One of the most distinctive landmarks on the San Franciscan horizon, visible from most of the eastern half of the city, is 210 foot high Coit Tower on top of Telegraph Hill.
This is the story of the eccentric woman whose lifelong dedication to the city’s firefighters culminated in bequeathing a third of her fortune for its construction.
Lillian Hitchcock was born on 23 August 1843 at West Point, New York, the only child of Martha and Dr Charles M Hitchcock, a distinguished army surgeon, who had operated on the leg of Colonel Jefferson Davis. She moved with her parents to San Francisco in 1851.
Two days before Christmas that year she was rescued from the upper floor of the hotel in which she and her father were staying. Thanks to the firefighters from Knickerbocker Engine Company No.5. she was unharmed, fuelling a lifetime’s devotion to the same crew in their red shirts and war-like helmets.
This was in an era when fire carriages were designed to be pulled by hand. Firefighters lined up along a rope and pulled, like tug-of-war teams, in order to haul their engine to the fire. They would often be in competition with other companies to get to the blaze first. Such was the case when “Lillie” first saw her opportunity to repay “her men” for saving her when she was only eight years old.
Seven years after that event, the pretty, tomboyish 15 year old was walking home from school when she spied an underhanded Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5 falling behind the Manhattan No. 2 and Howard No. 3 companies in responding to a fire call on Telegraph Hill.
Intelligent and quick-witted, Lillie hurled her school books to the ground nd rushed to help, finding a vacant position on the rope and calling out to other bystanders to help get the engine up the hill. Largely through her intervention, No.5 was the first to the fire.
Frederick J. Bowlen, Battalion Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD), wrote that it “was the story of Jeanne d’Arc at Orleans, The Maid of Saragossa and the Molly Pitcher of Revolutionary fame all over again” as she “exerted her feeble strength and began to pull, at the same time turning her flushed face to the bystanders and calling “Come on you men! Everybody pull and we’ll beat ‘em!”
From then Lillie became the Knickerbocker Engine Company No.5 mascot and honorary firefighter, swinging into action at the sound of every bell. She was elected an honorary member of the company on 3 October 1863, making her the only woman in the US to belong to a volunteer fire station. Her energy and speed were the envy of even the fittest of firemen. She rode frequently with No. 5, especially in street parades and other celebrations, bedecked in flowers and flags.
She wore a diamond-studded fireman’s badge reading “No.5” for the remainder of her life, started signing her name with a 5 after it, and even had its emblem embroidered on her bedsheets (some have suggested her undergarments too!). If a fireman fell ill she would sit with him in his sickroom, and provide floral tributes for the families of those who died.
By the age of 18 she was the “undisputed belle” of San Francisco according to Chief Bowlen.
Stories abound about her eccentric lifestyle. She was believed to have been engaged at one point to two men, wearing their engagement rings on alternate days. But she had resolved to marry wealthy easterner Howard Coit, a caller at the San Francisco Stock and Bond Exchange. Even after they had tied the knot in 1868, she continued to attend firemen’s balls and played poker with the men who nicknamed her “Firebell Lil”? She smoked cigars and wore trousers long before it was socially acceptable for women to do so, gaining her access to men-only establishments in North Beach. She is reputed even to have shaved her head to make the wigs fit better.
Her position in polite society did not prevent her from following her heart and dashing from parties and weddings in her barouche at the call of the doleful clang of a fire engine. Embarassing though this was for her respectable husband, she was generally regarded as an amiable eccentric and ladies either ignored or humoured her.
She was an “accomplished singer, dancer and guitarist” and enjoyed fine food, dining often at the famous French restaurant The Poodle Dog. She also kept her own recipe book.
Like her North Carolina mother, she was a southern sympathiser during the Civil War, spending the early war years there before moving to Paris where she became a notable figure at the court of Napoleon III, on one occasion marching into a prestigious masked ball dressed head to toe as a firefighter. She also travelled extensively in the east, particularly India, where she befriended the Maharaj.
But the lure of her adopted city, and in particularly its firefighters, was too much and she always returned to it, often bringing with her gifts from her regal contacts, notably rare gems, objets d’art and souvenirs.
Her long-suffering husband died in 1885, leaving a $250,000 estate. This was the trigger for Lillie to return to her wilder days, accompanying five men on an overnight camping trip and disguising herself as a man in order to lurk around the grubbiest dives at the waterfront.
Anxious to witness a prize fight she arranged for a pair of boxers to perform for her in her suite in the grand and elegant Palace Hotel in which she spent much of her later years. After she had the room cleared of furniture and breakables, the two men stripped and begun to pummel each other. Lillie watched this perched on a plush chair atop a table. After several rounds, and as the men had hit each other to a virtual standstill, the referee pleaded that the match be declared a draw, to which Lille retorted they should continue until a ”bloody knockout”. The Boston Globe hailed the event as “pioneering a new way of life for women” but the New York Globe was appalled, labelling it a “staggering shock”.
In 1904 a distant cousin, angered by her refusal to let him manage her financial affairs, broke into her room whilst she was entertaining a Major McClurry with the intention of killing her. McClurry stepped in and saved Lillie but was injured and died of his wounds. With the scandal still fresh, she left San Francisco and spent the last two decades of her life abroad.
She inherited a further $60,000 and property from her grandfather.
She died on 22 July 1929 at the Dante Sanatorium in San Francisco, bequeathing the city $118,000 (estimates vary from $100,000 to $125,000) to “be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city I have always loved”.
After lengthy deliberation, during which two of its members resigned on the grounds that Lillie had actually hated towers, the Coit Advisory Committee used the funds to build Coit Tower on the site of the first west coast telegraph 5 years later. In addition, it also erected the statue of three firefighters, one carrying a woman in his arms, that Lillie had commissioned herself, in Washington Square Park. It is this statue that she had intended should be the one to adorn Telegraph Hill.
Because of the association with Lillie, the shape of the tower is generally, and not unreasonably, felt to resemble a fire nozzle. However, Arthur Brown Jnr, who also designed City Hall, refuted this suggestion. Other theories, including one not unrelated to her affection for the men she rode with, have been postulated, but none of these are any more plausible.
She remains the unofficial patron saint of all firefighters in San Francisco to this day.