Western Neighborhoods Project is dedicated to the history of San Francisco's Richmond, Sunset, OMI and West of Twin Peaks districts.   read more ...
 

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 495: Chain of Lakes

Golden Gate Park has both natural and man-made lakes. Nicole & Arnold look at the history of the Chain of Lakes which are a little bit of both.
by Nicole Meldahl - Mar 11, 2023

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 495: Chain of Lakes Outside Lands Podcast Episode 495: Chain of Lakes

(above) Golden Gate Park, 1915

Golden Gate Park, Chain of Lakes, Rustic Bridge on North Lake.


Podcast Transcription

WNP495 - Chain of Lakes

Nicole: [00:00:00] It’s Outside Lands San Francisco, podcast of Western Neighborhoods Project, your weekly dose of friendly neighborhood history.

Hello Outside Landers. As always. I'm your host, Nicole Meldahl.

Arnold: And, as always, I'm Arnold Woods.

Nicole: Yeah. And Arnold, have you blown away from your seat in the WNP office yet?

Arnold: No, but it is making it very cold here and we have been recording this on an epically windy day, at least at the time of this recording, which has blown down some trees in Golden Gate Park requiring some work there today. And because we're recording this in advance, this will give you some clue as to how far in advance we're recording this.

Nicole: Ah, the magic is gone from WNP's podcast. And, you know, sometimes you need to do some work in Golden Gate Park, [00:01:00] right? Like there's some major renovation work going on right now that we'll get into, but it got us thinking about a part of Golden Gate Park that once was more popular than it is now, but maybe not after this podcast. We'll see how deep our impact is. Arnold. The park contains a number of lakes today, but by and large, they're artificial. Before they started building it in 1870, there were 14 natural lakes within the boundaries of the land set aside for the park. These bodies of water filled depressions between sand dunes and mostly bubbled up from reservoirs just beneath the surface.

Arnold: And lakes might be a grand term for some of these because sometimes they were seasonal.

Nicole: Oh, swimming holes.

Arnold: Yeah. And they're mostly all gone now.

Nicole: Yeah.

Arnold: But we've talked previously about a few of them. In episode 264, we gave you a brief overview of all the lakes in Golden Gate Park. But we made a deeper dive, [00:02:00] figuratively speaking into a few of them. Way back in episode 66, we gave you the story of Stow Lake, which is the lake around Strawberry Hill. And in episode 478, we delved into Alvord Lake and its unique bridge. Both of those lakes are manmade. Today we want to explore a few of the remaining natural lakes in the Park, but to call them completely natural is a bit of a stretch. So, let's go visit the Chain of Lakes.

Nicole: Yes, let's. Let's first tell the very few of you who don't already know, where the Chain of Lakes are located. They're located on a north to south axis that runs from 43rd Avenue on the north side of the Park to 41st Avenue on the south end. They are individually, and not too creatively, named North Lake, Middle Lake, and South Lake. And you can probably guess how they line up on that north to south axis. [00:03:00]

Arnold: That's gonna be a tough one for many people to figure out.

Nicole: You know, I can never tell what direction I'm pointing in, so you'd be surprised.

Arnold: So back in 1898, our friend and Park Superintendent, Uncle John McLaren…

Nicole: Yeah.

Arnold: Noticed that the water continually, quote, “percolated from a depression on the north side of the Main Drive, about a half mile from the ocean.” End quote. And for those not in the know, the Main Drive is what we now call JFK Drive. McLaren liked the spot and decided to make the naturally marshy area into a recreational lake. He put 30 men to work digging out a lake bed that extended from the Main Drive north, almost all the way to D Street, which is now Fulton. Essentially, they dug down about 10 feet to reach the naturally occurring water level. The excavated dirt was then layered around the lake bed to form a road that completely encircled this lake.

Nicole: [00:04:00] And before the men had even finished excavating, the natural reservoir of water under the surface began filling the lake. McLaren's efforts were so successful that he realized he could have enough water to fill a second lake. So, he had the crew move just south of the Main Drive to dig out that second lake. By the end of 1899, Golden Gate Park had two new lakes and McLaren wasn't done.

Arnold: And those were North and Middle Lake, although I'm unclear as to when they actually received the names. In 1900, McLaren increased the workforce to 100 men to build a third lake to the south of the second lake, and that was just north of South Drive. All, all these cardinal directions are gonna get people confused.

Nicole: I'm already lost.

Arnold: Anyway, South Drive is what you now know as MLK Way. The third lake was fully excavated by January 1901. This string of the three lakes, North, Middle and South, became quickly known as the [00:05:00] Chain of Lakes. McLaren added some rustic bridges across some narrow portions of North Lake, and we have some really cool pictures of those bridges on OpenSFHistory.

Nicole: Man, do I love a rustic bridge? I like to think of McLaren just sitting there, maybe smoking a pipe, drinking some whiskey out of a flask, and looking at this area and thinking to himself, let there be lakes. Do you think that happened, Arnold?

Arnold: Probably.

Nicole: I don't know that he ever smoked a pipe, but I do know he drank whiskey. Probably Scotch. Scotch or whiskey. Ugh. You know, they're interchangeable for me. Anyways, now it's an hour-long podcast. So, North Lake was also created with six islands with the idea of having different vegetation on each. On one stood an old cypress that was already there, having been planted a few years prior. On another, a Louisiana swamp cypress was planted. On the others, they planted [00:06:00] willows, bamboo, and alders. Beneath the trees went a whole variety of plant life, including irises, flag lilies, ferns from the Santa Cruz mountains and over a dozen varieties of violets. Cause if there's one thing we know about John McLaren, besides the fact that he drank whiskey, is that he populated Golden Gate Park with thousands of varietals of plants.

Arnold: Indeed, he did. And along the shores of North Lake, he planted bayberry from Marin County streams. As the Chronicle described it, quote, “the tender green vines floating on the surface of the water appear to be perfectly at home on the bosom of the newly built lake.” End quote.

Nicole: Can you imagine reading that into today's Chronicle? You’d be like, what is this garbage?

Arnold: I've said it before on the podcast. The old newspaper writing is just light years better than today.

Nicole: Except for Peter Hartlaub. We love you, Peter and Heather Knight. [00:07:00] Yeah.

Arnold: So, gardeners also planted water lilies in a variety of colors on the bottom of North Lake that would bloom in the spring. In Superintendent McLaren's eyes, quote, “when the foliage becomes more abundant and the grass begins to grow, this will be the prettiest section of the park.” End quote.

Nicole: I love John McLaren so much. I hope we never find information that makes us cancel him. You never can tell, but I really hope we get to hold onto him forever and ever. In fact, McLaren's whole plan for this area was to keep it as natural as possible. He refused to plant or build anything that would, and I quote, “destroy the illusion of nature.” Rather, he was looking for vegetation that would enhance the natural beauty of the area. Along the shores of the lakes, they planted a number of different deciduous trees, such as maple, ash, sweet gum, tulip, and swamp cypress, which he described as an experiment. [00:08:00] He had his gardening crews gather 15 varieties of grasses from the hills of San Francisco and Marin to test out at the lakes.

Arnold: Because the Chain of Lakes did not require any pumping infrastructure to keep them filled, they did not require the type of ongoing costs that the fully manmade lakes in the Park needed. McLaren estimated the first-year cost of creating the Chain of Lakes, which was basically North and Middle Lake that first year, to be about $20,000, but said that they would not require future outlays once they were completed.

Nicole: Amazing.

Arnold: In the city, in the city budget for the park in the 1900-1901 fiscal year, another $9,000 was appropriated for building South Lake, although this later got reduced to $6,000.

Nicole: While there was no pumping infrastructure, there were pipes connecting North to Middle Lake and Middle to South Lake. 1902 saw the beginning of the construction of the Dutch Windmill in the northwest corner of the Park. [00:09:00] And while the primary purpose of it was to pump water, to provide water for the park's irrigation system, and a reservoir, it also provided some water to the Chain of Lakes. Five years later, when the Murphy Windmill was built in the southwest corner of the park, it did the same.

Arnold: And I think initially this was just like an overflow thing for the Chain of Lakes, but it would later become necessary and we'll get into that.

Nicole: Yep.

Arnold: Of course, even once the lakes were completed, it would take a while for the vegetation to grow. So, despite McLaren's assurance that this would become a wonderful spot, they were not an immediate hit with visitors. Nonetheless, a streetcar station got built at 43rd Avenue and Fulton, close to North Lake, which they named, natch, the Chain of Lake Station. Another streetcar station would be built on H Street, later Lincoln Way, at 41st Avenue near South Lake. And it wasn't long before the crowds started coming to see McLaren's paradise.

Nicole: I mean, if you [00:10:00] build it, they will come, Arnold. The creation and beautification of the Chain of Lakes area was widely praised because among other things, many oil sketches of the lakes were made. There are numerous newspaper mentions of artists making sketches or drawings of the Chain of Lakes throughout the early 1900s. It seems like a local pride thing of the, the, like the papers boasting about how you could go visit a great, beautiful area that got created in Golden Gate Park and see the artists working away there. And it feels like we should give a shout out to the Sunset Sketchers, who still do that in this area today.

Arnold: Yay, Sunset Sketchers.

Nicole: Yeah.

Arnold: There's also many mentions over the years about the great walks you can take through the Chain of Lakes area to see plants and animals. There's even a suggestion that the area would be ideal for Henry David Thoreau to walk around as befitting of his beloved Walden Pond. [00:11:00]

Nicole: Oh my God. Could we build, like a little, like a little, a little hut there for like itinerant poets?

Arnold: That would be something.

Nicole: Here for it.

Arnold: Now mind you, Henry David Thoreau had been dead for about 40 years at this time. So, unless a ghostly apparition of him came to haunt the Chain of Lakes, he was unable to make a Chain of Lakes versus Walden Pond comparison himself. But it does go to show the great civic pride the city took in McLaren's development of this area of the Park.

Nicole: I hear that somebody's trying to rehome some, a 1906 earthquake refugee shacks. And, I'm gonna make a case right now that it should go in the Park. Should go in the Park as a Henry David Thoreau itinerant poet, artist in residency location. You heard it here first everybody.

Arnold: Make it so!

Nicole: [00:12:00] So, somewhere Rec & Park is like, oh god damn it. Just kidding. No one at Rec & Park listens to our podcast. Anywho. The Chain of Lakes also spurred development of the nearby areas in the Richmond and Sunset districts. Several realtors set up on H Street near 41st Avenue by the streetcar station and used the Chain of Lakes and the nearby streetcar stations as selling points for properties in the early 1900s. As would a Thoreau itinerant earthquake, refugee shack.

Arnold: I don't think they need to encourage development there anymore.

Nicole: Unfortunately, all the development would have a negative effect on the lakes. As would not the Thoreau itinerant poet shack in the Park. In March 1932, water levels at Chain of Lakes was reported to be [00:13:00] low. McLaren stated that water seepage from the natural reservoir are used to keep the lake full, but that nearby housing developments lessened the seepage. This forced them to start pumping water into Chain of Lakes. Oh man, we ruined something else, y'all.

Arnold: But at least they had that infrastructure already in place from the windmills.

Nicole: It’s true. Thank God for those windmills.

Arnold: In fact, the Chain of Lakes became popular so quickly, that the Pioneers of Tuolumne County held their annual picnic there in both 1901 and 1902.

Nicole: What now?

Arnold: Why they were not having their meeting in Tuolumne County is not for us to hazard a guess, but we do commend them on their choice of location.

Nicole: They're like, we gotta get out of Tuolumne County.

Arnold: Late, later in both 1911 and 1912, another group, the aficionados of the Esperanto language, would also hold annual outings at the Chain of Lakes. [00:14:00]

Nicole: If there's one thing I've learned being a historian in San Francisco, is that there is a group for everything, at some point in time. They often don't last very long, but at some point, there will be a group that specializes in a weird thing that, or interesting thing that you're into.

Arnold: And they will come to San Francisco to meet.

Nicole: No matter if it makes sense. So, this area was so beloved that there was much sentiment to hold the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in Golden Gate Park in the Chain of Lakes area. Because what would not ruin a natural environment more than building a giant temporary city next to it?

Arnold: I think McLaren would probably have something to say about that.

Nicole: Oh, humankind never changes. That natural area is beautiful. Let's build on top of it. So…

Arnold: [00:15:00] McLaren. McLaren didn't want the Midwinter Fair structures. You can be sure he wouldn't want the, the PPIE structures.

Nicole: Again, I just picture him with like a glance of whiskey and a pipe and then being like, well John, I think we're gonna build a giant city here. And him being like, ugh, fine. I don't care. Let me plant my plants. Which they did let him plant his plants. Okay, so, Michael de Young and landscape architect Charles Leavitt put forth a detailed plan for this PPIE concept. Specifically in the Chain of Lakes area, their plan had the Fair’s administration building to the west side of the bison paddock area. Then they wanted smaller exhibition buildings for things like chocolate and mineral water manufacturers around the Chain of Lakes. De Young said, and I quote, “then beautiful rustic seats and little rustic arbors of flowers and trees could be erected around this beautiful Chain of Lakes and be a resting place [00:16:00] for the tired visitors.”

Arnold: So, you might have realized by now that the Golden Gate Park PPIE plan lost out to the Marina District plan.

Nicole: Yep.

Arnold: However, after the PPIE was over in 1915, there was a movement to move the Palace of Fine Arts to Golden Gate Park and re-erect it by the Chain of Lakes with one of the lakes to serve as the lagoon by it.

Nicole: Yes.

Arnold: Obviously, that did not happen, but honestly, having the Palace of Fine Arts rotunda next to one of the Chain of Lakes would be pretty amazing.

Nicole: Yeah.

Arnold: Though it does look pretty good where it's at right now.

Nicole: It would be an amazing home for Western Neighborhoods Project. I can tell you that much right now. Actually, it would still be an amazing home for Western Neighborhoods Project. If any city officials are listening, we're happy to take the Palace of Fine Arts off your hands for free forever. So, I'm sorry. It's not all just a plug for [00:17:00] wild ideas I offer the organization. I promise. When researching the Chain of Lakes, there were three things that we repeatedly came across. One, as we've already mentioned, was the constant mentions of their natural beauty. A second thing we frequently came across was stories of the wildlife in the area. The last and most unfortunate, frequent mention were the tragedies that occurred there. You're going to get some of these stories now as we run down some of what happened there over the years.

Arnold: And we'll try to keep the tragic section short. But let's start with an aeronaut named William Beals.

Nicole: Ooh.

Arnold: He regularly performed on Sundays at the Coney Island Resort, which was an early name for the Playland area. What is an aeronaut you ask? Beals performed on a trap, trapeze below a parachute, that would get released from a balloon. Beals was paid $5 for each performance and [00:18:00] continued to do these shows even though family and friends were against it because of the danger, particularly in high winds.

Nicole: Oh.

Arnold: On October 11th, 1903, Beals fell from the trapeze while the parachute was descending over the Chain of Lakes. The high winds had pushed the parachute over the Park and Beals lost his grip and fell about 35-feet headfirst onto the ground by the lakes. He suffered a fractured skull and was pronounced DOA at the Park Emergency Hospital, where a passing motorist had taken him.

Nicole: Yeah, this incident got even worse though. A 17-year-old girl named Maggie Henney was in a streetcar on H Street, which is now Lincoln, and leaned out of the streetcar to watch Beal's performance. She leaned too far out and an electric pole struck her head, also causing a fractured skull. She was taken by streetcar to Park Emergency Hospital as well, but was pronounced dead two hours later. And we actually have images on OpenSFHistory [00:19:00] of the balloons that would ascend in what would become the Playland area. But this was the first we learned of this parachute trapeze aeronaut act that was done from the balloons. And we don't know if these performances continued after Beals’ tragic death.

Arnold: In November 23rd 1903, policeman George Clark, who was assigned to the Park Station, was lauded for killing a coyote who had chased a jackrabbit into one of the Chain of Lakes.

Nicole: Yes.

Arnold: The coyote paused at the shore after the jackrabbit had dived in, giving Clark the opportunity to shoot him. Apparently, a pack of coyotes had been preying on the birds nesting in the area, and the police had been authorized to kill them when they were seen. The Chronicle article about it ended by stating that the coyote was, quote, “a fine specimen,” end quote, that would be stuffed and preserved as a trophy.

Nicole: It would not surprise me if that's at Cal Academy, somewhere, along with Monarch the Bear. [00:20:00] Let's hope it's not. In 1905, ground was broken for the construction of the Polo Fields, which replaced the Speed Road in Golden Gate Park. Now, one of the reasons put forth for the construction of a circular racetrack to replace Speed Road was the danger that one faced when trying to cross the Speed Road. It was thought that replacing it with the Polo Fields would make Chain of Lakes even more accessible, which was something that the Parks Commission really wanted to promote.

Arnold: What they didn't wanna promote was, in 1910, Herman Reuben, Herman Reuben committed suicide by shooting himself in the head on a bench by South Lake. And unfortunately, this would not be the last such occurrence as the Chain of Lakes was apparently a draw for those suffering from depression or desperation. On October 10th, 1922, William Bramble of Missouri also commits suicide by shooting himself in the head by the Chain of Lakes. Then on August [00:21:00] 27th, 1934, John Louis Sturm does the same while sitting on the shore of one of the Chain of Lakes. The “good night, good night” passage from Romeo and Juliet was found by him. Finally, on May 8th, 1944, bookkeeper Bert Waters attempts suicide by shooting himself in the head, but he survives.

Nicole: Yeah, I read somewhere once that before construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, that Golden Gate Park and Lands End were two, they were like the suicide hot spots. That's a terrible way to say that. But, but after the Bridge, suicides in the Park went way down. Ugh. So, these were just the shooting suicides. I promise this isn't just a suicide podcast, although I think there's probably a market for that, but that's not what this is all about. But on June 5th, 1914, Mrs. W.A. Salisbury drowned herself in South Lake. Mrs. Salisbury had separated from her husband, was apparently [00:22:00] despondent because of illness, and her, and I quote, “tangled domestic affairs.” I feel you. Mrs. Salisbury. Prior to her suicide, she regularly visited the Cliff House and would stand on the literal cliff there as if she was going to jump, but did not do so. On December 9th, 1932, man, a man cut the veins of his ankles with a razor. He was found dead by North Lake, covered by snow and frost. And then on September 10th, 1938, Carl Brayer attempted to commit suicide by jumping into South Lake. However, he failed because the water was only two feet deep. So, he took a street park, street car to the Park Emergency Hospital for help.

Arnold: And as a PSA, if you're feeling that way, please do seek help.

Nicole: Yes, absolutely.

Arnold: So, then we get to February 1st, 1945. The body of Neal Henderson [00:23:00] was found in North Lake. A rope was tied to his right leg on one end and a park bench on the shore on the other. And a 16-pound block, concrete block, was tied to his neck. Was this murder or suicide? We don't know. But frankly, this sounds like a mob hit. But we could not find any resolution of this matter in the local papers.

Nicole: Yeah, I mean, even till the ‘40s too, like, this was still a pretty remote part of San Francisco, right? So, it was very quiet out here. If you needed quiet to do all kinds of things that polite society or legal frameworks would prevent you from doing. But you know what, Arnold? Let's, let's get away from this unpleasant news and talk about some animals. Am I right? So, besides our stuffed coyote, on December 17th, 1910, a big wildcat, possibly a mountain lion that had been killing wildlife, was captured in a trap by Chain of Lakes. [00:24:00] Then, in a case of mistaken identity, police reported that a mountain lion had been seen near City Hall in December 1913. Sergeant Pat McGee of Golden Gate Park's Mounted Squad, which sounds like its own cartoon, was an expert on animal tracks. So, he went downtown to see if he could identify the animal. Not only was he successful, but he specifically identified it as Gulliver, a coyote who had lived in the thicket by Chain of Lakes for five years. McGee said, and I quote, “it is no new thing for the old boy to go traveling. And he has often been seen as far away as Daly City. He always comes back though, and it was only this morning that I saw him in his usual haunts.” And end quote. And don't worry, we're gonna hear more from Sergeant McGee on WNP’s newest cartoon, McGee and Gulliver. No seriously though.

Arnold: In [00:25:00] June 1913, Clifford Polkinghorn…

Nicole: Oh, best name ever.

Arnold: Sounds like a made-up name.

Nicole: Yes.

Arnold: Was arrested for shooting and killing quail at the Chain of Lakes with, get this, a homemade slingshot.

Nicole: Freaking Polkinghorn.

Arnold: He got sentenced to 30 days in jail by the judge. In November 1916, someone discovers an extremely small crustacean in Middle Lake that was described as,” an exact miniature of a lobster,” and “half the size of a flea.” End quote. Perhaps one of our listeners will know what kind of crustacean they were talking about. If you do, please let us know.

Nicole: I'm getting shirts made up that just say, Outside Lands San Francisco, podcast of Western Neighborhoods Project, with an extremely small crustacean in the middle. [00:26:00] So, we've previously mentioned the time that the bison herd got loose from their paddock, which is still one of our best podcasts. Well, five years after the great buffalo sscape, two elk, Nellie and Pete, escaped their Park paddock on April 19th, 1928, and headed toward Ocean Beach. The Park’s Mounted Police responded, and the Elk led them on a “merry chase,” in quotes, before they were finally roped by the Chain of Lakes. They were docilely led back to their paddock and Nellie and Pete Day, Pete's Day Out sounds like it could be a great children's book about Golden Gate Park and it really does.

Arnold: And make it so.

Nicole: Yeah, exactly right. We got so many ideas on this podcast.

Arnold: So, besides the animals, humans also made some news around the Chain of Lakes.

Nicole: And not depressing suicide news.

Arnold: Exactly. In October 1923, Hollywood star [00:27:00] Mary Pickford shot scenes for the movie Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall at the Chain of Lakes. Some 10,000 people came out to watch this. Most of the movie was shot in England and it was set there as well. So, we're not sure why they couldn't find a suitable English lake to shoot these scenes at. But if any listeners know that story, let us know. But it does say something about the beauty of the area that Hollywood would come calling.

Nicole: That's pretty funny. I feel like we need a screening of this movie at the Balboa Theater soon. Another idea for stuff that we can do.

Arnold: And let's see. Let's see if we can pick out those scenes that were shot at this Chain of Lakes,

Nicole: Not a single lake in England, huh? That's fine. So, on March 24th, 1926, a bandit held up a Presidio soldier, private Duncan Manning, and his date, as they were seated in a car by Chain of [00:28:00] Lakes. The thief was described as chivalrous as he told them, and I quote, “all I want is the gentleman's money. I never bother women.” End quote. Well, the charmer got away., but the description of a situation leads us to wonder. Was Chain of Lakes a place where couples went to park, as she winks aggressively at the camera that you can't see? Is perhaps this a lover's lane, if you will.

Arnold: Inquiring minds wanna know. So, if you once “parked” at the Chain of Lakes, let us know.

Nicole: Oh my gosh. The segue into the next, the next section is not gonna sound right. Tacked up against this.

Arnold: No, it's not. So, we get to a human and animal story.

Nicole: But not that kinda human and animal story. [00:29:00]

Arnold: No. This is both creepy and great.

Nicole: Jesus. What a podcast.

Arnold: On September 24th, 1962, 13-year-old Patricia Hobbs was walking her German Shepherd named Renee by North Lake. She was accosted by a 50- to 60-year-old man who asked her if she would like $5. She kept walking, but he grabbed her shoulder, causing her to drop the dog's leash. And Renee sprung into action, attacking the man, biting him on his wrist and leg, causing him to flee. Patricia's mom said Renee was very protective and fond of Patricia. So, let's hear it for Renee.

Nicole: Huzzah Renee! Renee is a really unique name for a giant German Shepherd. Yeah. You know, and you guys said that there's no possible way we could record more than 400 episodes on stuff in the Outside Lands. [00:30:00] And here we are, proving you wrong. So, the Chain of Lakes had also become a bit of a magnet for, well shall we say, Japanese generosity. In 1934, the Japanese Association donated 600 cherry blossom trees, some of which were planted around Middle Lake. Then, in honor of the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge, Japan's Consul General Kanzo Shiozaki presented 300 cherry blossom trees to San Francisco. On June 1st, 1937, the first 15 of these trees were planted on an island in North Lake. You can still find a number of cherry trees in the Chain of Lakes area, but it seems unlikely that any of these are the ones that were donated in 1934 or 1937, as their lifespans are generally about 15 to 25 years.

Arnold: So, as with many things, Rec & Park had other priorities through [00:31:00] the years, and the Chain of Lakes became neglected. Invasive plants, particularly tule, took over the lakes, and pipes became clogged. In 1979, Mayor Feinstein sought and received federal aid for some Golden Gate Park projects, and this included $439,000 for the removal of tule at the Chain of Lakes. About the same time, the Civilian Conservation Corps came in for some park projects, which included cleaning the spillway feeding the Chain of Lakes.

Nicole: A few years later, in January 1983, workers lowered the water level in North Lake so they could dredge and seal the lake floor and remove weeds. Fish in the lake were forced into the northwest corner where there was believed to be enough water for them to live in while the work was going on. Over a weekend though, water seepage dropped the water level so low that hundreds of fish, frogs, and turtles were killed. Oh boy. Rescuers with [00:32:00] fishnets tried to save the ones that were still alive and move them to other lakes. And the SF, or the SPCA called the city negligent for not keeping watch on North Lake over that weekend, given the very limited area that the fish could live in at that lake.

Arnold: We mentioned back at the beginning of this podcast that when North Lake was created, a road was built completely around it. They were known as Chain of Lakes Drive East and Chain of Lakes Drive West. And you've probably noticed you can no longer completely drive around North Lake. Chain of Lakes Drive West was closed in 1986 and transformed into a wild area with a path to walk on. So, that would explain that kind of strange triangle area as you enter the park at 43rd Avenue and Fulton. Before 1986, you could veer to the east or west of North Lake as you drove into the park. Now the traffic only veers to [00:33:00] the east side of the lake. Although you can still veer west for a very short distance to a parking lot area on the north side of the lake. And you can then exit out of that parking area and rejoin Chain of Lakes Drive East.

Nicole: I, I'm lost, but I, it does go to show you that there's been a long history of shutting down roads that used to be roads in recreation areas. Not that we have an opinion for or against that, but, you know, this is not a new concept. Let me tell you, this has been happening for a really long time. One of the little charming features of South Lake is a small fountain at the east end of the lake that Arnold has worked really hard to research. So, I hope you all appreciate the history that's coming at you. It is not a fancy fountain by any means. Just a little jet shooting water up into the air. So, when was this feature added? Arnold had to know. During our research, and by we, we mean Arnold. We [00:34:00] could find no mention of this fountain. Absolutely nothing at all. So, we did what we always do in these situations. We put a call out to the WNP history community. It's like the bat signal going up, but it just says WNP. Just, just, just lighting the fog in the Richmond District and that's how you know we need history help friends, Arnold wanted to see if we knew any, if anybody knew anything about this fountain. And like they always do, Outside Landers got us to the answer.

Arnold: Yeah, it turns out that this fountain is not a fountain at all.

Nicole: Please tell me it's a broken pipe.

Arnold: In 1988, Joan Vellutini, who is a Golden Gate Park gardener, was having a problem with excessive algae at South Lake due to a lack of oxygen. She made a request for a system to aerate the lake. City engineer Leon Smith designed and installed the pipes into the lake that shot the water [00:35:00] into the air to create air circulation and increase oxygen in the water. So, it's basically a jet, not a fountain. This helped keep a South Lake clean of algae, and waterfowl then returned to the lake as a result. So, thank you Joan, for solving that mystery for us. And thanks to Dennis O'Rorke for putting Joan in touch with us.

Nicole: Yeah, WNPers finds a way. Maybe I shouldn't call them WNPers. We'll work on it. So, despite these rehabilitation efforts in the 1980s, neglect again caused issues with the Chain of Lakes. In particular, Middle Lake was taken over by invasive plants. As anybody who was visited in recent years knows, Middle Lake was no longer a lake. All the water was sucked up by the plant life. You could literally walk the entire length of Middle Lake's lake bed without getting your shoes wet. This did not go unnoticed. While it took a while, the plan to [00:36:00] rehabilitate Middle Lake actually dates back about 10 years.

Arnold: And I have been one of those people who've walked Middle Lake on the lake bed without getting my shoes wet. So, the funding for the Middle Lake rehabilitation dates all the way back to the November 6th, 2012 election.

Nicole: Oh.

Arnold: That's when San Francisco passed Measure B by 72.1 to 27.9% margin. And…

Nicole: Gather round children. We're going to talk to ye about 2012.

Arnold: So, the measure needed a two-thirds margin to go into effect. So, it pretty comfortably made it. Measure B raised $195 million for San Francisco Parks. Then on November 3rd, 2020, San Francisco voters passed Proposition A. Again, by a 70.63 to 29.37 margin, which exceeded the required two-thirds margin it [00:37:00] needed. Proposition a raised about $239 million for, in part, San Francisco Parks. In addition, the San Francisco Open Space Fund was created in 2000. That requires a certain percentage of property tax revenues to be set aside for the fund. And finally, the city also has a general fund into which tax revenues are deposited.

Nicole: I can't wrap my head around this kind of figures. So, with all that insane amount of money in place from these four sources, the Rec & Parks Department began planning a major rehabilitation of Middle Lake in the spring of 2019. This rehab consists of the following actions: One, replacing the clay liner lake bottom. Two, increasing water depth. Three, clearing the pipes connecting North Lake to Middle Lake, and then to South Lake. Four, fixing up the rock cascade from the casting pools. Five, removing invasive vegetation. [00:38:00] Six, planting appropriate plants. And seven, improving pathways to increase visibility and accessibility.

Arnold: The design phase of this project took about two and a half years from fall 2019 to the spring of 2022. Maybe the pandemic prolonged this. We don't know. Finally, this winter, right now, the work begins. So, if you go out there now, you will see that they removed all the plants and fallen trees that had clocked up, clogged up the lake bed. Bulldozers have carved out a deeper lake floor. We're not sure how long it'll take to finish this work, but we look forward to that day when Middle Lake is again a lake that we can visit.

Nicole: Gather around you children as we talk to you about 2023.

Arnold: And it was seeing that rehabilitation work going on that caused me to start researching their story.

Nicole: See everybody, historians are just like, hey, what's going on there? And then that hap, [00:39:00] poof, you've got a podcast. So, this is your Chain of Lakes story, but we've saved what we hope is the best for last, as we finish up with fun on this week's Say What Now!

Arnold: Yeah, this is gonna be a little bit longer than normal Say What Now segment. But it's all related to Middle Lake. And over the, and this is gonna be Nicole's favorite section here.

Nicole: Always.

Arnold: Over the course of three and a half years, between 1918 and 1921. Middle Lake gets invaded three times by three different mysterious birds. The reports of each invasion are just classic, and our great Park Mounted Police animal tracker, Sergeant Pat McGee, is the one that papers talk to each time. So, let's get in to our mysterious birds. [00:40:00]

Nicole: Yeah. On this week's episode of Pat McGee and Gulliver, we begin in May 1918 at the Thoreau Center for Poets in Golden Gate Park. I'm kidding. But we do begin in May 1918. So, at the time, mudhens “owned,” air quotes, Middle Lake, being so pervasive that other birds did not go there. You know, I've been in a real mudhead, or mudhen vibe lately. I feel you mudhens. So, that month, a mysterious bird described as a dirty white color about the size of a cormorant landed on the lake as if he owned it, according to Sergeant McGee. When the mudhens came to kick this invader out, he “squawked blue murder,” that is a direct quote, and began chasing, pecking and flapping his wings at the mudhens, “like an insane loon,” also a direct quote, until he cleared the lake of them. Apparently satisfied with [00:41:00] himself, he then left. Observers could not figure out what type of bird he was, with guesses of everything from plover to albatross to grumpy hobbit Nicole likes to stay indoors at all times.

Arnold: And it only gets better from there. We fast forward two years to May 1920. A mysterious bird sets up shop in Middle Lake and Sergeant McGee described him thusly. Quote, “he is a big lump of a bird nearly as large as a black swan, but squat built. His neck back, and wings are black. His breast and lower body are white. His neck is like a cormorant. His beak like a crane’s only smaller, and his head is covered with long gray hairs that sit back like the plumes of an egret. There must be 16 different breeds in him with probably a good touch of loon.” End quote. Unfortunately, this genetic horror show did not like to make [00:42:00] friends. The scene at Middle Lake was described as quote, “all blood and murder,” end quote, as the bird attacked anything and everything there. He too then would leave.

Nicole: A murderous mutt of a bird. Finally, we get to October 1921, when yet another mysterious bird lands at Middle Lake. Sergeant McGee described this one as, and I quote, “cross between a widgeon, a canvasback, a teal, a loon, a pelican, and about everything else.” End quote. Maybe he didn't know anything about birds, and he was just like, it looks like all birds, So, this bird cleared the lake of the widgeons that it was then teaming with. A local ornithologist named the bird, Prince Ouija, like the game, like the board game, but he was also called the Missing Link. The ornithologist planned to capture the bird and take him on tour during [00:43:00] lectures on the evolution of birds. However, the day before he planned to set up traps, Prince Ouija caught sight of Princess Thelma, a blue crane. The papers described their romance as a wedding waiting to happen, but that they instead eloped leaving the ornithologist empty-handed. Arnold, this should just been the podcast, just mysterious birds of Chain of Lakes,

Arnold: And I, I, I can't emphasize how much the description of this romance just, was permeated through this story.

Nicole: Okay. If we do a Patreon, we said this in the last, or a couple episodes ago, if we do a Patreon and you get behind the scenes content, it's just gonna be me and Arnold reading verbatim this crazy bird article. Would you pay extra $5 a month for that?

Arnold: Who knows? [00:44:00] I'm not on Patreon, so I don't know.

Nicole: Yeah, I'm not either.

Arnold: And sadly, we may never know what kinds of birds these were, but again, if any of our listeners can tell what kind of birds they are from these descriptions from Sergeant Pat McGee, please let us know. But we hope that with the now ongoing rehabilitation of Middle Lake, that we soon get more mysterious birds there.

Nicole: And if there's anybody listening from Cal Academy of Sciences, do y'all have a weird, hideous murder bird section in your collection? Because if you do, can we help you put that on display as the mysterious birds of Chain of Lakes. Cause we are here for you in case your murder bird collection comes to light.

Arnold: Okay, so as we've repeatedly said throughout this episode, [00:45:00] email us if you have answers to any of these questions, because now it's time for our listener mail segment.

Nicole: Ooh, yes. Like Arnold said, we love to hear from you. If you could send us ideas for future episodes—if you found a murder bird at Cal Academy, if you know someone who can make our Thoreau poet hut a reality in Golden Gate Park, any of the above weird things we've talked about today—or if you just have some other response to this podcast, please email us. Drop us a line, podcast@outsidelands.org. You can also send us physical mail. I love receiving physical mail that's not a bill. 1617 Balboa Street, San Francisco, California. You can also leave us a message on the Instagram, the Twitter, and of the Facebook that's at outsidelands with a Z And Arnold, did someone hit us up on Facebook?

Arnold: [00:46:00] Indeed, they did. They were listening to our, or I should say your recent podcast interview with Richard Rothman. And Darcy posted in response to that, quote, “this was an awesome interview. I listened this morning to Richard Rothman and appreciated everything he has done over the years for the city murals, especially for the interest he has taken in the Women's building at Fleishhacker Zoo. As a child, I remember using the bathroom and sitting in the building and it was lovely. It was, would be such a dream to have it brought back as a Women's building for a rest spot, diaper changes, and a bathroom in the future, just like it was in the past. Thank you, Western Neighbors Project and Richard Rothman for this terrific podcast session.” End quote.

Nicole: And thank you, Darcy. There's been a lot of discussion on how best to use the Mother's Building. And personally we would not be adverse to providing it, a little history in there. But whatever happens, we hope that the [00:47:00] Mother's Building gets rehabilitated and used for something worthwhile. And we hope Richard gets the, the credit he deserves and that he gets to see it better on its way, you know, within the next 40 years. Because that's how long that man needs to stick around, cause he's a true treasure of San Francisco.

Arnold: And if you wanna help make things like that possible, please consider becoming a member or donating. And how do they do that, Nicole?

Nicole: It's so easy. It's the biggest orange button on any page of our website, outsidelands.org or OpenSFHistory.org. You just clickity, clickity, clack that and you sign up to be a member. And then I see it, because I see every membership email that comes in mostly, if I don't miss it. But I'm not gonna miss yours, cause yours, dear listener, is very important. And when that money goes through, we put you in a database and then [00:48:00] that means that you get the quarterly membership magazine, you get discount on events and other exclusive perks. And Arnold, what does their membership support?

Arnold: It supports oh, so much.

Nicole: So much.

Arnold: It includes, primarily here to, if you're listening to this, it includes this podcast.

Nicole: Yeah.

Arnold: Which we make available for free to everybody on various platforms, including our website.

Nicole: It’s true..

Arnold: It also helps support the Cliff House collection that we have to care for, which is ongoing. We're looking for new places to exhibit it. Some of it's up here in our office, which we'll have open soon for you to come and see here.

Nicole: Yep.

Arnold: And it helps our OpenSFHistory program, which is over 54,000 old historic images of San Francisco that get used for all kinds of things. So, you know, become a member, help support that. Or if you don't want it, to [00:49:00] do the membership thing, make a one-time donation and help us out.

Nicole: It's true. You know, we did a survey recently that's still ongoing if you haven't opened that email from us. And the number one reason people said they became members of WNP was the feel good satisfaction of supporting community history. I'm not making that up. People just give us money because it feels good. Don't you wanna feel good? Ugh, sure you do. Sure you do.

Arnold: Yeah. And we have some community history coming up in our announcements.

Nicole: Yes indeedy, Arnold. We are bearing down on the first events of our 2023 public programs calendar. Tickets to our three upcoming history walks with John Martini in March and April are selling fast. And this is a good reminder that I need to call two of our non-email members to make sure that they get a spot [00:50:00] on these walks if they want them. So, the first one happens on next Saturday at the Presidio Main Post.

Arnold: That's actually wrong. It's today.

Nicole: Oh, it's today. Cause of the magic of the internet, the, it's today, which means that, oh, we hope you already got your tickets, which are $10 for WNP members and $20 for non-members for this. And then, of course, there's John's Music Concourse and Mountain Lake history walks that are happening later. So, check our website. Hopefully we're not already on the walk when you listen to this. We might be.

Arnold: And, coming up later this week on Thursday, March 16th, you're joining with the Global Museum at San Francisco State for a program called Community History, But Make It Global. It will explore the power, purpose, and process of community involvement in the work of our respective organizations. It happens at the Global Museum. You don't wanna miss [00:51:00] getting the chance to see that place. And it's limited to 50 people. San Francisco State students and faculty get in for free. It's only $10 for WNP members and $20 for everybody else. Proceeds are gonna be, benefit both organizations. Reserve your ticket for any of these events on our website at outsidelands.org/events or go to our Eventbrite page.

Nicole: And we don't have a confirmed date at the time of this recording, but in a couple weeks at the end of March, we are doing a collaborative trivia night about Sunset District history at the Little Shamrock in partnership with Fort Point Brewery. Beer Company! Fort Point Beer Company! Oh, it's been a long day. I'm sorry, listeners. We're really excited for this. Our good friend Angus McFarlane helped us come out with some real humdinger questions, and he'll also be there as our plant in the crowd. So, [00:52:00] and perhaps with his adorable dog, Ichabod. I'm not sure if they'll let him in. Don't miss that. Keep an eye on our website. We're adding new events all the time now, so you don't wanna miss a thing.

Arnold: Yeah. In fact, by the time you're listening to this podcast, that event is probably already on our website.

Nicole: Maybe. You never can tell. It's true and we don't have a preview for next week, cause we forgot to write one. We also dunno what we're doing. It's likely going to be another interview podcast, cause those are easy for me to put together. But, you know, stay tuned for a surprise podcast next week. Until then, I'm Nicole Meldahl.

Arnold: I'm Arnold Woods.

Nicole: And this has been another episode of Outside Lands San Francisco. Thanks for being with us history friends

Ian: Outside Lands San Francisco is recorded by Ian Hadley. Content creation and media production at ihadley.com.

Nicole: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more on San Francisco history, go to Outsidelands.org. You can also find us on social media at Facebook, which is outsidelands with an S, at Twitter, which is outsidelandz with a Z, and on Instagram, which is outsidelandz, also with a Z. And check out our historic San Francisco images website at OpenSFHistory.org.

More Podcasts
  • Podcast # 434: Photographers Watkins and Taber

    When viewing images on OpenSFHistory.org, you may notice some of most memorable photos of early San Francisco are credited to either Carleton Watkins or Isaiah West Taber. As competitors, they photographed notable sites in the City, including the West Side, and have a surprising connection with one another. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Jul 17, 2021)
  • Podcast # 372: Speedway Meadow and the Polo Fields (Classic Episode)

    If you've been to the Outside Lands Music Festival, then you know the Polo Fields and Speedway Meadow. These open spaces both have storied histories. This classic episode continues our celebration of the Park's 150th Anniversary. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Apr 3, 2020)
All Podcasts...

The Outside Lands San Francisco podcast is also available as a subscription via iTunes and by RSS feed.

Save SF History