Interesting Facts About San Francisco's Colorful Past

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I grew up playing and riding my bike with friends in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. It never occurred to me then to wonder how long the park had been there, or how it came to be in the first place. As an adult, however, I became curious about the park's beginnings. It's a fascinating story!

Shortly after 1866, the people of San Francisco began clamoring for a large public park. It was at about that time that New York had begun work on Central Park, and Boston was planning its beautiful Public Garden. In order to keep up the city's civic pride, San Francisco decided that it, too, should have a park of its own.

The first problem the city faced was where to place the new park, especially when it was discovered that the best land had already been appropriated. In 1868, the mayor ordered the board of supervisors to make a survey of sites available. They recommended certain areas west of Divisadero Street toward the beach -- a total of 1013 acres known as the Outside Lands.

Unfortunately, there had long been dispute over ownership of this land, which had been parts of the pueblo of San Francisco ceded to the government under the old Spanish and Mexican grants. In the late 1860s, the land was held by squatters and outlaws, who were in no hurry to vacate. After a great deal of bickering, the city finally raised enough money to purchase the land for $810,595.

Ownership of this property, however, was only the beginning of the problems the city would have to face in order to build their new park. In 1871, the area was just an arid, windswept tract of shifting sand dunes. Many experts believed that trees could not be grown on the site, which had less water and more sand than any other section of the city.

Still, while San Franciscans jeered, the grounds were surveyed and the landscape plan designed by William Hammond Hall, who also undertook the first control of the sand. Small boys were hired to go out into the hills and collect seed from the wild lupine and this, together with beach grass, was sown to provide anchorage. Whenever a plant took root, seedlings of cypress, pine and gum trees were planted on the spot.

Meanwhile, thousands of tons of soil were being hauled from near-by hills and mixed with the sand to give it ballast. Humus and peat, straw, grass cuttings and tons of manure were spaded into it. Little by little, fertile soil was made and the tawny dunes began to take on tints of green. It was a true miracle of sorts; grass and shrub and tress grew where none had ever grown before. And at last there came a day when San Franciscans looking out to sea across the onetime rolling sand, were able to gaze upon hundreds of acres of lush and verdant park land.

No discussion of Golden Gate Park would be complete without mentioning the park's presiding genius, John McLaren. From 1890 to his death in 1943, McLaren dedicated his life to creating a recreation ground for beauty and utility. It is largely because of this man that San Francisco's great park was preserved, nurtured and cultivated into the lovely oasis that it remains to this day.

Sources: "Suddenly San Francisco, The Early Years" by Charles Lockwood, "Golden Gate, The Park of a Thousand Vistas" by Katherine Wilson, "San Francisco Secrets", by John Snyder, and "San Francisco Almanac" by Gladys Hansen.


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