Monday, March 20, 2017

Fireman Robert Ceiley

The San Francisco Fire Department, established in 1866, has had a rich history in its 151 years. From the earthquake of 1906 and resultant fires that left half of the city's 400,000 residents temporarily homeless to the Loma Prieta quake of 1989 that collapsed a portion of the SF-Bay Bridge, the Fire Department has grown exponentially. Today, the SF Fire Dept. serves approximately 1.5 million people, providing fire and emergency services to residents, workers and visitors of the city.

My great-grand Uncle was a man called Robert Ceiley. Robert was born in 1889 in Newton, New South Wales, Australia. He and his father, Henry Ceiley, came to San Francisco from Australia in 1910. My great-grandmother Bea, her mother and one other sibling had already made there way here. Having become a naturalised citizen, Robert served in the the US army during 'The Great War'. A few years after his service, in 1921, Robert joined the San Francisco Fire Department. He held various positions during his 36 year career. He worked as tillerman, the man who guides the long hook and ladder trucks from the rear, as truckman, and as hoseman. I had always heard from my Uncle, also an SF fireman, that Robert had saved 'a few people' from a burning building way back when and was awarded a medal as a result of his efforts. Many years ago, one of Robert's daughters shared a newspaper article with my SFFD Uncle regarding her father's bravery. She must have been very proud of her Dad and rightly so.

Bounty from the main branch library

Having recently discovered the SF History branch of the SF Public Library, I have been able to learn some of the specifics of said event through reading various newspaper clippings of the time. In 1933, Robert Ceiley carried a 'crippled girl', 'her 200 lb brother' and 'younger man' from a burning building at 1377 Ninth Avenue in the Inner Sunset. For this action, he was cited by the fire department for bravery. Both he and another fireman, a man called Dennis Magee, were given citations for heroism that year, but there was to be only one medal awarded by the then Mayor of San Francisco, Angelo Rossi. A coin toss was to determine who won the medal. My great-grand Uncle won the toss & received the Scannell medal for heroic action. 

David Scannell, born in NYC, became a volunteer fireman at the tender age of 12. As an adult, Scannell volunteered to fight in the Mexican-American war from 1846 to 1848. Of the 850 men who fought in his regiment, only 150 survived. After the war, Scannell moved back to New York before again crossing country in 1851 to seek his fortune in San Francisco during the Gold Rush period. At some point thereafter, Scannell joined the San Francisco volunteer fire department. In 1855, he was elected sherriff of our then burgeoning & still somewhat lawless city. He was the third man to hold the post. He served for one year. When the fire department transitioned from volunteer to paid staff, Scannell became the first fire chief of that outfit. He served as fire chief three different times over his career, totalling 27 years in the role. He died in 1893 at the age of 73. In 1909, a fireboat was named in his honor.

What an honor (and stroke of luck!) it must have been for my great-grand Uncle to receive such a medal.

Scannell Medal

RH Ceiley's modest home to the left of the tree in Ingleside, SF


  1. That is amazing Bea. Wish you could have spent time with him.

    1. Yeah, it's nifty stuff!

      I suppose I could have met him as a toddler, but I don't know if I, at least, had had that pleasure. I am told that he was a pleasant man who, in later years, walked with a cane, and had a deep, baritone voice. :)

      Silly questions I have in my head: did great-grandma Bea and her siblings retain their accents throughout their lives?

      I suppose I could ask my Uncles...

  2. A coin toss to determine who got the award? Sooooo unfair.
    Lucky indeed for your relative, but the bravery of the other contender deserved an award too.
    I love the family history you are tracking down.

    1. Me, too. What I would dearly love to know is what specifically would have propelled an English family (living in Hammersmith, London) to move to Tasmania in the 1890s. What sort of work opportunities were there then? -need to do more digging, I guess!

  3. So cool that you could look up that story. Amazing what information is out there.

    1. Yes, it was pretty darn cool. I have now in my possession copies of six articles regarding Robert's life and career. -have been sharing them with other family members who seem to be getting a kick out of them.


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