San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park Has Hella Secrets

Spoiler alert: There may be a Nessie in SF’s Stow Lake. And bison numbered in the hundreds at Golden Gate Park.

San Francisco is a bastion of weird-ass shit, a cornucopia of Muni missteps and quirky, out-of-sight gems. But one of the city’s most well-known and Instagrammed locations, Golden Gate Park, has its own share of historical weirdness to add to the misfit melting pot.

Let’s take a walk down memory lane and shine a spotlight on some of the park’s most interesting historical footnotes and facts.

A 60-foot cross is (somewhere) behind the foliage at Rainbow Falls

In 1894, the Prayerbook Cross — an enormous sandstone cross inscribed with English excerpts from the first sermon of the Book of Common Prayer in California — was given to the city as a gift from the Church of England. Initially, it was meant to hug the beachside shouldering Fisherman’s Wharf. But for reasons untold, it was put atop the hill cresting Rainbow Falls. (We’ll let you appreciate the irony of a steadfast symbol of Christian purity sitting side saddle to a cascade that boasts a hella gay, flamboyant name.)

The park was a hub for immigrants

As we’ve highlighted before, San Francisco was a “tent city” during the gold rush, ushering in and temporarily housing tens of thousands of immigrants seeking prosperity due south in SoCal. It’s estimated that the park alone saw over 30,000 people take up shop over those years, making it one of the most densely packed and ethnically diverse areas anywhere in the city at the time.

It was also once a refugee camp

After the Big One leveled much of San Francisco in 1906, killing some 3,000 people and leaving another 400,000 without a roof over their heads, Golden Gate Park served as a last-minute displacement quarter. It’s believed that 40,000 (or more) San Franciscans set up camp atop the park’s open spaces, erecting outdoor kitchens and even log cabins.

And housing there was cheap AF

What later became known as “earthquake shacks” were constructed six months after the seismic slip and were offered to those who were inhabiting tents, with a lease-to-buy option. For a mere $3 to $15 per cabin, you could move yourself (and/or your family) out of your circular abode and into something far more spacious and cozy. Given today’s current inflation rates and the blown housing bubble, those same cabins, if there were theoretically to be sold on the same ground they were built on, would now fetch roughly $800,000. Oh-me-oh-my, how times have changed.

Stow Lake (may) have its very own Nessie

The most Instragrammable beast in the park is probably Claude, the albino crocodile at the California Academy of Sciences. But a second giant wild reptile has been reportedly seen taking up residence at Stow Lake. While the sightings are anecdotal at best, it’s not too far-fetched that a gator might be patrolling those waters. In the mid-90s, another rogue reptile found itself in Mountain Lake and was known as the “Mountain Lake Monster.”

Golden Gate Park was designed by a damn 25-year-old

William Hammond Hall, a 25-year-old civil engineer, was made the park’s first superintendent in 1871. Over the next five years of his tenure, Hall erected the park’s original design, which included the Panhandle, introducing a wide array of flora to blanket the park’s original barren landscape. Fast-forward 148 years later, and Golden Gate Park is an oasis and refuge from this seven-by-seven-mile concrete jungle, visited by 13 million people annually. (At 25, perhaps my biggest success during that calendar year was getting off my parents’ cell phone plan.)

The park’s arts and science buildings were built during an economic ego trip

The California Midwinter International Exposition in 1894 brought in droves of curious globetrotters and culture purveyors from around the world, helping to boost the local economy and increase future tourism; it was also meant to serve as a fiscal life jacket for San Francisco after the Great Depression of 1893. To ensure that San Francisco would sit high as a cultural, diverse global destination, a bevy of Golden Gate Park’s current staple museums and art institutions were built before the fair’s opening day to impress those visiting the festival. Similarly, green spaces and outdoor areas were cut and trimmed to appease those who attended and would later come to visit.

The park is filled with a sausage show of statues

Of the over 22 statues that populate the park, 18 of them are pedestaled white men, etched in stone or metal — and only one life-size effigy showcases a feminine figure. The statue of a pioneer woman with her two children, built in 1914 and located by the Stow Lake Boathouse, is quite spirited, to boot. Park-goers and passersby report the statue changing position when the sun dies down and also believe that she embodies the infamous ghost of Stow Lake.

Bison were bred like rabbits

Throughout the park’s 150-plus-year history, 500 bison were bred and born in Golden Gate Park. In fact, the park is home to one of the longest-running efforts to rear bison in captivity so that they never again come close to the doorstep of extinction. There are currently only a half-dozen bison grazing at the Buffalo Paddock.

Here’s to hoping that Golden Gate Park’s next 100 years bring more unusual additions to the history books of San Francisco oddities.

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