Guardians of The City SFFD Home Page - San Francisco Fire Department Museum SFFD HomeBack to GuardiansofTheCity.org Home Page
Notable People:

Catherine Hayes
"THE SWAN OF ERIN"
An honorary member of the Volunteer Fire Department

As volunteer firemen gave the best that was in themselves to fighting fires, they gave as much in their social affairs.  The members of the different companies of the volunteer fire department were the most active spirits in the organization of these amusements, and always gladly lent their individual aid and patronage of their companies in the promotion and furtherance of any movement calculated to heighten the festivities at any public function.

In the early days of San Francisco just after the discovery of gold there were very few women in the town and the men yearned for their homeways.  They were fed up with the loud boisterous saloon and gambling life and wanted again to have the social life that they had before they left home back East.  Likewise for this problem of entertainment they sought a solution, not by laws, but in some counter attraction which should offer all the seduction of the gambling den without its destructiveness, quarrels, shooting scrapes, and suicides when all hard earned savings were lost on the turn of a wheel.  They decided on the drama, but this venture had its difficulties, what with mud and fire, bleak theaters, and cheap actors.  The theaters were burned down almost as soon as they were built.  The actors were second rate for no artist of note would travel the long distance around the Horn or across the Isthmus, not knowing whether he would gain or lose on the venture.  The first artist of note was Elisabeth Biscaccianti, the American Thrush, followed soon afterwards byCatherine Hayes, the Swan of Erin.  In a single night a frontier town had accepted the refinements of an Old World civilization.  The fire companies came out to welcome these beautiful and talented singers.  Catherine Hayes was the first to introduce operatic scenes in costume, and perform for the firemen's benefits, to the theater of San Francisco.  Now it was the custom, on the days preceding a theatrical performance of any importance, to auction off seats, in public, to the highest bidder.  Miss Hayes' third concert was to be a great event, and it was agreed between the Assistant Foreman of California Engine Company and the Press Agent, that the first choice box was to be kept in the Fire Department.  On the day of the auction the greatest excitement prevailed.  The bidding rose rapidly from $50 to $500, and then amid the cheers of the audience, Captain Green, in the name of Empire Engine Company bought the best box seat for $1150, and paid $300 additional for choice parquet seats.  Captain Green had been prepared to bid as high as $5000, if necessary, and this was said to be the highest price paid for a single box in the history of concerts.  Miss Hayes was later made an honorary member of the Volunteer Fire Department; the only other woman to have that distinction bestowed on her was Lillie Hitchcock Coit who as a young girl ran with Knickerbocker Engine Company;  she being the patron saint of Pioneer Firemen.

By: Captain Louis W. Hage, S.F.F.D.