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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 478: Alvord Lake & Bridge

Nicole & Arnold deep-dive into one of Golden Gate Park's earliest man-made water features, Alvord Lake, and the nearby and quite unique Alvord Bridge.
by Nicole Meldahl - Oct 22, 2022

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 478: Alvord Lake & Bridge Outside Lands Podcast Episode 478: Alvord Lake & Bridge

(above) Golden Gate Park, circa 1890

Alvord Lake and Bridge, at Haight Street entrance to Golden Gate Park


Podcast Transcription

WNP478 Alvord Lake and Bridge
Nicole: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco, podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Nicole Meldahl.
Arnold: And I'm Arnold Woods.
Nicole: Hey Arnold. How's it going?
Arnold: It's going well, Nicole. We had our big final weekend of activity at The Museum at The Cliff last weekend, which unfortunately you were forced to miss. But, yeah, we had great crowds and a wonderful time. It's sad to see it all go, but It's time.
Nicole: Oh my gosh, it's so time. Yes. For those who are wondering why I have a, gravelly sexy voice today, it's because I've been very under the weather for the last couple weeks. I actually missed the entire week of festivities to shutter the museum, but it's okay. There will be more things to come. [00:01:00] More immediately we've got a podcast to do, Arnold.
Arnold: Indeed we do.
Nicole: So way back in 2018, which does feel like 4,000 years ago now. In podcast episode number 264, Woody and David gave a general overview of the lakes of Golden Gate Park. And I think most of the David and Woody episodes are a general overview of insert subjects here. Given all the lakes in the park, they did not have time to deep dive into any of the lakes. See what we did there? Basically, it was like the introductory overview in a textbook, right? So, Pay attention now class. We are about to get into chapter one of your textbook. As we take a more extensive look at one of the earliest manmade lakes in the park.
Arnold: And the lake we're talking about, of course is Alvord Lake.[00:02:00] It's a small lake at the east end of Golden Gate Park near the Haight and Stanyan streets entrance to the park. And fun fact. It wasn't even described as a lake at first. Before we get to that though, let's backtrack a little. As we are all aware, the park got its start in 1870. Work on building the park focused on the areas closest to where most San Franciscans lived. And that meant, since people lived in the downtown area, that the Panhandle and the east end of the park got a lot of early attention when they were building it.
Nicole: Yeah, By the end of the 1870s, over 150,000 trees had been planted, and we had the Conservatory of Flowers, which was built in 1879. Golden Gate Park was becoming a popular spot for visitors, so naturally, a nice entryway to the park was desired. As many people arrived to the park from Haight Street, that [00:03:00] was one spot that was deemed a good place to greet park visitors. So enter William Alvord.
Arnold: Now Alvord was originally born in Albany in New York in 1833, but at the age of 20 he moved to California. Eventually coming to San Francisco where he started a hardware importing. However, that work wore him down and he eventually sold his share of the business to his partner and then left for Europe to recover.
Nicole: You know, my dad was a tool salesman too. It's a hard job. He left that job as well, although not as successful as William Alvord because Alvord made a lot of connections at work. So when he returned to San Francisco in 1871 to become vice president of the Pacific Insurance Company, major upgrade, his associates thought he would make a good candidate for mayor and made him the Taxpayers nominee. So the Taxpayers party was essentially the [00:04:00] Republican party here in San Francisco then, which actually tracks, and as the Chronicle noted at the time of his nomination, Albert was, and I quote, "a merchant of standing in the community possessed of large wealth, not a partisan and possessed of much experience in business."
Arnold: I like how they thought somebody who was possessed of large wealth made him a good candidate for mayor.
Nicole: I mean, he can pay those taxes, Right.
Arnold: Indeed. When the voting in September, 1871 was done, Alvord had beaten the Democrat candidate Tyler Curtis by nearly 2000 votes, which was a significant margin then. After serving just one two-year term, Alvord declined to accept a nomination for a second term. He decided that his business interests should be his priority. And his wealthy friends wanted him to continue to have some political influence though, so they nominated him for a [00:05:00] position on the Parks Commission.
Nicole: The politicians I respect most are the ones who don't wanna be politicians, So in 1873, Alvord was appointed to park commissioner taking the place of Charles F. McDermott. And thus began a decade of service for Alvord on the Park Commission. We fast forward now almost a decade to 1882. The president of the Board of Commissioners was out of town traveling, so Albert became the president pro tem of the board.
Arnold: And at that time, Park superintendent William Hammond Hall was doing much planting of flowers, shrubs, and trees throughout Golden Gate Park. Alvord was a big proponent of Hall's efforts going so far as to purchase and donate over 600 varieties of roses from England and over 100 varieties of chrysanthemums from Japan. Hall was apparently so appreciative of Alvord's generosity that a [00:06:00] hybrid Verbena plant created in the park was named after Alvord.
Nicole: This is what we need. San Francisco, more rich dudes giving San Francisco things handover foot. Funding work in the park. Funding libraries, funding, oh, I don't know, cultural community history, non-profits. This is the way things actually got done. And I would like a plant named after me. That sounds fine. But besides these plants and flowers, Hall wanted to find out if varieties of Indian water lilies could be grown in the park. For that, he needed a lily pond for which he did not have the budget for. So up stepped Alvord again. He donated $200 for the creation of a pond where these water lilies could be planted. The lily pond was placed, you guessed it, near the park entrance at Haight and Stanyan to help create a nice atmosphere for people entering the park. [00:07:00] Since Alvord donated the money for its creation, it was named Alvord Lake. All good, right?
Arnold: Wrong. All was not good and here's where the story gets intriguing. Alvord did not want the lily pond named after him. He was dead set against that. He wanted to, wanted it to be called the Lakelet. And that may have been what was initially known as. However, Alvord had to travel outta town and while he was gone fellow Commissioner Frank M. Pixley quickly organized this ceremony to rename the pond Alvord Lake. So why would Pixley rename the pond after Alvord and do it while Alvord was out of town and could not prevent it? It will come as no surprise to you that money was behind this.
Nicole: And because Pixley is the evil villain of the early Golden Gate Park history, every time I've researched the park, his name comes up. You guys should know there's a lot of drama in in starting [00:08:00] Golden Gate Park and the Park Commissioners and all kinds of things you would expect. And Pixley is in the middle of all of it. He's just the worst. He's gonna be the worst on this podcast too. So, buckle up cause it's gonna be a Pixley ride. So throughout the 1870s, the Park and Ocean Railroad company sought to build a line that would go to Ocean Beach through a portion of Golden Gate Park. The railroad company was owned by the Big Four's Central Pacific Railroad. The Big Four were of course, in case you don't know and you've never been to the restaurant up in Nob Hill, is Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Collis Huntington. The Central Pacific Railroad had built the western portion of the first Transcontinental Railroad, which is, your cue to know that cha-ching cha-ching, they had tons of money.
Arnold: And with that money they could do virtually anything they wanted to.
Nicole: Too much.
Arnold: And [00:09:00] their Park and Ocean Railroad subsidiary wanted to build a line that would start at Haight and Stanyan, head south to Frederick, where it would turn west. The line would then follow along the Park's southern border on what is now Lincoln Way to 48th Avenue. There. It would turn north and cut through the western end of the Park and end at the northwest corner of the Park for this undertaking. They wanted it to lease a right of way through Golden Gate. Because there would be a large cost to build all this. The Park and Ocean Railroad wanted a 50-year lease, which, you know, was something that, if they were to get it, would be necessary.
Nicole: So, unfortunately for the railroad, the state ordinance that established Golden Gate Park put a three years limit on any lease of park property, and only the Park Commissioners could change that. And Alvord, my man Alvord, he was a stickler for the letter of the law though, and consistently got [00:10:00] the Park Commissioners to deny the railroad's request for a longer lease. But like in almost all aspects of its history, the railroad would not be deterred.
Arnold: Yeah. In 1879, George Clement Perkins, who owned the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, was elected governor of California and took office on January 8th, 1880.
Nicole: Well because he has one of the best qualities that make you qualified to be a public servant, he's rich.
Arnold: Yeah money. But a central part of Perkins campaign was that he would be independent of all the influential railroad companies because his business interests were in shipping, which he declared was a competing enterprise with railroads. And, of course, this all turns out to be a bit of a subterfuge.
Nicole: I mean, I wish that things have changed, right? But we still have, like all politicians mostly are just like rich folks explaining why they're better than [00:11:00] the other rich folks and they're less beholden to their constituents anyways. The more things change, the more things stay the same. In 1882, Perkins appointed the dastardly Frank M. Pixley to the Board of Park Commissioners. Pixley was the editor and publisher of the Argonaut newspaper in San Francisco. And in that role, he was a fierce proponent of Leland Stanford and the Central Park Railroad. Prior to taking over the Argonaut, Pixley had been Attorney General of California while Stanford was governor. So it will come as no surprise that Pixley supported the Park and Ocean Railroad's efforts to get that 50 year lease for an easement through Golden Gate Park. Funny how this all works out Arnold.
Arnold: And yet, then we get to the point of the story here, which is why did Pixley [00:12:00] engineer a ceremony to rename this small lily pond after Alvord when Alvord was an opponent of the Park and Ocean Railroad's efforts? Well, it turns out he knew this would make Alvord angry, and he hoped Alvord would become so enraged that he would, in effect, pick up his hat and go home. And, that is exactly what Alvord did. Alvord asked the board to rescind its action, but Pixley and the other commissioner, John Rosenfeld, who was yet another Perkins appointee, refused his request. On July 21st, 1882. Alvord said sayonara and resigned from the Park Commission.
Nicole: I have a feeling that's not the exact language he used Arnold.
Arnold: Maybe not.
Nicole: But I feel it, I feel like he meant that. So over the course of 1881 and 1882, the entire board of Park Commissioners gets replaced. And [00:13:00] guess who Governor Perkins named to the board after Alvord resigned. That's right. Our, our old friend Leland Stanford. Now the new very friendly to the railroads board, quickly approved a long lease for the Park and Ocean Railroad for its preferred route to the ocean. And we actually go a lot deeper in this. You can hear more about the whole Park and Ocean Railroad enterprise in podcast episode number 90, and you can also find pictures of the Park and Ocean Railroad trains and later street cars, when it was electrified, using that right of way through Golden Gate Park on our OpenSFHistory website. We also have some really cool photos of the train and the little station at Haight and Stanyan which is, and, of course, Alvord Lake and, and everything involved. Super, super cool photos. Must check out.
Arnold: Yes, and that is the story of how a small lily pond led to steam train service that went through a [00:14:00] portion of Golden Gate Park by naming the pond after someone who absolutely did not want it named after him. Essentially, Alvord Lake got its name as a political trick to get Alvord off the Board of Park Commissioners. Some of you may remember the Nick Lowe song, Cruel to Be Kind. Well, this was being kind to be cruel. This is not the end of our Alvord Lake story, however, as it would soon gain a very unique structure nearby.
Nicole: And I hope now every time you walk by that lake, you're like, Ah, I hate Frank Pixley. So the bridge, let's talk about the bridge. As Golden Gate Park continued to add attractions, become more popular, the Park Commissioners became increasingly concerned about the safety of pedestrians crossing over the drive between Alvord Lake and the Children's Quarters in Sharon Meadow. So today, that's what we know as Kezar Drive, which is wild. So using money from a Market Street [00:15:00] Cable Railway Company subscription, a tunnel under the drive or a bridge over the walkway, whichever way you wish to think about it, was built in 1889.
Arnold: To design this bridge, the park commissioners turned to Ernest Ransome. He was an English born engineer and architect. Ransome's father had patented an artificial stone process in 1844, and Ernest had apprenticed in his father's factory. In the 1870s Ransome moved to San Francisco and became the superintendent of the Pacific Stone Company. In 1884, Ransome patented a reinforced concrete system with twisted Iron bars, which is essentially a rebar system. From there, he patented a reinforced concrete construction technique called, natch, the Ransome System.
Nicole: Oh man, I was reading the, the notes for this. I was like, we need our own like version of the Gilded Age, uh, [00:16:00] series by Julian Fellows, where we just talk about all these like, cool kid, don't you picture Ransome as like a handsome architect type comes in with like a fancy cane and it's like, oh, I've got the Ransome system, gather around ladies. I do. That's where my mind goes. Not you, Arnold? Okay, well now you all know how I envision this story while we're telling this podcast. Just imagine the Gilded Age, the San Francisco version and scene continue to next. Okay. So, Ransome puts his patents to the test with his design of a 64 foot wide, 29 foot long reinforced concrete arch span by Alvord Lake. This was the very first reinforced concrete bridge built in the United States. Did you hear that listeners? The first one built in the United States. That's wild. The face of the bridge was constructed in such a way that the [00:17:00] concrete looked like sandstone. In fact, this use of what was called concrete form liners to simulate stone was yet another Ransome patented process. And that process is still used today. And I will henceforth refer to him as Handsome Ransome.
Arnold: So, you've got a patented reinforced concrete, a patented reinforced concrete construction system, and a patented concrete form liner to simulate stone system. And none of that is actually the most interesting architectural aspect of the bridge. Those of you who walked through the tunnel know exactly what we're talking about. Yeah, on the interior of the tunnel are decorative concrete stalactites that make the tunnel look like a cave. This was likely done to make the tunnel look more natural in appearance, but it also might be likely that Ransome wanted to show off what he could do with concrete. [00:18:00]
Nicole: Yeah, you show us what you can do with concrete Handsome Ransome. So is he contemporary? I'm gonna Google what he looks like later and I'm gonna be really bummed if he's like some old ugly dude.
Arnold: I think you can actually find his picture on Wikipedia.
Nicole: Oh gosh, that's gonna be a fun, I'll just submit a listener mail for next episode where I'm like, bummer, alert, Handsome Ransome was not super handsome. Anyways, so. Ransome's contemporaries were skeptical about his reinforced concrete ideas for construction. Yeah. Oh, I, I'm not buying it Handsome Ransome. The building community was reluctant to adopt his system for construction and Ransome became bitter and left San Francisco just a few years after the construction of the Alvord Lake Bridge. However, Ransome's methods were vindicated in 1906 when something, oh gosh, something hap... What happened in [00:19:00] 1906 that would've vindicated building methods Arnold?
Arnold: Hmm. That's a, that's a tough one. Um, maybe was, was that the year that there was an earthquake and Fire?
Nicole: Cha-ching. It wouldn't be a local history podcast if we didn't mention the earthquake and fire. So everybody take a drink. So yes Arnold, you were correct. The few reinforced concrete structures in San Francisco, like the Alvord Lake Bridge all survived the great quake, and thereafter reinforced concrete became more popular. So, looks like Handsome Ransome had the last word.
Arnold: In fact, in 1969, the American Society of Civil Engineers designated the Alvord Lake Bridge as a historic civil engineering landmark, the 11th landmark so designated by them. [00:20:00] Which speaks to its importance in engineering history. At 100 years old in 1989, the Alvord Lake Bridge survived the Loma Prieta earthquake. Further proof of the success of Ransome's reinforced concrete and construction methods. So, if you've never walked through that tunnel before, you absolutely need to go out and do it now and see this engineering marvel.
Nicole: I haven't been recently, Is it still open?
Arnold: Oh yeah.
Nicole: Okay. Just checking. They, they like close off those tunnels with gates and stuff and so I was just wondering. Anyways, well, I hope you've all enjoyed the story of the dastardly Frank Pixley and the, and the handsome architect named Ransome. The end Arnold. It's time for Say What Now!
Arnold: [00:21:00] And this is where we get into more about the dastardly Frank Pixley.
Nicole: What a jerk. I hate him.
Arnold: Pixley, who engineered that Board of Park Supervisors coup in order to aid the Park and Ocean Railroad, well, turns out there's a town in Tulare County named after him, and once again, money is at the root of all the evil as to why this happened.
Nicole: Hmm, maybe we need to rename this town. So, two investors, Darwin Allen, and William Bradbury engaged in some real estate speculation by buying up land in Tulare County where they hoped to incorporate a town and then resell the land. In order for this venture to be successful, people needed to be able to get there, and that meant that they needed a railroad, specifically the Southern Pacific Railroad, to build a line to their land and they knew just [00:22:00] who to call, who had very few scruples and could make this happen.
Arnold: That's right. Allen and Bradbury recruited Frank Pixley to join their venture, which was then called the Pixley Town Site Company. Pixley then imposes upon his friend, Southern Pacific Railroad Company, President you, got it. Leland Stanford to extend their tracks to the Pixley Town site. Stanford, of course, obliged, and the tracks were built.
Nicole: I imagine this was done in the drawing room or some study where they were sipping some dark brown liquid and by a fire of course.
Arnold: And smoking cigars.
Nicole: Yes. 100%. Smoking cigars. Maybe there's poker chips. I don't know. But that's how I imagine all of these like meetings taking place. Like how do you just ask your friend, like would you mind building a railroad to my new town named after me? [00:23:00] Things I'll never have to learn how to do. So, in order to entice potential customers, Southern Pacific offered special fares from around California and other parts of the country to Pixley. In addition, Pixley used his newspaper, the Argonaut, to advertise lots for sale and investment opportunities in his eponymous town. And yes, all this worked and the Pixley Town site Company made huge profits. So yay for capitalism.
Arnold: Although I wonder, you know, in the a hundred plus years since this all happened, has Pixley the town stayed successful? Because before this podcast, I had never heard of it.
Nicole: Has anybody been to Pixley? Oh, Western Neighborhoods Project road Trip.
Arnold: And that's a good cue to write in and tell us about it [00:24:00] as we get to listener mail.
Nicole: So, first of all, how does one send us listener mail?
Arnold: As always, send your emails to podcast@outsidelands.org, or take advantage of the, our many social media outlets on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook cause we will post a podcast to these places and you can just comment underneath our, our podcast post about it.
Nicole: That's true. If it's on Facebook or Twitter, Arnold, we'll read it immediately or sometime soon. If it's on Instagram, I will read it at some point. So, we do have listener mail after our recent third part of our Great Highway podcasts, our good friends, Margaret and Charlie the history poodle wrote in about the Say What Now in that episode about the Nunan horse fountain. They had this to say, [00:25:00] and I quote:
"I was expecting the horse themed Say What Now to discuss the esplanade equine ramp to the beach at the end of JFK but you threw a real curve ball with the Nunan fountain. The fountain is still in the park, but a much longer walk from your horse that, from your, from my house than Bercut. A December, 1974. Herb Caen column reveals the fountain was stolen and found damaged beyond repair, which I guess means someone pried it off the base but didn't have a plan for then moving a cast bronze fountain. In 2018, it was found in park storage, which makes me so badly, want to root around in park storage. It was repaired and now sits in a shady little courtyard on the backside of McLaren Lodge, looking like a very fancy bird bath."
And she wraps it up by saying, "Your loyal history poodle would like to, to say what now? The inscription [00:26:00] reads, and I quote, in memory of Robert E. and Charlotte Miramonte Nunan, lover of dumb animals. My perceptive poodle also notes that the original granite base had a carved dog bowl and the replacement base does not." And she says, "Thanks for another wonderful podcast. The Great Highway series is fantastic."
Arnold: Thank you Margaret, and of course our very favorite history poodle. They also sent us an ever so cute picture of Charlie with the Nunan fountain.
Nicole: Oh man, I think Charlie's our official mascot.
Arnold: I, I hope that picture of Charlie with the Nunan fountain has ended up on their Instagram page at some point.
Nicole: Oh yeah.
Arnold: Because they, that's a must follow, the Charlie the History Poodle Instagram page.
Nicole: Absolutely. And if you come to most WNP events, he's usually, Charlie the History Poodle is [00:27:00] usually in attendance even when he is not technically allowed in the building. So. sorry. National Park Service.
Arnold: Of course, Charlie the History Poodle is a member of the Western Neighborhood Project.
Nicole: Oh yeah.
Arnold: And Nicole. Oh. What kind of benefits do people get from becoming a member of the Western Neighborhoods Project?
Nicole: Oh my goodness. Benefits galore Arnold. For the low, low price of $50 a year, which you can donate to us by clickedy clicky clacking the big orange button, the top of any of our websites, Outsidelands.org or OpenSFHistory.org. That will get you the quarterly membership magazine, discounts on events and other exclusive perks. Plus, you know, donating just supports all the good work we do and make available for free. You've got the OpenSFHistory archive, you've got these podcasts and all kinds of other things like the Cliff House collection, [00:28:00] which now the work really begins on figuring out what we do with that and how to conserve it. So, So yeah, donate today, it's tax deductible and it makes you feel good.
Arnold: I also note that there's another collection that we've recently come into that we will be telling you more about in the near future as we get to figuring out what we are gonna do with it.
Nicole: Oh, goodness gracious, history waits for no, no man or woman, Arnold.
Arnold: That's right. So, we're nearing the end of the year. We have fewer announcements than normal, but let's get into it.
Nicole: So Arnold, lets. Well, so we are sad that The Museum at The Cliff ended its run with a series of epic events last weekend that I didn't see any of, but I heard great things about and people sent me photos so I could look at what [00:29:00] I was missing on a very depressed heap on the couch. But we are so, so honored that the National Park Service let us take over the former Cliff House, which still boggles my mind, and the former gift shop. Um, and we saw, we saw an average of 250 people a day. That might be a bit inflated, but on our good days, we saw between 150 to 250 people a day. And it's just remarkable. You came, you shared your stories with us. Some of you stole some things from us, which was not cool, but I hope you enjoyed those free souvenirs. And now the hard work starts. Right? So now I'm, I'm having all kinds of conversations with curators at other museums. More information on that to see where these pieces can go next, where they'll be stored, how they'll be conserved. You know, the journey really now begins on, on the Cliff House [00:30:00] collection's next chapter. Maybe the restaurant group, if you're listening, wants to talk to us. I don't know, but, but yeah, so stay tuned on that.
Arnold: We should also give major, major thanks to all the volunteers who have helped staff the museum over the past year. We so could not have done this without all of them. This has been such a wild ride, but so rewarding and enjoyable and stay tuned for what comes of that. But meanwhile, we do have one more history event on the horizon. We do our annual city cemetery, spooky walk in Lincoln Park. This is led by former Park Service Ranger John Martini. And if you've never done this walk before, you'll want to join in as part of your Halloween prep. It's happening on Saturday, October 29th at 5:00 PM and at the time of this recording, there are only a few tickets left.
Nicole: I just, [00:31:00] I just looked, there's one ticket left.
Arnold: So don't miss your opportunity to get that one last ticket and have some Halloween history fun. That ticket will cost you $10 if you're a WNP member, and $20 if you're not. So go get your ticket through the link on our events page at outsidelands.org slash events.
Nicole: And we should mention that yes, this is a spooky event cause we're in a cemetery in the, in the twilight hours. But this is a really significant part of San Francisco. I was just on a planning department call right before we started recording and learned that it's the first archeological landmark in San Francisco. City Cemetery in Lincoln Park. So, that was just pushed forward by the good folks at San Francisco Heritage with support by district supervisor, Connie Chan. So big round of applause for them for preserving this cultural heritage and this extremely significant, unique [00:32:00] site in San Francisco. And come hang out with us on a smoothie Halloween tour and take in this monumental landscape. So, so, yes, Arnold, preview for next week is?
Arnold: Who knows? We'll probably get it figured out by next week. There's, we have several possibilities in mind, but, you know, nothing is set in stone just yet. Notice what I did there with the stone and our prior concrete that looks like stone.
Nicole: Yeah, it's a Handsome Ransome pump. Alright, well, thanks for suffering through my Phoebe Buffay voice today and, I can't wait to chat with you next week, Arnold.
Arnold: We will see you all then.
Nicole: Good night. Good morning, and good afternoon.
Ian: Outside Lands San [00:33:00] 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.

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