S.F. Fire Department color guard to offer toast at Firemen's Cemetery

Courtesy Sharri BogdanSan Francisco Color Guard members at the 2009 toast to "Our Pal, Bill" in the Virginia Exempt Fire Association Cemetery.

Courtesy Sharri BogdanSan Francisco Color Guard members at the 2009 toast to "Our Pal, Bill" in the Virginia Exempt Fire Association Cemetery.

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A San Francisco Fire Department color guard will form in the Virginia Exempt Firemen's Cemetery in Virginia City at 3:45 p.m. today to toast William Mullen, who died in the El Dorado Saloon in that town on April 23, 1877. The ceremony will take place as antique fire equipment and teams gather for the Virginia City firemen's muster Saturday and Sunday, which is free and open to the public. More information on the muster can be found on the muster website, virginiacitymuster.tlcurtis.com.

The toast to Mullen has become a tradition for the San Francisco muster team each time it travels to Virginia City for firemen's muster competition. The tradition started on July 7, 1984, with the dedication of Mullen's restored grave, a joint project between the Comstock Firemen's Museum and the San Francisco Fire Department Museum. The dedication of the grave included such dignitaries as Gov. and Mrs. Richard Bryan, State Fire Marshal Tom Huddleston, San Francisco Fire Chief Emmet Condon, the chaplain of the San Francisco Fire Department, the color guards of the Truckee Meadows and San Francisco Fire Departments, and with a crowd of about 100 spectators.

An old cemetery map showed Mullen's grave with the notation "S.F.," and 1877 newspaper accounts of his death noted that he had been a San Francisco fireman and a member of the Exempt Firemen's Association of that city. The newspapers also reported that Virginia City's fire chief had started a subscription drive to pay for Mullen's funeral, and that he would be buried in the Virginia City Exempt Firemen's cemetery. That documentation initiated the project between the two museums to restore the grave, and San Francisco historians began the task of researching Mullen's activities as a volunteer fireman in that city. As discussions about the project took place, Mullen began to be referred to by all involved as "Our Pal, Bill."

Shortly before the ceremony at the 1984 firemen's muster, it was revealed that the only mention of Mullen in San Francisco records was that he had been a "fireman" at the San Francisco Light Co., forerunner of Pacific Gas & Electric. That meant Mullen had been a furnace coal shoveler at the company's large plant then located in the Marina District. The museum representatives pondered the possibilities. Could it be that Mullen, as bartender at Virginia City's El Dorado Saloon, over many a long drinking session at the bar taking care of the local firemen, fabricated stories about his firefighting days in San Francisco?

The decision was made to go ahead with the dedication ceremony and place Mullen's name, birth and death dates, native state and a fireman's helmet on the new carved redwood tombstone with the inscription: "Alleged Member of San Francisco Exempts," and "Erected by St. Francis Hook & Ladder Society, SFFD, 1984." The San Francisco Fire Museum group also constructed a new iron fence surrounding the grave complete with symbolic clusters of California grapes on the enclosure.

Just three days before the dedication, at a regular meeting of the San Francisco Fire Commission, Chief Condon requested passage of a resolution on the matter, explaining the pending ceremony and the lack of documentation of Mullen's service in a San Francisco fire company. The fire commission immediately voted 5-0 to approve the resolution making Mullen an honorary San Francisco "fireman." Chief Condon presented the framed resolution to the Comstock Firemen's Museum at the graveside ceremony.

The 1984 dedication ended with the ringing of Nevada's oldest fire bell atop the Virginia City firehouse, echo taps played by members of the U.S. Navy Band from Mare Island with the Marine Corps mounted color guard from Barstow, Calif., at attention nearby. And a final word, a toast, was offered by the San Francisco department's chaplain, Father John Green, as small cups of brandy were distributed throughout the crowd: "To Our Pal, Bill!"


Retired San Francisco firefighter and San Francisco Fire Museum Director Emeritus Bill Koenig provides a detailed narrative recalling the William Mullen grave restoration on the San Francisco Fire Department's history website, guardiansofthecity.org/sffd/people/mullen.html.


What: A Toast To "Our Pal, Bill"

When: 3:45 p.m. today

Where: Virginia Exempt Fire Association Cemetery, Virginia City

Who: San Francisco Fire Department color guard and visiting muster team participants

How To Get There: Go to the main Virginia City cemetery parking lot on the north end of town. Walk through the gates and follow the path on the right to the Virginia Exempt Fire Association Cemetery, which is the first cemetery on the right.


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