The History of Human Use at Lake Merced

Sara Marcellino and Brandon Jebens
Graduate Students, Dept of Geography
San Francisco State University

Native Inhabitants

Original inhabitants of the Lake Merced region, and all of San Francisco and San Mateo counties were a tribe of Indians called the Ramaytush Ohlone. Approximately 1400 lived in the San Francisco / San Mateo area at the time of Spanish invasion. Politically, they were organized into tribelets with chieftainship handed down from father to son (Kroeber 1925). Although trade existed between the Ohlone and surrounding regions, there was little, if any, cohesion between the individual tribes or villages.

Figure 1.  Sketch of Natives in the Bay Area.  Source: Stanger 1963

The Spanish were amazed at the diversity of cultures and languages that existed among the Indians of the region. In order to classify and deal with the diverse cultures, the Spanish lumped all of the Bay Area Indians into one group they called Costeņo, or coastal people. Anglicized over time it became Costanoan. Later descendants of the Costanoan chose to call themselves the Ohlone, which originally referred to a little tribe that lived on the coast of San Mateo County near Pescadero. Now the term Ohlone is used to refer to all descendants of Indians who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. The first Spaniards to see Lake Merced apparently did not see any native villages in the region, but it is clear that the Ohlone did use the Lake Merced area. Archaeological evidence supports this claim. A pestle was found during construction on the nearby campus of San Francisco State University, and an obsidian tool was found near the Southwest Treatment Plant (Shoup and Baker 1981).

Although there are no oak stands known to have existed in the area to provide acorns, the staple food of all California Indians, the lake’s tule reeds were important building materials for houses, rafts and other items. The nearby beach would have been used for fishing, shellfish collecting, hunting seals and sea lions, and carving up the occasional beached whale. Deer were said to be abundant in the area as well.

Frontier Settlers

The first Spanish explorers were a small band of expeditioners led by Don Fernando Rivera and Father Francisco Palou in December 1774 that were exploring for mission sites. They are supposed to have camped just north of where Lake Merced Blvd. intersects the San Francisco / San Mateo County lines (Hansen 1973). They left San Francisco without having settled upon a mission site. Father Palou visited Lake Merced again the next year and named it for the day of the religious calendar that he left: La Laguna de Nuestra Seņora de la Merced, which translates as The Lake of Our Lady of Mercy (Shoup and Baker 1981). The hybrid name of Lake Merced (both Spanish and English) was in use by the 1850’s (Gudde 1969). Early in Spanish history, Lake Merced was considered community property and used for cattle grazing by the Mission of San Francisco.

The first recorded title to Lake Merced took place during the Mexican era of California control. In September 1835, the Mexican Governor of California Jose Jesus Castro gave a land grant to Jose Antonio Galindo for 2200 acres, including the lake (Dwinelle 1978). The land at the time was described as worthless (Dwinelle 1978). Historians note that this is an almost insultingly small amount of land, concluding that perhaps Galindo did not have many influential friends (Stanger 1963). Galindo raised cattle.

Less than 2 years later, Galindo sold it to Don Francisco de Haro for 100 cattle and $25.00 in goods (Kyle 1990). In 1835, in the first election of San Francisco, de Haro was elected the city’s first mayor (Muscante 1975). He built a house at the Southern end of the lake, but had traveled between the lake house and other property he owned. During the Mexican-American war, Kit Carson shot and killed de Haro’s twin sons in the Bear Flag Revolt (Hansen 1973). Saddened by this, de Haro spent the rest of his life at Lake Merced and died in 1849.

Although technically part of de Haro’s property, a man by the name of George Green, a recent immigrant to the Bay Area, began farming on the northern portion of the lake. Essentially, he was a squatter. Other squatters soon joined him in anticipation of Congress passing the Homestead Act that would have given legal title to anyone already present on the land. After the passage of the Homestead Act, others attempted to make a land grab in the area. Green and the other squatters erected a metal-lined fort and guarded it night and day in defense of their land (Hansen 1973, Shoup and Baker 1981). They were successful.

Lake Merced was very popular as a dueling ground during the 1850’s. Dueling was illegal in San Francisco at that time, but Lake Merced was remote enough that it could still be carried on in relative privacy and isolation from the law. Only gentlemen dueled, and challenges to duels could be refused on grounds that the challenger was not from a respectable enough social class.

In September 1859, a very notable duel took place at the Southern shores of Lake Merced. Senator David Broderick and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of California David Terry fought over what, on the surface, appeared to be slavery. The real motives, of course, were power struggles between their respective factions. Terry had been defeated for nomination to the California Supreme Court by Broderick’s faction and he was furious.

The political climate of that time centered on slavery and the impending Civil War. Terry, like the Southern Democrats of the time, supported slavery, and Broderick sought a middle ground between pro-slavery Democrats like Terry, and anti-slavery Republicans. After being ousted from the possibility of re-election to the Supreme Court, Terry insulted Broderick by saying he was affiliated with Blacks and ex-salves. Broderick returned insult with insult and Terry responded by challenging Broderick to a duel.

A small gully just to the east of the Southern tip of Lake Merced was decided upon for the duel site. During the duel, Broderick’s gun went off prematurely, giving Terry the time to take aim, shoot, and kill Broderick (Hansen 1973). Terry was brought to trial, but the judge that presided over the case was a friend of Terry’s and threw the case out of court. The location of the duel, now in San Mateo County, is a historic landmark and a memorial has been erected signifying the site.

Water Supply

The water supply has been a contentious issue in both Lake Merced’s and San Francisco’s history. Several people knew water was going to be needed to meet the rapidly growing population of San Francisco. Lake Merced was one of the first places developed to meet the cities growing demand for water. Lake Merced was one only nearby fresh water sources.

Spring Valley Water Company (SVWC) was incorporated in 1858 to meet those needs and quickly became a corporation of some of the Western United States foremost capitalists. They essentially formed a monopoly over the San Francisco city’s water supply. They were only ousted after a long and bitter struggle by the city and people of San Francisco to institute local control.

SVWC began building infrastructure to supply water to San Francisco in the 1860’s. In 1868, they bought the water rights to Lake Merced for $150,000. That strengthened and sealed their monopoly on San Francisco’s water. In 1877, SVWC began purchasing the watershed land around Lake Merced. This increased their monopoly over the city’s water supply. Over time they purchased more land around the Bay Area to add to their holdings (Shoup and Baker 1981).

Figure 2. Land holding of the SVWC. Source: Spring Valley Water Company 1922.

Conflict between the city and SVWC began in 1867 when SVWC said San Francisco could no longer have free water except for fighting fires (Freeman 1912, Shoup and Baker 1981). The city refused to pay their bills, and a court case ensued. Litigation and conflict continued until 1880, when a new state constitution stated that cities had to pay for water.

SVWC and the city of San Francisco have had three major periods of litigation. Each centered on a significant aspect of water relations between the company and the city. After the conflict over free water, beginning in 1877 the two fought over how to fix the rates to be charged, and the third fight starting in 1903 was over evaluating the land upon which SVWC based their rates (Freeman 1912). As SVWC tried to create and maintain its monopoly, the city grew more resistant.

Power struggles for water were influenced by the fact that all the directors of SVWC were wealthy, prestigious and well-connected individuals. By the 1920’s, SVWC was the largest privately owned company in the U.S. (Shoup and Baker 1981). The ongoing struggle between SVWC and the city led to a popular movement for full city control of water supply. Trying to buy out SVWC proved to be difficult, so it was decided that the city should look for its own source of water. Because SVWC had control of most of the local lands, the city had to look further out for a source of water.

The city turned to Federal lands in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Hetch Hetchy Valley and the Tuolumne River were decided upon to give San Francisco its water supply. In 1908, the voters of San Francisco approved the construction of the Hetch Hetchy dam.

The SVWC foresaw its own eventual collapse and began selling pieces of property around Lake Merced to make golf courses from the 1890’s to the 1920’s. Developments that have taken place around Lake Merced since then include residential tract development since the 1920's, the Zoo and Stern Grove in the 1930's, and San Francisco Sate University which began offering classes here in 1954.

1900-Present : Harbor Defense Facility and Growth of Land-Use in the Greater Lake Merced Area

The historical geography of the Lake Merced Area continues into the twentieth century. Indeed, picture the landscape, circa 1899: few houses and primarily agricultural land-use. Agricultural crops in the Lake Merced Area included potatoes, onions, grains cut for hay, and vegetables, beans, cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, and artichokes (Westfall 1999: 3-5).

Another phase of cultural history at Lake Merced was termed the time of the "harbor defense facility" by Shoup and Baker (1981), two archeologists who explain how the present environmental setting is based partially on the fact that parts of Lake Merced were operated by the Army. They write, "The 1300 foot wide natural sand dike lying due west of Lake Merced between the lakes and the Pacific Ocean has served an historic purpose besides holding the ocean back from resalting Lake Merced" (58).

Indeed, beginning in the 1890s, the United States Army commenced purchase of the sandy dike, ultimately developing coastal shore batteries on this land during World War I and II (Shoup and Baker 1981: 13). The Army brought a law suit against Spring Valley to acquire over forty acres due west of the North Lake for a coastal artillery battery, purchased for $42,162 and subsequently named it Laguna Merced Military Reservation. Artillery was installed during World War II, including mortars and five-inch guns. These were named Battery Bruff and Battery Walter Howe. During the war, the size of the Lake Merced Military Reservation was expanded by 150.29 acres and purchased from the Spring Valley Company for $226,151. This area lay west of South Lake and due south of the existing fort (Shoup and Baker 1981).

In 1917, the entire reservation was renamed Fort Funston. Funston was commander of the army troops who policed San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake (Shoup and Baker 1981). From1920 to1936, Fort Funston was inactive until ultimately Battery Bruff, Howe, and Davis were used. Then, right after WWII, the Army abandoned the batteries– ten years after installation -- as they became technologically out-of-date (Shoup and Baker 1981).

Artillerymen left Fort Funston in September of 1945 and the area was declared "surplus." Parts of the land were given to the city and county of San Francisco, while the area bounded by Park Road, Skyline Boulevard, and The Great Highway became part of Lake Merced. Although residential development after World War II grew, it didn’t affect the area immediately north and east of Lake Merced right away; as stated earlier, this area was then predominantly farmland leased from the San Francisco Water Department. As Westfall (1999) notes, the 1920 Census of Agriculture found seventy-four farms with 1,295 acres of farmland in the city as a whole, many of them in the Lake Merced vicinity (5).

Recreational growth around Lake Merced commenced when the Olympic Gold Club purchased two-hundred seventy-eight acres of land south of the Lake in 1920 and when the San Francisco Gold Club moved to its present location (Westfall 1999: 5). The next golf course to open was Harding Park Municipal Golf Course, in 1924. Also at this time was rapid population growth in San Francisco, affecting all parts of the city including Lake Merced.

Several prominent structural features, including San Francisco State University and Stonestown, grew during the 1930’s to the 1950’s. In 1939, San Francisco State College acquired the Lake Merced campus, with construction commencing in March 1940. Stonestown, the shopping mall adjacent to Lake Merced, was developed from sixty-seven acres of land, owned at that time by the Stoneson brothers. Stonetown’s construction commenced on November 4, 1948. Also in 1948, the jetty found on the north shore of Lake Merced was built. This, notes Westfall (1999), was "the beginning of an embankment that would define the new shoreline of the lake and provide for the rerouting of Lake Merced Boulevard" (12).

According to Westfall (1999), the two hundred acres of surplus land owned by Metropolitan Life became Parkmerced. The Parkmerced complex opened on November 6, 1952, with six hundred and eighty-three residential units. Interestingly, construction on Parkmerced continued during the World War II because of San Francisco’s urgent need for wartime housing (Westfall 1999:10). Finally, the Standard Building Company would develop Lakeshore Park just north of Lake Merced.

Today, Lake Merced is surrounded by recreational land and municipal facilities: Fort Funston on the west; golf courses, a Rod and Gun Club, a San Francisco Police Firing Range on the western margin; and the National Guard Armory and the Fleishhacker Pool and San Francisco Zoo on the north.

 Recreation at Lake Merced: A Mix of Uses

The Public Utilities Commission Resolution of 1950 ceded jurisdiction of the surface of the lake and perimeter lands to the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department to develop beneficial recreational uses at the lake while still maintaining its status as an emergency water supply. As stated in the section discussing the Water of Lake Merced, the PUC set forth three conditions for the use of Lake Merced: 1) to supply potable water to consumers in San Francisco; 2) to keep levels of the lake from dropping; and 3) to prohibit swimming and gasoline driven vehicles, to remove all sewage and ensure that nothing is done to make the waters unfit for human consumption.

Below is a list of some of the many uses of Lake Merced, recreational and otherwise.

The Future of Lake Merced: The Lake Merced Task Force

What does the future of Lake Merced look like? Presently, the situation looks more promising, thanks to the recently formed Lake Merced Task Force, comprised of more than twenty-five organizations whose mission is to implement both short and long term sustainable programs for Lake Merced. This group has established the necessary dialogue in order to look out for the future of this wonderful natural resource found in urban San Francisco in order to "develop a framework within which the Lake’s many stakeholders can communicate and cooperate in a united effort to develop Lake Merced as a natural, aesthetic, recreational, and educational resource"

There are six main committees comprising the Lake Merced Task Force. They include:

Many different agencies and institutions are involved in the Lake Merced Task Force, including educational institutions, recreational interest groups, neighborhood or homeowner groups, environmental groups, community groups, neighbors of Lake Merced, and city-wide organizations with related interests.  Indeed, four main roles must be included in any planning or decision-making surrounding Lake Merced, if not, the plans will not work. The quadrants within the circles represent these ideas: Relationships, Traditions, Actions, and Visions. For example, one cannot take action on a vision without first understanding the present relationships and traditions found in the area. Conversely, these relationships progress and shift through time with the aid of activists and visionaries.

The intertwining and complicated issues that surround Lake Merced need articulation, if not solution. A few recent examples reflect these complexities, including the evacuation of Urban Park Concessionaires and the issue surrounding the Pacific Rod and Gun Club.

The evacuation of Urban Park Concessionaires, the number one recreation company in California, challenged the atmosphere of those recreating at the Lake. Urban Park Concessionaires’ departure occurred in April of 1999 and meant less trout were stocked and the disappearance of the bait and tackle building. Through a series of articles reported by Tom Steinstra in the San Francisco Examiner, the story told of the conflict between the declining profits of Urban Parks and the so-called unsupportive workings of San Francisco Recreation and Park Department (SFRPD), the city agency that manages the land. Apparently, SFRPD neglected to keep tule growth away from the shoreline and continued with loud construction in several areas of Lake Merced. Therefore, Urban Park's argued, less young kids fished after school. Here we see a difference in perception over uses of the Lake. As quoted on November 2, this was "another step backward for what was the nation's best example of a city lake for fishing."

Another example surrounds the Pacific Rod and Gun Club’s lease. The Rod and Gun Club has been at Lake Merced since 1937, when it constructed a clubhouse for its members. Today, they occupy some fourteen acres of land and twelve acres of water set aside for safety purposes and several groups believe the Club should relocate to another place. Jones (1999) examines the present arguments for and against the Gun Club's occupation of the land. The Gun Club, it is argued, feels a sense of tradition and allegiance to the land -- Jones even points out how their presence has possibly spared the shoreline from being trampled by dogs and erosion. Arguments against the Gun Club come from the 2,000 residents of the Oakwood Apartments, built in 1972, who blame the Club for excess noise pollution and environmentalists who note the quality as negative impacts of "lead shot", or use of lead bullets, on the local water and soil. Even though the Club has changed its shooting times from seven days to three days a week, as well as were forced to stop using lead bullets in 1993, the Club still faces no lease and a rent which has increased by tenfold in the past year (Jones 1999)

These are only two of the issues that must be considered.  Other issues that surround Lake Merced are equally complex and include, but are not restricted to:

School Groups at Lake Merced

There are several school and community groups participating in habitat restoration and environmental education at Lake Merced. Kristin Bowman, of San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, offered these insights about the school groups active at the Lake, including:

Allocation of Funding

The California Coastal Conservancy has awarded $550,000 to the Recreation and Park Department for the first stage of a restoration program for Lake Merced. In a conversation with Michael Leo of Friends of Recreation and Park, I learned the intended allocation of those funds, to be utilized during the proscribed restoration project period ending January, 2002.

The breakdown is as follows:

San Francisco Recreation and Parks has matched this grant with the following funds:


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