Golden Gate Park – History Of The City's Grandest Oasis

Golden Gate Park's history goes back to the middle of the 1800s, when the young city of San Francisco was determined to shape itself after the well-established cities of the East Coast and Europe. Civic pride, fueled by the desire to have a public park similar to New York City's Central Park, was the motivating force behind the development of Golden Gate Park.

It would several decades to shape the 1,000 acres of sand dunes into an oasis of greenery, with world-class museums and an amazing array of recreational facilities stretching from to the Pacific Ocean. Here is the amazing history of San Francisco's most loved park.


Golden Gate Park – A Difficult Beginning

Golden Gate Park View

The project's beginnings were mired in difficulties. Squatters slowed progress for years after the city originally petitioned the Board Of Land Commissioners for the property in 1852. Renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who had designed New York City's Central Park, paid a visit to the proposed park site. He called it a great sand bank and advised that another location be chosen.

But William Hammond Hall (1846-1934) took up the challenge, and devised a park plan that respected the land's natural habitat and contours. His legacy is appreciated to this day; Hall deliberately designed the roads and pathways with curves to discourage horse-and-buggy traffic, and to shelter visitors from the constant wind. Walkways were kept away from the roads, and dells (low spots) were planted to attract birds and small wildlife.

By 1866, plans were under way to transform the barren, windswept sand dunes into an oasis that would function as the lungs of the city. Work began in earnest in 1871. It started with the reclamation and development of the Panhandle, the block-wide strip of land between Fell and Oak Streets that leads into the park from Baker to Stanyan Streets. San Franciscans donated much of the funds for buildings, statues and gardens.

John McLaren – Golden Gate Park Visionary

Golden Gate Park in 1890

A determined young Scot named John McLaren led the way as a gardening wizard whose expertise and vision shaped the park. When he took on the formidable task in 1890 as Superintendent Of Gardening, his formula was to plant grass to tamp down the sand and then plant trees. Many of his initial efforts ended up buried underneath mounds of sand, but his crews persistently coaxed and coddled the struggling plants.

Through perseverance that continued for 53 years, until his death at 96, McLaren lovingly tended his park; trees grew and thrived and the park evolved into a forest enhanced with lakes and meadows.

Affectionately known as Uncle John, McLaren corresponded with horticulturists from around the globe. It paid off handsomely with a rich bounty of plants and trees. In 1931 alone (at the age of 84), he oversaw the planting of about a million trees and introduced 700 new species of trees and shrubs to California. His germinated seeds grew into gigantic trees up to 80 feet tall.


Find Hotel Deals for Your Dates in San Francisco

Check with to find today's sale prices on hotel rooms in every neighborhood of SF. Save 20% to 30%… or even more!

Booking.Com SF Hotel Deals
Find hotels at Union Square, near Fisherman's Wharf, in North Beach, the business district, even in the Wine Country.
Search for your hotel

One Determined Scot

McLaren was known for his determination. The feisty Scotsman regularly battled with City Hall to prevent non-park-related enterprises from entering his park. One time, he stopped the construction of a street car line through the park by arguing that some of his trees would have to uprooted. The engineers explained that they had planned the route through unplanted areas, but McLaren insisted they were wrong. When the supervisors arrived the following morning, they were greeted by a forest of shrubs, small trees and rhododendrons. The streetcar proposal was vetoed. What they didn't know was that 300 of his employees had been busy planting all those shrubs the night before.

McLaren continued to shape the park until the end of his life, firmly rooted in his conviction that it was a place to be used and enjoyed, rather than a look-but-don't-touch showplace. He forbade Keep Off The Grass signs and tucked statues into corners where they would soon be hidden by growing shrubs. Following the city's 1906 earthquake and fire McLaren had to rebuild many of the landscaped areas when thousands of displaced residents set up camp in the park.

At the age of 90, still superintendent of the park, he was asked what he wanted for a birthday gift. His response was 10,000 yards of good manure. When he died, John McLaren took one last ride through Golden Gate Park. On January 14, 1943, 400 gardeners paid their respects. Oddly enough, although he loathed statues, you can find his statue at the entrance of the Rhododendron Dell.

Golden Gate – A Park of Firsts

Stow Lake

The park has been administered by the San Francisco Recreation and Parks since 1871. Since the beginning the park has seen many firsts for the city, for the state, and the entire country.

The California Academy of Sciences was founded in 1853, making it the oldest scientific institution in the western USA. Built for the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894, the Japanese Tea Garden is the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States. In 1879, the Conservatory of Flowers opened and today its Victorian green house is the oldest building in the park. In 1914, the Herschell-Spillman company installed an ornate carousel in the Children's Playground, the first public playground in America.


Golden Gate Park Facts

  • Golden Gate Park is twenty percent bigger than NYC's Central Park.
  • There are ten lakes dotted throughout the park; 33 acres in total. Stow Lake and Spreckels Lake are the most popular. Others include Mallard Lake, Metson Lake, the three lakes in the Chain of Lakes, Lloyd Lake, Elk Glen Lake, and Alvord Lake plus two artificial waterfalls — Huntington Falls and Rainbow Falls.
  • Remember John McLaren,the park's first horticulturalist? He purchased the first bison in 1891 and since then more than 500 bison have been born in park's Bison Paddock.
  • Another first — The Golden Gate Lawn Bowling Club is the oldest in the USA, formed in 1901 by the St Andrew Society.
  • The park was once home to a plethora of wildlife, including California's last grizzly bear named Monarch. You can see his likeness on the flag of California.

What's Quakin'?

Don't Miss a Single San Francisco Travel Tip — Sign Up For Our Newsletter Today