1840 - April 23, 1877
A San Francisco Fireman
Alleged Member of the Exempts
“TO OUR PAL BILL”
Steve Frady was the Fire Chief of the Virginia City Volunteer Fire Department from 1980 to 1987. Upon becoming Chief, one of his first missions was to revitalize the fire museum located in the town's old firehouse on C Street. Chief Frady and his volunteers dusted, cleaned, re-organized the displays, and repainted the firehouse until the new Comstock Firemen's Museum became a vibrant museum with quality displays.
As chief of the department, Steve was also responsible for the upkeep of the fireman's section of the Silver Terrace Cemetery. The firemen's section containing 115 grave sites had been neglected for decades, and the weeds and sage brush had taken over. The department had incomplete cemetery records, and it was time to clean up the plots in order to properly honor those past firefighters. The Chief wanted to have his cemetery project completed before its re-dedication at their 1984 firemen's muster.
Steve went to went to Reno to review the Exempt records at the Nevada Historical Society in order to re-establish who was in each grave site. He was amazed to find that there was a San Francisco Exempt fireman, well “sort of” as we found out much later, buried there. Steve called me about this discovery, as I was the director of the SFFD Museum. “I just found that a San Francisco fireman, William Mullen, is buried in Virginia City. How would you like to take care of one of your own?” he asked. “Sure,” I said, “count us in on whatever you would like to do. We would be honored.”
Virginia City had been mustering in California for several years, and they had become friends with the California Division of Forestry team from Ukiah. The foreman of the CDF team was Warren Giacomini. Both Steve and Warren were directors of the California Firemen's Muster Association at that time. Steve talked to Warren about his cemetery project and about wanting to use redwood for new grave site markers, in keeping with the traditions of the Old West. Warren told the story to his dad, Lester, who was able to get their local lumber mill to donate redwood planks for the grave site markers.
I arranged for the St. Francis Hook and Ladder Society, then the sponsor of the SFFD Museum, to pay a Virginia City wood craftsman to carve the new wooden marker for Bill Mullen's grave. Steve also told me that the wrought iron fence around Bill's grave, which had been erected in 1877, needed repair and asked if we would help out with that project. Gil Aymeric, the St. Francis Hook and Ladder Society superintendent of apparatus was talking about Steve's request over dinner at his firehouse one night, and when the part about the iron fencing was mentioned, Firefighter Bill O'Neil jumped in with a donation. He offered Gil the front porch wrought iron fencing from his home in Castro Valley that he was about to throw out because he was remodeling his house. A call was made to Virginia City to find the dimensions of Bill's grave site. Gil began the necessary cutting and welding to make Bill's new gravesite fence. In the process, Gil found another friend who donated picket finials that were added to the fence. If you are ever in Virginia City at the cemetery, Bill Mullen's grave is easy to find. His site fencing is the only one with California grapes included in the wrought iron pattern.
Through the friendships that Steve and the Virginia City team had made over the years, Steve's graveyard project was becoming a group effort involving two states.
While Steve was at work in Nevada, I started a search of the SFFD records for Bill Mullin. When I couldn't find his name in any Department records, I called the City Archivist, Gladys Hansen and asked for her help.
Steve researched the Territorial Enterprise newspaper records and discovered that Mullen was a Virginia City bartender who suffered an apparent stroke and died. He was known to have been a “fireman” in San Francisco, so Virginia City's firefighters gathered donations to pay for his funeral and buried him in their cemetery. In April of 1877, in Bill's honor, there was a funeral procession led by then Chief James K.B. “Kettlebelly” Brown and the entire Virginia Paid Fire Department that went from the C Street firehouse all the way to the cemetery for his burial. The funeral procession included the Virginia Exempt Fire Association.
While Steve and I were working on a general outline of the program for the re-dedication ceremony, weekend volunteers were cleaning up the cemetery. Steve mentioned that, then Nevada Governor, Richard Bryan, would be serving as the parade Grand Marshal, and that the Governor also wanted to take part in the cemetery re-dedication ceremony. Nevada State Fire Marshal Tom Huddleston also would be present and volunteered to do whatever we needed him to do. When the SFFD Chief of Department, Emmet Condon heard about the event, he volunteered to represent San Francisco. The Chief had been to a Virginia City muster two years earlier and was eager to make a return trip. Father John Green, the SFFD Chaplain and also a SFFD museum trustee, said that he would be happy to preside over the religious ceremonies at the cemetery. The program was coming together. We now had a priest, a governor, a fire marshal and the two fire chiefs from each of Bill Mullen's towns. When word got out about this special event, SFFD Muster Team members rushed to sign up to be there.
Thanks to Steve's friendships with government officials over the years, he was able to arrange for the only Marine horseback Color Guard in the United States, stationed in Barstow, California, and the Navy band, which was stationed at Treasure Island, to come to the muster to take part in the parade. The Navy band also agreed to give a free concert Saturday afternoon on C Street. Oh, and as long as they would be in town, they would also play at the muster's Saturday night Fireman's Ball held in the high school gym.
Several weeks went by before Gladys Hansen called me to say that she had found that Bill Mullen was a San Francisco fireman in the 1860's, that is, that he was a “fireman” for the San Francisco Light Company, the forerunner of Pacific Gas & Electric. That meant that Bill was a furnace coal shoveler at the large plant in the Marina. Steve had recently discovered that Bill Mullen came to Virginia City in the 1870's, and took a job as a bartender. Evidently Bill had lead his customers to believe that he had worked as a San Francisco fireman, or the townspeople would not have buried him in the fireman's section of the Silver Terrace Cemetery.
What to do now? With only one month to go before the muster and the re-dedication of Bill's grave, Steve and I decided that there was no turning back, “the show must go on”.
The San Francisco team began arriving in Virginia City on the Wednesday before the muster weekend. Thursday morning Gil Aymeric and his crew went to the Silver Terrace cemetery to work on Bill's gravesite. They were joined by several members of the Virginia City department and a group of CFMA directors. The work was progressing smoothly until Gil looked for the nearest water tap to mix the cement that he was about to use for the foundation of the fence corners. There may be plenty of taps in the green lawns of the San Francisco cemeteries of Colma, but there weren't any in Virginia City's dusty boot hill. With everyone gathered around Bill's grave and no water in sight, the project was stalled. It was a hot Nevada day and town was a long walk to get a couple of buckets of water. To speed the project along a quick donation was made; the cement was mixed with beer.
The 1984 VC muster had been sanctioned by the California Firemen's Muster Association, and the other teams began arriving for the weekend event. The hotels were sold out, and the local camp site was full. The cemetery re-dedication had been put on the muster weekend schedule. It would take place after the Saturday morning C Street parade and before the muster competition at the old Railroad Station.
A CFMA muster weekend begins with a Friday night welcome reception for all of the visiting departments. It is the place to look for old friends and meet new ones while drinking free beer. At the VC reception, muster teams were looking over the weekend program and began asking questions about the SF-VC cemetery re-dedication. Steve had been working the room finding additional groups to take part in the cemetery ceremony, and it was an easy job as everyone wanted to come to this event. The Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District volunteered their dress uniformed white gloved Honor Guard for the procession and to act as sentinels around the grave site. The Marine Color Guard and the Navy Band who had come to Virginia City to march in the Parade found Steve and said that they would like to do something to make the cemetery ceremony memorable.
The next morning, July 7, 1984, I met Governor Bryan just before the parade started. I was introduced as a San Francisco firefighter, and he asked me if I knew Wendy Nelder, then a San Francisco supervisor. He told me that he and Wendy were in the same law school class, and when I told him that Wendy was my high school classmate, we became instant friends. Steve gave the Governor, Fire Marshal Huddleston, Chief Condon and Father Green a two minute outline of the program that would take place at the grave site. He told everyone to meet at reviewing stand in front of the Bucket of Blood after the parade to join up with the San Francisco and Virginia City Departments for the walk to the cemetery.
Father Green, dressed in his vestments, led the procession from the Bucket of Blood to the cemetery. He had chosen Tom Murphy, a 30 year member of the Department from Engine 33 and the senior member of the muster team, for his altar boy to take the lead carrying the crucifix. They were followed by the SFFD Color Guard under the direction of Lt. Jack McCloskey, Truck Company 14, and the Honor Guard from the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District. Behind the colors came Governor Bryan and Chiefs Condon and Frady, wearing their dress uniforms, Fire Marshal Tom Huddleston and myself. The San Francisco and Virginia City Departments fell in behind us. As we approached the cemetery, Steve looked towards town and laughed. “Look back,” he said, “the whole parade is following us.”
The Marine Color Guard, in their dress blue uniforms, riding a matched set of four Palomino horses, found a spot on the hilltop over-looking Bill's gravesite. (Don't the Marines take every hilltop?) It was a great position. And, what a presence they added to the event.
Governor Bryan started the ceremony by welcoming everyone to Nevada. Then, Father Green performed a short funeral service blessing Bill Mullen's grave, and then Steve and I each gave a brief history of the day. Steve told of finding a SFFD member in his cemetery, and I told the story of how we found out that Bill was not really in the SFFD. Chief Condon stepped forward, and presented Steve with a framed certificate of the resolution passed by the San Francisco Fire Commission that made Bill Mullen an official member of the SFFD. (This was done to make Bill's burial in the fireman's plot official). Flags were then placed on Bill's gravesite. Steve placed the American Flag, Governor Byron the Nevada State Flag, Chief Condon, the California State Flag and I placed a white and blue SFFD grave flag.
As we stepped back from the grave, Steve signaled to begin the ringing of the historic fire bell from the belfry the C-Street firehouse. This bell is the oldest fire bell in continuous service in Nevada—1861. The bell tolled through town, out across the cemetery and the surrounding valley.
A profound silence hung over the cemetery after the last tone faded.
Two buglers from the Navy band began playing echo taps. One played from high on the hilltop just under the Marine Color Guard, and the other from low in the valley. In between the buglers were the more than 200 people who were attending the service. Echo taps are beautiful and not often heard. Everyone stood still as the taps ended. The sheer beauty of the moment brought tears to many eyes.
Father Green ended the ceremony with San Francisco style by pouring brandy for everyone. The San Francisco muster team acted as his servers dispensing drinks to the crowd. Before he made his toast he asked if everyone had a drink in their hand. The crowded yelled, “Yes!” He repeated the question, and the response was an even louder, “YES!” A roar of laughter went up when Father Green said, “Then why doesn't the priest have one?” A hand came out of the crowed to hand him a drink. As the laughter died down, Father Green raised his cup and made a toast, "TO OUR PAL BILL." Glasses were raised in unison as everyone repeated, "TO OUR PAL BILL."
Throughout the rest of the weekend people asked Steve and me, "How did you do that? What started out to be a simple cemetery ceremony had somehow turned into a Hollywood production that came off without a hitch.
After the Saturday muster competition was completed, we went back to the campsite for refreshments. It seemed like every 15 minutes someone would raise their glass, look out to Boot Hill, and toast, “TO OUR PAL BILL.”
After the ceremony, Father Green, on the right,
relaxes with the SFFD Color Guard and the Truckee Meadows Fire Department Honor Guard.
The San Francisco Fire Department Muster Team returned to muster in Virginia City, and we always went to Bill Mullen's grave site to pay our respects and re-stain his redwood grave marker. It was a small ceremony, but remembering 1984, we always ended our visit with the toast, “TO OUR PAL BILL.”
The Department Muster Team was reorganizing this year and they decided to attend the Virginia City Firemen's Muster. On this trip, the gravesite of Bill Mullin was not to be forgotten. Paul Barry, SFFD Historical Society president, called Steve Frady, the muster chairman, to ask for permission to touch up the grave site. Steve Frady, now a member of the Reno Fire Department, serving as its Public Information Officer (Steve has a dual role as he also serves as the PIO for the Reno Police Department) said it would great to have the SFFD muster team in Virginia City again, and of course they could take care of Bill.
On Thursday afternoon before the muster weekend, Paul and the team went to Bill's site with wood stain for the grave marker and black paint to touch up Bill's fence. Bill Mullin's grave was put back in good order. Steve met with Paul and told him that a small cemetery ceremony was being planned for Friday afternoon at 4:00 pm, just before the hospitality reception.
Several other muster teams were already in Virginia City and word spread about the cemetery event. Steve had been at it again and many remembered the 1984 ceremony. The SFFD team met at the Bucket of Blood (this is like meeting at Molloy's in Colma) before the march to Silver Terrace Cemetery on Boot Hill. At 3:45 pm, the SFFD Color Guard, once again led by the now retired Captain Jack McCloskey, moved the SFFD Muster Team from C Street to Bill's grave site. When they arrive at Bill Mullen's grave, Paul was surprise to see that about 50 people from other muster teams were already standing around Bill's grave. Steve spoke of the first re-dedication ceremony that took place 25 years earlier. He gave the history of the Virginia Exempt Fire Association Cemetery and the current efforts underway to restore and mark graves, etc. through the Comstock Cemetery Foundation. Steve is a Foundation director representing the Fire Department and Comstock Firemen's Museum.
And, as usual, Steve Frady had a surprise. To close this year's ceremony Steve had invited Michael Connell, an Army bagpiper, who played “Amazing Grace”. Paul had remembered to bring the brandy for a closing toast “To Our Pal, Bill” Expecting about 15 to be present, the one bottle was stretched to the limit. The service was ended with a toast, “TO OUR PAL BILL.”
As everyone strolled back to the firehouse for the muster welcome reception, it was often over-heard; “Only in Virginia City.”
Click here to see Photos By Dani Sheehan-Meyer of the 2009 event.
Click here for A History of the Virginia Exempt Firemen's Association Cemetery.
By: Bill Koenig, SFFD retired
SFFD Museum, Director Emeritus
With special thanks to Steve Frady for his contributions to this story
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