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Flags of San Francisco

By Gladys Hansen
Curator, The Museum of the City of San Francisco

The trail along which California's history has moved is marked by the procession of many flags. The Bear Flag Revolution of 1846 began the process of bringing California into the Union. Memory of that short-lived revolt is memorialized in the Bear Republic flag of the State of California.

In more recent times, the largest American flag ever, made of balloons, was constructed in San Francisco City Hall for a 1986 reception which hosted the United States Navy.

One of the largest flags – if not the largest in the City – flutters from the giant mast of the Hotel Mark Hopkins atop Nob Hill. That flag pole was carefully put into place by a helicopter.

The "City of Flags" as San Francisco was once known, also displayed historic American flags in the James Rolph Jr. Civic Center directly across from City Hall. In 1992, "Save the Giants" flags flew from every other flag pole in Civic Center, to urge the people of the City to support efforts to keep the ball team here.

The City flag tells a forceful story of the resurrection and rebirth of the San Francisco following several major conflagrations in the 19th century. The Spanish motto at the bottom of the flag means "Gold in Peace, Iron in War": This motto has great meaning for San Franciscan's who have seen the city wrecked twice by earthquake and destroyed six times by fire. Those of us who saw the Marina Fire following the 1989 earthquake can testify to the meaning of the phrase "Gold in Peace, Iron in War."

Few city flags have that kind of meaning. Even fewer give a possible hint about the future.

The story of San Francisco worst disaster, although not its most recent, is also told by flags.

Fred Hewitt, an Examiner reporter at the turn of the century, later wrote the story of what he saw at 5:12:06 a.m. April 18, 1906.

"I was within a stone's throw of the City Hall when the hand of an avenging God fell upon San Francisco," he wrote. "The ground rose and fell like an ocean at ebb tide. Then came the crash. Tons upon tons of that mighty pile slid away from the steel framework:

"The street heaved in frightful fashion. The earth rocked and then came the blow that wrecked San Franciso from the bay shore to the ocean beach and from the Golden Gate to the end of the peninsula.

"A cloud of deep dust hung tenaciously about the City Hall. I realized that something dreadful had happened. And as I waited, the dust began to settle.

"First showed the steel shaft on which had for so long floated the country's flag. Imbedded in a ton of steel block, the entire mass had shifted many feet, but still maintained its position atop that pile of structural steel.

"As the wind carried the dust away and uncovered the ruins there stood a mountain sheared of all its crowning glory. It could be fittingly compared with a mountain that had passed through a forest fire."

The flag pole which stands today on the current Palace Hotel on Market at New Montgomery streets – on the Market St. side – is at nearly the same spot as the flag pole which stood upon the old Palace Hotel.

The Palace was the grandest, most important building in The City at the time, and when the flag upon the Palace's pole burned during the 1906 conflagration, most San Franciscan's knew the remainder of the city would be soon destroyed.

The Palace Hotel was built after the Great Hayward Earthquake of 1868 flattened many buildings in San Francisco. William Ralston, who wanted the biggest and best hotel in the United States, paid special attention to the construction of the Palace. He advertised it as "earthquake proof and fire proof," but unfortunately, it was neither.

The 1906 earthquake left the interior of the big structure badly shattered. However, the independent water supply, built to protect the building from such fires, did continue to operate. Employees with hoses fought off the Great Fire for several hours as it attacked the rear of the hotel on Jessie Street.

The hotel's water supply was also connected to 12 fire hydrants in front of the building. The Fire Department found them operating; in fact they were just about the only functioning hydrants in that part of the city. The Fire Department proceeded to pump water from the Palace Hotel tanks and when the hotel's pump house burned, the tanks ran dry, and the hotel then burned.

The last part of the building to burn was the flag pole. One huge tongue of flame incinerated the United States flag, and the city was doomed.

There is record of another man who actually heard a flag pole on a building during the Great Earthquake. Leonard Chase was at Second and Howard streets, on his way to work at the Ferry Building when the earthquake struck.

The quake threw young Chase to the ground, and he later told of how he could hear the flag pole on the Selby Shot Tower at that intersection whipping back and forth with "a snapping, popping sound."

Atop the Ferry Building, still standing at the foot of Market Street, was a combination time ball and flag pole, which weighed in the neighborhood of 3,000 pounds (1364 kg). The earthquake motion caused this pole to whip back and forth, and the crooked pole left after the quake was one of the great sights after the earthquake. The same damage occurred in the 1989 earthquake, with the U.S. flag crazily waving from the tilted pole.

When the U.S. Marine helicopter lifted the flag pole from the Ferry Building, it slipped loose, and crashed through the roof of the great structure.

The Ferry Building flag pole has been repaired, but the building is still badly damaged and will be repaired in the late 1990s.

People in 1989 saw the Red Cross flag in San Francisco just as their ancestors did in 1906. Three hours after the Great Earthquake of 1906, the "USS Marion" from Mare Island, landed at the foot of Mission Street with Navy Surgeon Dr. Parker aboard. Under the Red Cross flag, he began to assist doctors at Harbor Emergency Hospital determine which people suffered the worst injuries. When the deck of the "U.S. Marion" was filled with the most seriously injured, it departed for Goat (Yerba Buena) Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay where a Navy hospital was then located.

The fight to save the San Francisco waterfront from the Great Fire was conducted under the colors of many national flags. The steamer "Henley," under the British flag, provided fresh water from its condensers for use in the boilers of fire engines. Under the California Bear Flag, the fireboats "Governor Irwin" and "Governor Markham" pumped thousands of gallons of water per minute to fire engines on shore that saved the Ferry Building and Harbor Emergency Hospital from the Great Fire.

Under the flag of the United States, the Revenue Cutter "Bear" carried 23-million dollars' worth of gold and negotiable securities from the Crocker-Woolworth Bank that had been secretly carted to the waterfront shortly after The Earthquake. The "Bear" also assisted in pumping Bay water to firefighters working along East Street, now The Embarcadero.

Hoisting the red flag of danger, the government tug "Slocum" carried tons of dynamite and black powder from Port Costa back to the burning city so firefighters and members of the U.S. Army could begin demolition of huge mansions along Van Ness Avenue to stop the progress of the conflagration.

Under the flag of Imperial Germany, the steamer "Uarda" took aboard some of the ten thousand refugees who launched themselves in small boats from North Beach to escape the wall of flame that was sweeping down to the waterfront. The parents of Abe Ruef, the notorious political boss of San Francisco were also ferried to the "Uarda" aboard a Crowley Maritime tug to wait out The Fire.

At 6 o'clock on the morning of the Earthquake, San Franciscan's saw the regimental colors of the 20th and 22nd Infantry, and the Philippine Scouts who marched from the Presidio. The colors of dozens of other military units sent to the city after the disaster would be seen until the troops withdrew in June 1906.

On April 20, at the height of the disaster, the Navy established a communication center at Fort Mason near the foot of Van Ness Avenue. The Navy had some of the first wireless installations and was able to communicate by radio from the cruiser Chicago to Mare Island Naval Station, where the admiral of the Pacific Squadron was quartered.

To get messages from General Funston on the Army post to the communications room of the Chicago at the pier, Navy personnel used semaphone flags to wig-wag messages back and forth. The messages were then sent by wireless to the War Department in Washington to speed the shipment of relief supplies to the stricken city.

On the edge of the burned district stood a large structure – Lowell High School– which was taken over by the military when troops arrived in the City The school was used as a headquarters while the fight went on along Van Ness Avenue to stop the Great Fire.

The building also had a commanding view of the Western Addition where thousands of refugees were camped. After the desperate battle with dynamite, water, and hand-to-hand combat, the Great Fire was stopped. The United States flag was raised above the school as a signal that the Great Fire was under control, and Examiner reported that this brought great cheers from the refugees.

As relief efforts got underway, The City began to bury its dead. Several victims, including veterans of the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, were buried with military honors and flag-draped coffins at the Presidio. Veterans killed in the 1989 earthquake were also given the same honors.

The American National Red Cross in 1906 used Red Cross flags to mark hospitals and food distribution points throughout The City, as the Red Cross in 1989 used flags to mark shelters.

July 5, 1906 brought a patriotic celebration and the first parade down Market Street since The Fire. It was a melancholy procession of hundreds of flags carried through the ruins of the once-great city. A few months later, flags had a happier meaning. As new structures were built to replace those destroyed by the Great Earthquake and Fire, flags were hoisted during topping-out ceremonies. People cheered as a flag was flown above each newly-completed building.

Companies such as the Emporium opened temporary stores in once-fashionable Van Ness Avenue mansions and marked their businesses with large banners to let people know they were open for business.

The San Francisco earthquake and fire was also responsible for a new star on the United States flag. The question of statehood for the Territory of Oklahoma was being debated by the House of Representatives after The Great Earthquake and Fire. House Speaker "Uncle" Joe Cannon cut a deal with the California delegation. If the delegation would vote for Oklahoma statehood, he would support legislation for funding to rebuild San Francisco and other parts of California. So, in 1907, Oklahoma added the 46th star to the American flag.

There are still many flag poles in San Francisco, but the patriotic fervor seems to have dampened. The Gulf War brought a brief resurgence of American Flag display, but that too has cooled. Walk down Market Street some windy afternoon and look at the flag poles atop the many large, older buildings. Imagine the added color and identity that a great American flag would bring. It may be old-fashioned to display American flags, but think of the grandeur they would bring to San Francisco, one of world's greatest cities.


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