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Mt. Davidson Dream

by Jacquie Proctor, Copyright 2002

Madie Brown

"As chairman of arrangements, I have dared to dream that our President would press the button in Washington, D.C., which in turn would light for the first time this giant cross in San Francisco. It seems most appropriate that the President, who has brought light to many a darkened American home and who through his New Deal has instilled the principles of the Golden Rule into American business, should take part in this cross-lighting ceremony."

Mrs. Edmund N. "Madie" Brown wrote this letter to a personal friend of President Franklin Roosevelt just after the International Longshoremen's Union, led by labor leader Harry R. Bridges, announced plans to shut down the shipping industry along the entire Pacific Seaboard. The strike was set for March 23rd, 1934 - the day before the cross-lighting ceremony. History books now describe this union walkout as one of the most divisive and significant events of the Great Depression. Did the strike announcement cause Madie to make this request of the President? Is it just a coincidence that he convinced the Longshoremen to postpone their walkout and try arbitration just two days before the cross dedication? What we do know is that President Roosevelt lit the world's largest cross because this forgotten woman asked him to - as 50,000 San Franciscans peacefully watched on the slopes of Mt. Davidson.

Madie did much more, however, than get this monument dedicated by the President. An ardent nature lover, she was the one who organized a citywide preservation effort to make Mt. Davidson a public park. Because of Madie, we are able to experience today what the founder of the sunrise services, James Decatur, enthusiastically described 80 years ago. "As the group found themselves deeper in the wood...peace and quiet were so profound that it seemed almost unbelievable that the noise and roar of a great city was only a few minutes behind them. The solitude of the forest ...conveyed a sense of vastness quite as real as one would experience among the age-old monarchs of the High Sierras...The undergrowth and flowers looked as if they might have been there for centuries...The path wound around the slopes so perfectly that the ascent was hardly noticeable... (At the summit was) a clear vision of the great panorama that spread before the eye... on the far eastern horizon stood the bold figure of Mt. Diablo... to the west ...could be seen the boundless Pacific, with the headlands of Point Reyes and Point San Pedro forming widespread arms of welcome to those who enter the Golden Gate. (Below were) tall monuments of steel and concrete wherein were housed thousands of busy minds...Myriads of moving objects were, without doubt, hurrying hither and thither, all within vision of Mt. Davidson, yet the noise and tumult of it all was absent."

Originally called Blue Mountain, the Sierra Club initiated renaming this popular hiking area for their charter member and original surveyor of the site, George Davidson. A.S. Baldwin purchased the property from Mayor Sutro's estate in 1909 and built trails to the summit for the "pleasure of the public." Inspired by the hike and view, James Decatur got permission from Baldwin to build a temporary cross for an Easter sunrise ceremony in 1923. More than 5,000 attended and its popularity resulted in plans to make it an annual event. But as Baldwin began building homes further up the slopes of Mt. Davidson three years later, Madie Brown, became "alarmed by the destruction," and made a plea for preservation to the Commodore Sloat Elementary School Parent-Teachers Association. "The subdividers' axe and steam shovel are destroying in ruthless fashion the beauties of nature on our beloved Mt. Davidson," she cried. We must "preserve for San Francisco this wooded hill to provide our school children with the environment for nature study; the Boy Scouts with an outdoor playground for hikes and overnight camping; the Easter pilgrim for a place of worship on its summit at dawn; and the visitor with unsurpassed views from the highest point in the city!" Madie was appointed chair of the Mt. Davidson Conservation Committee. Gathering historical data, maps, and an appraisal for the property, this activist housewife may have been the first to say no to San Francisco's powerful building industry.

View of Mt. Davidson from Ulloa. Homes along Portola at Del Sur in the middle distance., circa 1937 - Agnes Manning Collection

Mrs. Brown proceeded to intuitively write the rulebook many now use for grassroots organizing. The P.T.A. mothers and their children sent wild flowers from the mountain to individuals as pleas for support. Exhibits were set up at flower shows and schools. The 15,000 members of the City and County Federations of Womens Clubs voted to support the cause. Dressed in earnest with her stylish hat and suit, Madie set up interviews with the prominent and powerful to persuade them to join her cause. Publicity was secured in the press and shown on newsreels at the theaters. Soon Mayor "Sunny Jim" Rolph and Margaret Mary Morgan, the first woman elected to the Board of Supervisors, prominent citizens, improvement clubs, and civic organizations were joining the citywide demand for the protection of Mt. Davidson. After a three-year campaign, the S.F. Chronicle reported that, "due to the effort of a nature loving woman... the tree clad slope and crest of Mount Davidson, rich in sentiment and historic association for San Francisco was now permanently preserved for the pleasure of the people." The 25 acres purchased by the City plus the 6-acre summit donated by the developer's widow, Mrs. A.S. Baldwin, was dedicated on December 20, 1929, the 84th birthday of the City's Superintendent of Parks, John McLaren.

As part of her efforts to preserve Mt. Davidson, Madie uncovered a gold mine of San Francisco history. She found the first title to the land granted by Mexican Governor Pio Pico to the last Mexican mayor "alcalde" of Yerba Buena, Don Jose de Jesus Noe in 1846 and had a copy put in the monument's time capsule. Those who made their fortune in the Gold Rush would seek ownership of Noe's 4000 acre Rancho San Miguel after California joined the Union. The first was John Horner. Founder of Union City and "California's First Farmer, " he bought the land for $200,000 in 1852. Horner laid out the first streets and lots of Noe and Eureka Valleys, but lost all of his money five years later. Shipping millionaire and Mayor of San Francisco, C.K. Garrison held the mortgage and sold the property to Francois Pioche, another gold rush financier, bon vivante, and founder of the French Hospital. Pioche's partner, L.L. Robinson, was an engineer. Together they built the first railroad in California and another in San Francisco to bring people to the unique curvelinear lots they developed above Market Street. Pioche is also credited with giving San Franciscans an appreciation for fine food after bringing 40 chefs and a cargo of vintage wine from France to give his friends the benefit of the "Grand Tour" and improve local restaurant cuisine.

Three mayors ultimately owned Mt. Davidson with the last being Adolph Sutro who made a fortune in Nevada's Comstock Lode. Ironically the extraordinary tunnel he devised to get the silver was in another mountain surveyed and named by George Davidson after himself. With his new found riches he bought a fourth of the rancho in the late 1880's. It was Madie that uncovered the fact that poet, Joaquin Miller, gave the idea to Sutro to plant the trees still there today. He willed his forested mountains to San Francisco for educational purposes, but Sutro's heirs got the California Supreme Court to invalidate the legacy and sold the land to their appraiser, A.S. Baldwin. Like Sutro, Baldwin found riches in a tunnel, which opened in West Portal after World War I. In the tradition of the Spanish explorers that preceded him, he marked the mountaintop with a cross to bring buyers out to see the new homes he was building. Women who attended the sunrise services used their recent 19th Amendment political strength to preserve the peak for open space. Now a 40-acre city park, its 103-foot high monument was built by the creators of the City's first skyscrapers: George Kelham and Henry Brunnier.

While Mayors can no longer own the City's highest peak, they have lead the annual pilgrimage of "Jew and Gentile... Catholic and Protestant" to see the sun rise on Easter Sunday every year since 1923. One of many similar civic events being initiated throughout the U.S. at the time, the faithful and faithless were seeking inspiration in natural settings to counter the growing commercialism and materialism of the Roaring '20s. Measuring the pulse of the city during times of crisis, it has become a place where San Franciscans gather for spiritual renewal. During the Great Depression, amidst the hunger and fear, strikes and union busting: union members and business leaders, homemakers and politicians, children and the unemployed, overcame their differences to build this monument. Eager to revive the economy, San Franciscans were already working on monumental bridge projects to span the Bay and Golden Gate. It seemed appropriate at the time to crown their tallest mountain with a colossal cross as a symbol of faith and confidence in the American dream. Up to 50,000 San Franciscans attended this annual event during the Depression, World War II, Korean War, and after the Jim Jones massacre and assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Reflective of the litigious and me-first mentality of a materialistic decade, a divisive legal action was initiated to destroy the Depression-era monument in 1990.

Crowd gathered near giant cross for Easter Sunrise service., circa 1935 -

Would FDR turn over in his grave knowing that when he lit the cross he was violating the separation of church and state? Controversy is integral to public art and to San Francisco. Three years after the cross was built, master artist, Beniamino Bufano, offered to place a taller St. Francis sculpture atop Twin Peaks. The Art Commission, in a narrow vote, "disapproved without prejudice" his WPA proposal to erect a 180-foot high stainless steel statue that would have dwarfed the cross. Now a giant red and white, but politically correct, pitchfork adorns the mountain named after Adolph Sutro. Taller than the city's skyscrapers and the Golden Gate Bridge, it tells the world that non-sectarian "Big Business" is the guiding light of San Francisco. Despite being overshadowed by this television tower nine times its size and shrouded in trees planted by kindergartners a hundred years ago; a judge ruled that the location of the cross on public property and the City's highest point showed a preference for Christianity. Ironically Madie's fight to stop private development of the peak and preserve it, as public open space would be used as a reason to argue for removal of a monument dedicated to bringing the golden rule to business.

Sixty-five years after its donation to the City, the summit of Mt. Davidson was put on the auction block and the fate of the cross left to the highest bidder. To balance the technological skyline of the City, a telecommunication company offered to save the cross by rebuilding it as an antenna. But San Franciscans ratified the sale to the Council of Armenian Organizations of Northern California in order to preserve the historic monument. On January 20, 1998, the City officially divested itself from the property. Surviving a second trip to the CA Supreme Court and back, the summit remains open to the public and the cross continues to be lit on Easter eve, as it was by President Roosevelt in 1934. The plaque honoring Madie has since been stolen from the top of the trail to Inspiration Point. In its place is a court-ordered sign about the removal of the religious monument from public ownership.

Men surveyed, named, bought, sold, developed, litigated and used Mt. Davidson for political gain, but a woman preserved it for the millennium. Madie did not use her victory as a stepping-stone for political office, leaving instead an unselfish legacy of neighborhood activism, women's political action, and environmental protection. She never owned the mountain, nor is it named for her, but Madie Brown is the one that dared to dream that this lovely spot on the city's highest hill could be saved for the public to enjoy today in the midst of what is now the 4th densest city in America. Marking the outermost boundary of western civilization, for some the monument at its top is a politically incorrect relic of manifest destiny. But others embrace it for surviving with them through the worst times they ever faced. Visible from my living room window, whether it is reflecting a beautiful sunrise or dancing with the fog, the view of Mt. Davidson nurtures my senses and my soul. For me the monument at its summit is a peaceful and contemplative icon to focus upon before facing the "myriads of moving objects" outside my urban door. I feel lucky that in my own front yard is one of the many public artworks created to nurture San Franciscans through the Great Depression. Because of Madie, it also remains to remind us that the future of the American dream is not just about faith in God or capitalism, but our practice of universal ethics such as the Golden Rule.

Jacquie Proctor has lived in Miraloma Park for over 20 years and is one of the founders of the Friends of Mt. Davidson Conservancy. She would be interested in learning more about Madie from any of her descendants.

Read Jacquie Proctor's history of Mt. Davidson on the San Francisco Historical Society Web site!

Images: 1) Rededication ceremony honoring Mrs. Madie D. Brown on Mount Davidson. Newscopy: "REDEDICATION--Under the sponsorship of the Landmarks Council, a new bronze plaque, honoring Mrs. Madie D. Brown, was installed in a rock on Mt. Davidson: Mrs. Brown, Max Funke, superintendent of parks, and Mrs. Deane Stewart, president, West Portal PTA."; 2) Easter Sunrise service at Mt. Davidson, April 19, 1930 (Both images courtesy of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library).

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More by Jacquie Proctor
  • Sherwood Forest

    A tiny neighborhood on the side of Mount Davidson. ( Jan 4, 2008)
  • Madie Brown

    An ardent nature lover, Madie Brown organized a citywide preservation effort to make Mt. Davidson a public park. ( Jan 1, 2006)
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