Impromptu Company of Firefighters (39 Coit)

Impromptu Company of Firefighters (39 Coit)

San Francisco would not sleep in the bed of ashes

placed here by that first great fire

though unkind winds pulled sheets of flames over the city

five times more in the space of a year–

San Francisco threw off the luminous linen of ruins

defiant of loss, explosively resurgent

the city refused to be destroyed

refused also to put the infernos out altogether

leaping out of its grave ungrieved

gambling on the glory of phoenix plumage–

those feathers could be gold or kindling or both.

Ascending Telegraph Hill

I have a kind of hallucination:

the bus is a fire engine

rushing toward a lit candle

which remains standing on the kitchen table

of a house reduced to rubble by shaking.

Believing the candle could topple

into the nest of sticks and tender

people in the street watch, but do nothing.

The neighbors are too paralyzed

to take one deep breath and blow the candle out.

Our fire engine has slowed, then stalled–

I am gripped by a vertigo of impatience

we will not arrive in time

to prevent the conflagration.

Suddenly our bus driver shouts

"Come on, you men! Everybody pull!"

She is Lillie Hitchcock Coit,

she must be about a hundred and eighty years old

but clearly possessed with the same frenzy of passion

with which she seized the ropes

of Knickerbocker Engine Number 5.

So of course I tumble out of the bus

and I push along with the other passengers

now a company of firefighters

endowed with strange strength

sufficient to the task of pushing a bus uphill.

We make the summit and climb the stairs of Coit tower

where Lillie extinguishes the flame

by pinching the candle wick.

Footnotes to the poem:

San Francisco has experienced several devastating fires, the last of which was the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. The first Great Fire of San Francisco was kicked off in a gambling hall on Christmas Eve in 1849, and the city experienced fires that destroyed significant portions of the city on May 4th 1850, June 14th 1850, September 17th 1980, December 14th 1850, and finally again on May 4th of 1851. Each time the residents of San Francisco immediately rebuilt, sometimes beginning to re-erect structures the day after they burned.

For further reading about the early great fires of San Francisco, visit this informative page on, and particular acknowledgement is owed to Annalee Newitz, whose article in the Bold Italic influenced the creation of this poem.

Lillie Hitchcock Coit (August 23, 1843 – July 22, 1929) is one of the fantastic and sensational characters of the early history of San Francisco. From childhood, she was fascinated by the independent and competing fire engine companies who responded to, and sometimes fought over, fires in progress. At 15 years old, she saw the Knickerbocker Engine Company No 5, shorthanded and struggling to haul their engine to a fire on Telegraph Hill. She pitched in on the rope and admonished onlookers by shouting "Come on, you men! Everybody pull and we'll beat 'em!". Lillie Hitchcock Coit was from then on patron, booster, and mascot of the Knickerbocker firefighters, and in 1963 was made an honorary member. Before her death, she left one third of her considerable fortune to the beautification of the City of San Francisco, which was used to build Coit Tower, dedicated to the memory of firefighters who lost their lives battling the great fires of San Francisco.

For further reading about Lillie Hitchcock Coit, visit, also an invaluable source for the poem.

For further insight on the 39 Coit bus route, fares are $2.50.