It must be symbolic of the cultural differences between New England and California. In New London, the Coit family is remembered by a charming but simple street sign, while in San Francisco they have their very own tower on Telegraph Hill.
It all started with a Welsh family from Glamorganshire. John and Mary Coit weren't kids when they landed in Massachusetts around 1638. Twelve years later when they relocated to New London with a group led by the Rev. Blinman, they were practically senior citizens by the standard of their day. But John and Mary must have been a vigorous couple, confident enough in their own abilities to believe that starting all over again would be worth the risks. And like most of us, they hoped to build a better future for the next generations.
John was a ships carpenter, and he didn't much care for his assigned lot on Cape Ann Lane (originally New Street, now Jefferson Avenue). He needed to be nearer the water. He was pleased when he was able to negotiate a property swap with another resident who owned land on Cove Street, enabling John to open his shipyard, the first one in New London. Over the next century, a lot of land filling was done along New London's waterfront, and eventually Cove Street, which wasn't on the cove anymore, became Coit Street.
John's son, Joseph, continued his father's business, and with his brother-in-law, Hugh Mould, operated the Coit & Mould Shipyard, which became so successful that up until 1735 it was the largest boat-building enterprise in the area.
The Coits went on to be influential as ministers, doctors, whaling industry pioneers and patriots. Samuel Coit was a member of the Committee of Correspondence, which served as a communication link between the colonies and helped to establish a shared opinion of British actions.
During the Revolution, Elias Coit lost his life defending Groton Heights, while Benjamin Coit joined America's ad hoc navy, transporting supplies to other American ships. William Coit (whose house you can see on Coit Street) distinguished himself by leading a group of militiamen at Bunker Hill. Later, as captain of a derelict schooner that he derisively compared to Noah's ark, William daringly seized two enemy ships that were heading for Boston with provisions for the British army.
In the mid-1800s, Benjamin Howard Coit, from the Norwich branch of the family, was a stock broker living in San Francisco with his wife, Lillie Hitchcock. Lillie was a wildly unconventional woman who liked to hunt, play poker, smoke cigars and attend prize fights. She was an expert markswoman, routinely wore trousers, and occasionally disguised herself as a man so she would be admitted into all-male establishments. She loved traveling to Paris where she was often a guest at the French court.
Lillie liked men in uniform. She was particularly fascinated by firemen and fire engines, a life-long enthusiasm that earned her the nickname "Firebelle Lil." As a girl, she chased fire engines with such fervor that her highly respectable parents, who were deeply embarrassed by their daughter's capers, tried to find strategies to restrain her. They weren't very successful. Benjamin, who wasn't any angel himself, didn't fare any better.
When she died in 1929, Lillie left a portion of her estate, much of it accrued by Benjamin during the Virginia City Comstock Lode silver mining bonanza, to San Francisco for use in beautifying the city. With that bequest San Francisco built Coit Tower.
John Coit, the Puritan immigrant, would have been proud of many of his descendants and their spouses, but he'd have been deeply shocked by Lillie. Still, he might have appreciated her spirit of adventure. Lillie would have thought that John was an unbearable stuffed shirt, but I think she'd have admired him for being a pioneer and having the courage to follow his heart.
Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.