In early 1850 a young Frenchman named Morris Greenberg and his family set sail for California to make their fortune in the gold rush. Suffering a shipwreck in the Straits of Magellan, he didn’t arrive in San Francisco until late 1851. By that time the gold rush was pretty much played out but San Francisco was becoming established as a major port city.
There wasn’t any fortune in gold waiting for young Greenberg, but the new city had a need for brass ship fittings for its burgeoning maritime industry. Having been a foundry apprentice in France, Greenberg founded the Eagle Brass Works and started a bustling enterprise serving the shipping industry.
After San Francisco’s 6th great fire in 1851, the city set about creating a reliable municipal water system. Greenberg was contracted to provide cast materials for the water works. By the 1860s Greenberg was the major provider of cast iron and brass water system components. Greenberg now operated a major foundry which incorporated and was named M. Greenberg’s Sons, Inc. in honor of his sons who were now helping run the family’s business.
San Francisco’s original fire hydrants were based on an eastern dry barrel design and cast by the Hinckley Iron Works in San Francisco. While the Hinckley design was traditional, it was not very efficient. The flood valve was slow to open and the hydrants had somewhat limited flows. Greenberg, his imagination not being polluted by traditional convention, reasoned that a 6″ pipe with one or more valves above the surface would be much more efficient for locations where freezing was not an issue. He built the first wet barrel hydrant which drew wide acceptance and was dubbed the “California hydrant.” When San Francisco rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake and fire, every hydrant on the municipal water system was a Greenberg “California hydrant” with double 3″ outlets.
Greenberg went on to produce more types of fire hydrants than any other manufacturer, producing over a dozen distinctive models with as many as four variations within each model. One of the goals of this collection was to collect and restore a representative example of each of Greenberg’s designs in tribute to the young shipwrecked Frenchman that forever changed the Pacific coast fire service.
Growing up in Brooklyn, some hydrants looked liked this. Some were fat and black. Now the hydrants are being prepped and resemble strange sculptures in color. Unlike in-your-face architecture, even though fire hydrants are below eye level, do you see them as public art?