Did You Know That Cows Once Grazed on SF’s Twin Peaks?

And that SF once had a *thriving* milkman scene?

Before the turn of the 19th century, somewhere between 7,000 to 8,000 cows lived within the city limits of San Francisco. On any given day, bovines numbering in dozens — hundreds, even — were seen crisscrossing the city’s greenspaces, like Twin Peaks, grazing as they went along. This saturation of hoofed beasts was also reflective of what was happening across California. An 1860 census report procured from the California Department of Parks and Recreation showed that there were 264,000 people in California at that time… and about 104,000 cows.

During the Gold Rush of 1849, milk evolved into a liquid gold of sorts. Milk was in such high demand during this time that it spurred a thriving milkman job market in SF. According to Tramps of San Francisco, Charles Gough became the first milkman in San Francisco. Gallons of milk were such sought-after commodities that in 1850, Gough charged $4 a gallon – a sum that would be close to $151 in today’s money.

Some denizens of the city realized that selling milk was in many ways a far more lucrative and reliable stream of income than panning for gold. By 1875, there were nearly 150 milk dealers listed in the City directory.

But the first signs of the city’s waning dairy business began waving in the wind around the early 1900s. 

Come 1904, an estimated 4,200 SF-corralled cows were producing around 13,000 gallons of milk daily. Then the Big One struck in 1906, sending shockwaves across San Francisco that leveled homes, burned down entire communities, and killed an estimated 3,000 people — all while decimating SF’s local infrastructure and, strangely enough, creating a milk surplus. Dairy farmers, too, began to subdivide their land to provide new housing for residents who lost their homes during the quake and coinciding fires that burned over 80% of the city.

It’s not much of a surprise then that the San Francisco Division of Dairy and Milk Inspection reported a 50% reduction in dairy production from 1907 to 1908. The very next year, San Francisco enacted a City ordinance limiting cows to no more than two animals per acre — effectively dooming the already wounded dairy sector. And at the end of World War II, only a handful of dairies remained, which remains a fact that still rings true in 2022.

So, yes: The days of serendipitously stumbling into a herd of cows in San Francisco are long over… not that any of us reading this was alive when such happenings were possible. But at least we can all vicariously live through these times by ogling at this picture found by OpenSFHistory of bovines just vibing atop Twin Peaks.

Thanks for putting this on our TL, Western Neighborhood Project!

Feature Image: Courtesy of OpenSFHistory

1 Comment

  • […] San Francisco has a long history of alien flora and fauna. (After all, thousands had cast their votes in the San Francisco Chronicle’s competition for the official animal of SF — which named SF’s flock of invasive red-headed conures as the winner.) Before the city became a bastion for now-defunct startups and begrudging techies, it was first a transient touchstone during the California Gold Rush. And by the turn of the 19th century, somewhere between 7,000 to 8,000 cows lived within the city limits of San Francisco. […]

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