Golden Gate Park Was Once Miles and Miles of Sand Dunes

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A large white building with a dome sits in the background with yellow and red flowers growing in front. A cyclist rides past in the foreground.
A bicyclist goes past the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco on March 30, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

This story is part of the Bay Curious series “A Very Curious Walking Tour of Golden Gate Park.”

A map of San Francisco from 1853 labels the west side of the city the “Great Sand Bank” because at the time it was largely rolling dunes. A few intrepid folks lived there, but for many early San Franciscans, the area that is now Golden Gate Park was far away and inhospitable, a “dreary desert.”

Visitors to the park today will find more than a thousand acres of green parkland, replete with walking paths, dells, lakes and almost every kind of recreational activity one can imagine. So how did the area go from acres of desolate sandy dunes to the beautiful, urban park it is today? One myth says it was a magical combination of horse manure and spit that tamed the sandy expanse.

The Wild West(ern side)

The land where Golden Gate Park sits today wasn’t even part of San Francisco in the early 1860s. But city leaders saw potential. They thought the area then known as “Outside Lands” was a perfect place for an urban park that would help put San Francisco on the map as a great metropolis.

“San Francisco has always thought of itself as a great, amazing city,” said Nicole Meldahl, executive director of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a community history nonprofit focused on the west side of San Francisco. “But really, it was the new kid in town. So at some point they decided they needed a park that was befitting of the amazing city they hoped to build this into.”


The land was federal property back then. It took a protracted legal battle and the passage of the Outside Lands Act of 1866 to officially extend San Francisco’s borders out past Divisadero Street, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. But even once the city had the land, there were still park naysayers.

City leaders asked Frederick Law Olmsted, the famous landscape architect known for his work on Central Park in New York City, to weigh in on their idea to put a park in the Outside Lands.

“And [Olmsted] was like, ‘Oh, no, no, you can never build a park here,'” Meldahl said. “‘Trees won’t grow on these sand dunes. So I recommend the other side of the city.'”

The city leaders were stubborn, though, and put out a bid for surveyors who could design a park in the Outside Lands despite its seemingly inhospitable environs. The winner was a man named William Hammond Hall, the park’s first superintendent and chief architect.

Old-timey black and white photo of a man with white hair, big white mustache and old fashioned looking suit.
William Hammond Hall. (Courtesy of San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Library)

“William Hammond Hall had all the confidence in the world that he could do it,” said Christopher Pollock, Golden Gate Park historian and author of the book “San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park: A Thousand and Seventeen Acres of Stories.” “And he did. That was just an amazing feat.”

The land for Golden Gate Park was approved in 1870, which is why we celebrate that year as the park’s official birthday. But really, that’s when the hard work began, turning the park into the green place it is now. As to how Hall transformed sand dunes into verdant park, there is some folklore around that.

Hall vs. sand and wind

The most common story is a bit more involved than merely manure and spit. It goes like this: Hall and his team of surveyors were out in the western part of what would come to be the park, and because there were few roads out there, they were camping. A feed bucket filled with barley was attached to each horse. One of the buckets fell off, and the barley scattered in the sand. Conveniently the horse then dropped a load of manure right on top of the grain kernels now lost in the sand. In a few days, the men returned to that spot and found the quick-growing barley had sprouted and was thriving.

“And William Hammond Hall goes, ‘Aha, this is going to be the secret recipe for how we tame these dunes,’” says Meldahl, “because if you combine the quick-growing barley with native lupine here, that will sort of stabilize the dunes long enough to allow for these trees that he wanted to put through the park as windbreaks to grow.”

Black and white photo shows rolling sandy hills with grasses and low shrubs. A road winds off into the distance.
Golden Gate Park, circa 1886. (Courtesy of San Francisco Public Library/Society of California Pioneers)

Meldahl thinks some of the elements of this story are true, but the fact that they all happened at once in the same spot is a little hard to believe. This tale also leaves out some important context.

First, historians now think the Fleishhacker family — famous for their philanthropic giving in the early days of the city — owned a farm at the eastern end of what is now the park. On that farm they grew barley. So, Hall likely knew that barley could grow in some areas of the park already. Second, landscape architects in Europe were already pioneering a technique of using quick-growing grasses to “reclaim” sandy areas of the coast. Hall would have heard about those successes.

As for the manure, that brings us to some old-timey street sweeping. In the 1800s, transportation was mostly by horse and buggy. The roads were full of horse manure, so street sweepers would come along, sweep up the droppings, and bring them to the city’s parks to use as fertilizer. So, yes, Golden Gate Park probably did have a healthy amount of horse manure to help the reclamation process along.

A photochrome print of the main drive of Golden Gate Park with people in 1800 clothes picnicking in the foreground and horse and buggy in the backround.
William Hammond Hall envisioned a park that all San Franciscans could enjoy. The manure from the city’s many horses helped fertilize the soil. (Courtesy of San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Library)

The genius of place

The other technique Hall used in his design of the park is an idea put forward by Frederick Law Olmsted (the two were friends). Olmsted believed that architects should respect the natural topography of a place and work with it. He coined the term “the genius of place” to describe the idea that you would work with what nature created instead of leveling everything.

“What that meant was a very efficient way of using the sand dunes as the existing topography to create this undulating kind of interesting landscape,” Pollock said.

Hall used the dunes themselves as a break against the strong winds coming off the Pacific Ocean. He reclaimed the leeward side first, and stabilized the ground at the bottom of the natural valleys. As plant matter created topsoil that could support stronger plants, Hall gradually extended plantings around to the other side. The “genius of place” explains the many hidden dells and winding paths you’ll still find in the park.

Hall’s most formidable challenge was at the far western end of the park, near the ocean. He built a fence where sand would pile up. Then he used his tried-and-true reclamation strategies of marrying quick-growing grasses with natural lupine and overlaying the whole thing with manure to build up the plant matter on the protected side.

“By 1890, only 20 years after the park’s inception at the eastern end, it looked fairly mature,” Pollock said.

Old drawing of an aerial view of Golden Gate Park from the east end looking west. Some roads exist and the contours of the land are visible. There are almost no houses in the neighborhoods surrounding the park.
Aerial view of Golden Gate Park, circa 1892. Perspective is from the east end looking west and includes seven notable spots in the park. (Courtesy of Online Archive of California)

Hall makes enemies

Sadly, Hall’s contributions as the first designer and superintendent of Golden Gate Park are often forgotten. That may be because he didn’t get along with some of the political power players of his day.

“There was a lot of graft in the city at the time,” Meldahl said. “And William Hammond Hall didn’t like it, so he tried to control what he could with his power as superintendent of the park.”

When he discovered that a blacksmith by the name of Sullivan was padding his contracts with the city, Hall fired him. Unfortunately for him and the park, Sullivan rose to prominence as a state legislator and took his revenge by throttling funding for Golden Gate Park. At the same time, he accused Hall of misusing park resources.

“The allegations were completely false,” Meldahl said. “However, William Hammond Hall had had enough. In 1876, he resigned and the entire park commission resigned because they’re so disgusted by what they’re seeing as politics getting in the way of a beautiful city park that the city wanted.”

With Hall and his supporters gone, the park commission became a political pawn. Several railroad men were appointed and, soon after, a plan to build a railroad out to the park was approved. Conveniently, the railroad companies paid a much lower tax rate than usual for the privilege.

There was also tension over how to develop the park. Hall envisioned a wild, open space for people to escape city living. But others thought the park could be a place to showcase the cultural and social power of the city. Some of the buildings considered iconic today, like the Conservatory of Flowers, were built during this time. Without proper funding, the park struggled until the commission promoted a man named John McLaren to the superintendency.

Sepia toned photo of a tall man in a black suit with large eyebrows. He stands surrounded by palm trees with more greenery behind him.
John McLaren, circa 1927. (Courtesy of San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Library)

“I think he’s one of the most universally beloved city employees of all time,” Meldahl said. “They built him a giant house. McLaren Lodge was built in 1896 specifically for him.”

McLaren was hired in 1890 and stewarded the park for the next 50 years. He oversaw the development of much of what is in the park today. He shared Hall’s vision, believing the space should be kept as undeveloped as possible. And he managed to stay the course without making so many enemies.

One example: “[McLaren] hated statues in the park, hated them,” Mehdahl said. But rich people and cultural groups were constantly giving the city statues as gifts. Leaders didn’t know what to do with them so they’d just put them in the park. There would be a lot of fanfare around choosing the perfect location for a statue and placing it.

“Then John McLaren would very quietly plant things around the monuments that would grow up over time and totally obscure them so you couldn’t see them,” Mehdahl said. Some of the oldest statues in the park are around the Music Concourse, near the de Young Museum and the Academy of Sciences. But you wouldn’t know it because they’re almost completely obscured.

Given his hatred of statues, it’s a cruel irony that despite his wishes to the contrary, the city put a statue of McLaren in the rhododendron dell after his death in 1943. It’s still there, but fittingly his feet are firmly on the ground with the plants, not up on a big pedestal.

A park for everyone

Visit Golden Gate Park today and you’ll see William Hammond Hall’s dream in action. He wrote in an 1872 report:

With drives and rides for the rich, and pleasant rambles for the poor; quiet retreats for those who would be to themselves, and thronged [promenades] for the gayly disposed; sheltered nooks for invalids, and open grounds for lovers of boisterous sports; and tracts adapted to the special wants of children, and arranged to insure their comfort and welfare — the modern urban park is, indeed, the municipality’s open-air assembly-room, acceptable alike to all, and pleasing to each of her citizens.

More than a million people visit Golden Gate Park each year, and it is beloved by many. The park continues to evolve with the needs of San Francisco’s residents, but none of it would have been possible without the knowledge, skill and perseverance of William Hammond Hall and John McLaren.