I was a senior in high school when a photographer friend of mine took me up to the top of Telegraph Hill and up the elevator inside of San Francisco’s Coit Tower for the first time so I could get some photographs for my senior project.
While the view from the top of the tower was in fact breathtaking (I still have the photographs) and it was cool to see all of the coins from all over the world that people who visit leave behind while they’re staring out at the 47 square miles of San Francisco, this landmark would take on a new significance for me more than a decade later when I stole a kiss from my wife on the lookout behind the tower itself at the conclusion of our first date.
Five months later to the day I asked her in that exact same spot to marry me.
And while the City of San Francisco will always have sentimental meaning for me that will supersede the experience that the average person will have, Coit Tower rises above all of that for those who are willing to venture through the neighborhood and up to the landmark that has been the backdrop of countless movies over the years and has a pretty unique story to it on its own.
According to its history, Lillie Hitchcock Coit – a wealthy socialite that was well known for her eccentricities (she often dressed like a man and smoked cigars so she could gain access to men-only gambling establishments in North Beach at the time) – loved to chase fires during her youth and at time ditched her schoolbooks as a 15-year-old to follow the Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5 up Telegraph Hill to help extinguish a blaze that has broken out. She became the unofficial mascot of that particular engine company after the fire was extinguished, and earner herself status as an honorary firefighter – riding in parades and chasing as much action as possible at a young age.
So upon her death in 1929, Coit left the City of San Francisco with one-third of her fortune – which translated into about $118,000 – as a gift just so long as the city used it to beautify the city in some fashion. Two memorials were built with the money – the tower, which unintentionally ended up looking like the nozzle of a fire hose, and a statue depicting three firefighters carrying a woman in their arms.
She is regarded as the matron saint of San Francisco’s firefighters.
Beyond all of that, it’s just a very cool place to hang out.
While on any given weekend the tower is buzzing with tourists clamoring to get up to the top, the real treat is the view from the top of Telegraph Hill which gives a sweeping view of the downtown skyline and lower elevations of the city below it. A walking path extends all the way around the memorial, and a large grassy area is popular with people who are looking for a place to sit and relax and take in the sights and sounds of one of the city’s most popular landmarks.
It’s also a great place to people watch.
On my multiple trips to San Francisco I had some very unique run-ins with people from time-to-time that were other visiting or just having out up at Coit Tower, and much like any tourist destination, one should keep their wits about when enjoying it. On the night that I proposed to my wife – which took about 10 minutes in total – somebody smashed out the window of my car to grab my camera bag while we were out of sight. Nobody, including the kids who were hanging out on the steps of the memorial, heard a thing.
So bring a camera and lock your car and you’re sure not going to be disappointed.
An unexpected trip to Coit Tower just might change your life forever.