’s shouting and applauding became so legendary that other people in San Francisco turned up to the fires to watch Lillie… who was watching the fires. It was fire Inception, basically.
The Knickerbockers had their own little mascot. And she had her own followers, too. It might sound very sweet but this would have been a nightmare for health and safety…
The Knickerbocker firefighters adored Lillie. And she adored them. She loved their red uniforms. Their ‘war-like’ helmets. And the rush of a big blaze. She often made it to the fires before the Knickerbockers which, strangely, nobody ever thought was a tad suspicious.
She once said that she loved courage in a uniform, but little did she know then that the roles were about to be reversed…
The Mighty Fire of Telegraph Hill and the Honorary Call of Duty
Lillie came to San Francisco in 1851 from West Point, where her father had been an army doctor. He once saved the life of Colonel Jefferson Davis, you know. He went on to become President of the Confederacy. Erm… whoops?
LOOK, HOW WAS I TO KNOW!
Lillie was just 15 when, one day, she heard the news of a fire on Telegraph Hill. But there was a problem and Lillie knew it. Some of the men of the Knickerbocker firefighters were missing. The company was short-staffed that day and they had nowhere near enough men to put out the fire that was threatening to escalate out of control.
Lillie watched on, knowing the firefighters were in trouble. And then a lightbulb suddenly appeared over her head. Not literally, of course. This was her superhero moment.
She had been walking home from school but, upon seeing the plight of her beloved firefighters, she threw her school books on the ground and ran to help. The Knickerbockers had one vacant space on the ropes and so Lillie grabbed the rope and pulled as hard as she could.
Her face turned flush as bystanders, who had gathered to watch Lillie, were heard to shout:
Come on, you men! Everybody pull and we’ll beat ‘em!
Lillie had been bitten by the bug. At first, she was a mascot but now she had crossed the line and helped to fight a fire herself. This was a famous day for Lillie. From then on, her father had a tough time trying to keep his daughter from dashing away to help the firefighters every time the alarm was sounded.
On October 3rd, 1863, Lillie, aged 20, was elected an honorary member of the Knickerbocker Company. The littlest mascot had grown up to become a member of the firefighters she admired so much…
The Patroness Paraded across a City That Never Forgot Her
Lillie had her own uniform and gold badge. She described the moment she became a firefighter as both the happiest and proudest moment of her life. The Knickerbockers were, regularly, a part of the city’s many parades. As the fire engine rolled through the packed streets of the city, Lillie was always there, atop Knickerbocker Number 5, right at the front, the engine covered in flags and flowers.
She became known as the ‘Patroness of the Firefighters of San Francisco’.
For the next six years, Lillie helped to fight fires however she could, becoming known as ‘Firebelle Lil’. But at the age of 26, her father died and with that, Lillie inherited his vast fortune. It allowed her to travel as she had always wanted to. It also helped that she got married around this time so she had someone to keep her company…
Growing older, she was known for eccentric behaviour – smoking cigars, wearing trousers and gambling on horses and poker matches. She dressed like a man to enter the male-only gamblers’ clubs. She began travelling regularly between Europe and America, but whenever she was back in America, she always paid a visit to the Knickerbockers.
She brought them souvenirs from her travels in Europe, such as art and jewels. She also joined them on parade and attended their banquets. Her marriage, however, proved to be an unhappy one. Her husband had a wandering eye for other women and, despite Lillie’s best efforts, she called it a day on her marriage in the 1880s.
Her ex-husband died in 1885 and he left his vast fortune to Lillie, making her even richer…
Her tie to the engine never diminished. She supported the Knickerbockers well into old age. She died on July 22nd, 1929 at the age of 86.
The Incredible Monument to the Real-Life Band of Superheroes
Lillie left one-third of her immense wealth to the City of San Francisco to ‘add to the city’s beauty’. She left nearly $2 million in today’s money. The city used the money to build the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, still standing to this day as one of the city’s most famous landmarks. There is literally nowhere in the city you cannot see this thing. It is huge! The city also used the money to build a statue of three firefighters in Washington Square Park.
And it was all in honour of the city’s patroness of the firefighters.
It is appropriate that the city built a monument with Lillie’s money to all firefighters, right there on the very hill where, as a teenage girl, she decided to help fight a fire, going on to become an honorary member of the Knickerbockers. Interestingly enough, the statue of the firefighters in Washington Park depicts one of the firefighters carrying a young girl to safety.
I wonder if that little girl is Lillie…
Her story is incredible. As a little girl, she looked up to the Knickerbocker volunteer firefighters. They were her heroes. She took it upon herself to visit everywhere they went to watch them put out fires and cheer them on. Often without telling her parents where she was going. Lillie built up such a legend that she too had her own band of followers.
All until one day when she stopped being a mascot and became a firefighter herself, America’s very first female firefighter squad member, too. And she never left the Knickerbockers behind. She cared for them. She sat by their beds when they were ill. And she attended their funerals, which she always made sure were adorned with beautiful flowers that she paid for.
Most people will know the Coit Tower but few will realise what it really symbolises. We look up to superheroes in cinema but we often overlook the real-life superheroes. Firefighters are certainly among them. And Lillie was one.
And all because she just wanted to help.
Now, she didn’t attend the fires dressed like a superhero, wearing spandex and with a natty cape, but that’s probably for the best.
It wouldn’t fill me with confidence if I saw someone like that turn up to put out my house fire, let me tell you…
[I leave this money] to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved.
– Lillie’s wish for her fortune.
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My Other Blogs: The Indelible Life of Me | To Contrive & Jive
Click Here for Credits (click on images to enlarge)
https://www.hhhistory.com/2017/04/lillie-hitchcock-coit-woman-of-adventure.html, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Volunteer_Firemen_Memorial_by_Haig_Patigian_-_Washington_Square,_San_Francisco,_CA_-_DSC04877.JPG, https://www.traveloffpath.com/top-10-free-things-to-do-while-visiting-san-francisco/coit-tower-2/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lillie_Hitchcock_Coit, https://www.sfchronicle.com/chronicle_vault/article/She-was-the-biggest-fan-of-San-Francisco-s-16176039.php, https://wanderwomenproject.com/women/lillie-hitchcock-coit/, https://www.hhhistory.com/2017/04/lillie-hitchcock-coit-woman-of-adventure.html, https://guardiansofthecity.org/departments/sffd/notable-people/lillie-hitchcock-coit/, http://sfmuseum.org/hist1/h-coit.html