San Francisco's Lake Merced: Rancho Days



by Woody LaBounty
(Published in Outside Lands magazine with support from the Schwemm Family Foundation.)

Since the 1850s, Lake Merced and the land around it have been the site of roadhouses, a famous duel, truck farms, and large scale "city within a city" housing developments. Located in the southwestern corner of the City and County of San Francisco, the lake has been used as a source for the city's water supply and for recreational activities from skeet shooting to golf to dragon boat racing. Despite encroaching urbanization, watershed changes, fragmentation, and aquifer reduction during the twentieth century, the lake remains a unique habitat supporting riparian, dune scrub, and woodland forest natural communities. Read part one.

Site of Lowell High School (between Sloat and Eucalyptus). - Carleton Watkins (Courtesy of a Private Collector)

Rancho Days

The Franciscans at Mission Dolores used the area for cattle grazing, and it isn’t until the time of Mexican governance of California, and the seculariza-tion of the Mission lands in the 1830s, that the first recorded title to Lake Merced is found.

In September 1835, the Mexican Governor, Jose Jesus Castro, granted to Jose Antonio Galindo 2,200 acres of land, including the lake. Galindo used the area for cattle grazing until he sold it to Francisco de Haro for 100 cattle and goods worth $25 in value. De Haro served as the first alcalde (or mayor) of the small bayside pueblo and port of Yerba Buena. He built a house at the southern end of Lake Merced, but frequently resided on other property he owned closer to Yerba Buena. After the death of his twin sons during the Bear Flag Revolt, de Haro retired to Lake Merced, where he died in 1849.

The end of the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848 brought a new government and an influx of settlers from the United States, and then, in 1848, gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Yerba Buena became the “instant city” of San Francisco, the world rushed in, and some of the newcomers looked settled and found their own kind of gold at Lake Merced.

Arrival of the Americans

In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the property rights of Mexican citizens living in the newly conquered territory were guaranteed, at least on paper. As historian J. S. Hittell noted in 1878, the “plain principles of justice and reason were utterly disregarded by congress and the politicians. No provision was made for confirming claims held under mere color of right; those which had been held in notorious possession for generations, as well as those of the most suspicious character, were alike subjected to a hostile, costly and tedious investigation, a large part of the cost being thrown upon the owners.” As a result, many Californios were “virtually deprived of the bulk of their wealth, and then compelled to raise money to defend themselves against complete spoliation by the government.”1

Francisco de Haro, the owner of the Rancho Laguna de la Merced, died in 1849, just as the discovery of gold in the Sierra had begun a mad influx of tens of thousands of fortune hunters to San Francisco Bay.

As Hittell described, de Haro’s heirs faced the trial of proving their rightful ownership to thousands of acres of land from Lake Merced to Potrero Hill, validation they wouldn’t get from the courts for another fifteen years. To raise money for the legal fight, de Haro’s son-in-law, Charles Brown, sold land from the holdings. Several large parcels on the northern part of the Rancho Laguna de la Merced went to members of the Green family.

The Greens

Alfred Green had come to California as a member of Colonel Stevenson’s New York Volunteers during the war. He served as a city alderman, married a local Californian woman, Dolores Leyoreita, and opened a racetrack and roadhouse in the Mission District in 1851. The next year, 1852, Alfred and several of his seven brothers settled north of Lake Merced just west of today’s 19th Avenue. Their basis for title was through settler’s preemption, a practice of claiming land whose title was contested or uncertain. In essence, the Greens signed a deal with de Haro’s son-in-law for the land, with the right of first refusal to purchase if the government decided later de Haro wasn’t the legal owner.

An often ill-tempered, litigious, and cantankerous bunch (in an era full of similar men), the Greens defended their land in the face of numerous challenges and claims that they were squatting on land to which other men asserted ownership.

[1709. Lake House. Ocean House Road.] - Carleton Watkins (Courtesy of a Private Collector)

In 1856, when Alfred Green purported to have old pueblo papers that would invalidate the land claims of many powerful men across the city, he was abducted from his bed and imprisoned by the Vigilance Committee, the citizen mob who took it upon itself to clean up the city with a series of extrajudicial imprisonments and public lynchings. Green promised to turn over the papers, which he said he had hidden in a mine. On that promise, he was released. When he returned to his farm he found that the whole house had been ransacked and his mother and wife were in tears fearing he had been hanged.

When Green did produce some land papers for a ransom of coin, a Deputy Sheriff and constable tried to wrest the money out of his hand the minute he exited the bank house. A semi-comic walk back to the sheriff’s office ensued, with all parties holding on to the bag at the same time. Alfred went into voluntary exile to Mexico for a time, but did return, and died in San Francisco in March 1899. Green heirs owned land in the Lake Merced area into the 1930s, when the last parcel was purchased to create the public park of Stern Grove.

Roadhouses

Green family members not only farmed along the old Ocean Road, which lay along the northern edge of the lake, but ran roadhouses to serve pleasure seekers out on jaunts to the lake and beach. They were not alone.

The earliest of the lake roadhouses was the Lake House, a one-story shanty with a kitchen and bar. Charles Brown had moved it in 1853 from another part of the de Haro property to the eastern pinch where the two large arms of the lake came together.

In early 1854, P. L. White leased the Lake House, expanding and renovating the building, determined (as one newspaper claimed) “to afford our citizens a resort second to none of the kind in the Atlantic States.”2

The attractions of the Lake House meant to entice people to travel many miles out of the city were described by the Daily Alta California in 1855: “Here you will find a lake, and in the lake a boat, and in them both at once you may sail to your heart’s content. You may also roll at ten-pins and pitch quoits till you are tired, or sway in the swing till you get rested.” The purveyor of the house “will furnish you the finest dinner that is possible to provide in California.”3

In 1854, the same year the Lake House opened to such high praise, another roadhouse opened on the north side of the lake beside one of the Green brothers’ ranches. Proprietor Joseph W. Leavitt called his place “Ocean House,” and built, for the era and location, a very grand structure. The Ocean House had dining rooms, parlors, and a billiard salon. The second story had open balconies to appreciate the lake and ocean. Surmounting both was an enclosed view tower. Around the grounds were various outbuildings, cottages, stabling for a hundred horses, and even a bowling alley. For thirty years, until it burned down in the early 1880s, the Ocean House was a local landmark. Its location just south of the Ocean Road is about where Lowell High School today.

While the Lake House and Ocean House advertised themselves as fine countryside resorts, suitable for family outings, wealthy traveling parties, and “invalids desiring to derive the benefit of the sea air,”3 their clientele was mostly made up of single men looking for a good time. Men that newspaper articles called “fancy men,” “sports,” and “fast drivers” came out to race, drink, and even duel. (The parties in the famous 1859 duel between United States Senator David Broderick and former California Supreme Court Chief Justice David Terry gathered together at the Lake House to pick the nearby duel location.)

Often when a swindle or robbery happened downtown, the authorities caught up with the miscreants drinking at the Ocean House. Women did occasionally visit the Lake Merced roadhouses, but many were characterized as of a disreputable reputation. In 1857, the Daily Globe called the Ocean House “an assignation house on a large scale” with the servants there trained to “favor infamous enterprises.”5

Smaller roadhouses along the Ocean Road didn’t bother to aspire to the level of “resort.” The Rockaway House, the Beach House, and a scattering of other nameless establishments were little more than one-room bars. The entire bill of fare usually consisted of no more than whiskey or rye in a glass.

In 1864, land auctioneer and speculator John Middleton tried to sell 160-by-200 foot lots on the eastern side of the lake for a new suburb he called “Lakeville.” The venture was a colossal failure, and Lakeville never became a reality beyond its persistent existence on maps for the next twenty years.

Detail of 1869 George Goddard map with connection Lake Merced sometimes had with ocean. Lake House, Ocean House, and Ocean Race Course on the north, and projected Lakeville suburb on east side. - Courtesy of David Rumsey Collection, davidrumsey.com

For all the bucolic amenities of the area, the lake roadhouses both grand and humble were little more successful than Lakeville had been. Fresh lessees and hosts arrived almost every spring touting new renovations, improvements, and sumptuous menus to perk up business. But the remoteness, the weather, and competition from newer and more convenient public gardens and pleasure resorts conspired against steady profits.

A new Lake House was built on the Ocean Road and the old building was moved downtown to an empty lot on Mission Street near 2nd Street, and later moved again to 7th and Bryant Streets, an object of story-telling for old-timers as early as the late 1880s.6

Horse Races

The Ocean House had a racetrack built next to it in 1865, which opened with great promise when 8,000 people traveled out to see a race between a couple of Kentucky thoroughbreds. Mark Twain wrote about his attempt to see the contest: “...it became apparent to me that the forthcoming race between Norfolk and Lodi was awakening extraordinary attention all over the Pacific coast, and even far away in the Atlantic States. I saw that if I failed to see this race I might live a century, perhaps, without ever having an opportunity to see its equal.” Twain inquired about hiring a horse to go to the track, but could only find “part of a horse—they said part of a horse be- cause a good deal of him was gone” for a $240 rental. He “resisted the yearning to hire this unique establishment.”7

Attendance mostly dried up at the track in the years after that. The Ocean Course had a last hurrah in November 1873 with the “Great Race” between the California horse, Thaddeus Stevens, and two Eastern thoroughbreds. The purse was $20,000, and some $150,000 in bets had been laid on the race around town. Tens of thousands of people made the journey out. “Old Thad” won, and the day was a boon to all the businesses between the lake and town.

Fifty years after the race, a writer who was a young man in attendance remembered: “Hats were flung high in the air, men yelled with delight and thumped absolute strangers on the back in their jubilance. Everybody was inviting everybody else to Stagg’s or Barney Farley’s or any other place where they could quickly and properly celebrate. Ladies were squealing with delight. Everybody was in a delirium of happiness as the crowds melted off the surrounding hills and poured through the gates of the race-course—40,000 at the end of a perfect day.”8

After another small race the following spring, the track closed. Horse racing would not return to the area until the Ingleside Racetrack was built in 1895 on the location of today’s Ingleside Terraces neighborhood.

By 1875, after land schemes, roadhouses, and racetracks, the best business around Lake Merced had proven to be growing potatoes. That is, until an enterprising company showed up to harvest the lake itself.

Next: Spring Valley Water Company

Notes:

1. John S. Hittell, “A History of the City of San Francisco and Incidentally of the State of California,” (Berkeley: Berkeley Hills Books, 2000), pg. 180. (Reprint of original work, published by the Bancroft Co., San Francisco, 1878).
2. “The New Lake House,” Daily Placer Times and Transcript, April 27, 1854, pg. 2.
3. “Suburban,” Daily Alta California, June 8, 1855, pg. 2.
4. “The Ocean House,” Placer Times and Transcript, June 16, 1855, pg. 2.
5. “A Heartless Piece of Villainy,” Daily Globe, March 7, 1857, pg. 2.
6. “Lake Merced, Its Many Historical Associations,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 15, 1889, pg. 8.
7. “How I Went to the Great Race Between Norfolk and Lodi,” Californian, May 27, 1865.
8. Luke Fay, “Lake Merced’s Classic Race, San Francisco Water, October 1928, pg. 16.



Schwemm Family Foundation This project was made possible with support from the Schwemm Family Foundation.

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