The San Francisco Fire Department Museum  just might be the best museum you’re not visiting. When locals and tourists alike seek out museums in San Francisco, they get stuck in a cycle, repeatedly visiting  SFMOMA, the FAMSF, the Asian Art Museum, and the Jewish Museum. While these museums are certainly exceptional, they aren’t the only ones in town.

The SFFD museum should not be dismissed as a place exclusively serving fire department enthusiasts and school children. This small museum boasts a rich collection of quirky, fun ephemera, ultimately offering visitors an unusual lens through which local history can be understood. No matter what your interests are, the SFFD Museum has something for you.

The Great Earthquake of 1906 was felt from Oregon to Los Angeles, and is still remembered as one of the greatest disasters in San Francisco, if not the whole United States. The fires that followed the earthquake and aftershocks  were far more  destructive, blazing for four days and nights. A glass case dedicated to items  retrieved  in the aftermath leaves a significant impression on visitors. The plates above were rendered nearly unrecognizable by the intense flames.

Fire extinguishers are a world unto their own. These water grenades consist of a glass sphere filled with carbon-tetrachloride. Firefighters hurled the glass balloons at the base of a fire.

Lifeline guns fired missile-like projectiles, deploying rescue lines of 200 to 700 feet.

The photograph above describes the scene unfolding as the “Night the Axel Broke” in 1914, but truth be told, these photographs were all staged. Early departments sought out to document their work, and they were not above a reenactment. Look carefully at the studio stamps as you walk by and you will spot a set of beautiful prints by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), the famous pioneer of motion photography.

The museum houses more than five large iterations of early fire trucks, from hand pumped to horse-drawn. Firefighters resisted the use of horses early on, but the city’s notoriously steep hills left them with few options. Only the driver and the engineer of the company rode on the engine, with the remaining members relied on the company house wagon to respond to calls. By 1922, the department relied on motorized units.

Early firefighters knew what to save first, and it wasn’t the baby. The firefighters were  originally  volunteers, paid by individuals.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, a happy customer was one whose bed remained intact. Mattresses were the most valuable items in the home, so firefighters carried bed keys on every call, which allowed them to easily disassemble frames and usher mattresses to safety.

Facial hair aside, much can be learned from the company photos that line the walls. Early immigrants banded with brethren from the motherland, forming companies based on their country of origin. The Swedes volunteered together, but you can bet there was no Norwegian among them.

The San Francisco Fire Department Museum is a safe bet for successfully breaking the cycle of going to the same museums time and again; give it a try, you won’t be disappointed.

The San Francisco Fire Department Museum

655 Presidio Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94115-2424 [Map]

Open Thursday through Sunday 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM. Admission is free.

Get in touch with the author @alexis_coe.