Historical Essay

by Joe Caffentzis

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One of the cisterns that were built after the early fires in San Francisco, this one at 21st and Shotwell.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

As you wander around San Francisco, notice the occasional circle of red bricks or cobblestones in various intersections. San Francisco, with its many wood-frame homes has always been vulnerable to fire. There were the First Great Fire (1849) and the Second Great Fire (May 1850). After the Third Great Fire (June 18, 1850), the city fathers funded the construction of cisterns to assure a water supply for fire-fighting equipment.

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One of many cisterns built to hold water for fire-fighting in the event of failures in the main water distribution system. This one at 21st and Eureka was installed in the past decade, as the city is steadily expanding the infrastructure of emergency water supplies.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

The Haight has its share of later additions to the system. The stones you see in the roadbed cap a huge cistern which sits just below street level. There are approximately 150 throughout the city and they are maintained today in order to provide water in case an earthquake should cut water lines. The city's cisterns are always heralded by green-bonneted hydrants. Also note the red-bonneted hydrants, which are outlets for the high pressure fire-fighting water line.

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