Golden Gate Park in Victorian San Francisco

Dear Reader,

When I started this blog several years ago, I assumed that most of my posts would be about historical topics. After all, I had a doctorate in history, I was winding down a thirty-year career as a college history professor, and the book I was talking about was an historical mystery. What I didn’t expect is that the overwhelming majority of my posts would be on the subject of self-publishing.

While I expect to continue to post pieces about publishing, marketing, and other themes related to being an indie author, I also want to begin to get back to my historical roots.

Currently, the material that I have produced about the historical setting of my fiction has appeared on the page of my website called Victorian San Francisco. However, I intend on adding new material for this page simultaneously while posting it on my blog, in the hope that it will reach more people. I am also going to reuse some of the material I have already added to that page as blog posts, so do forgive me if you have either read this material or are only interested in my insights into publishing. I am looking for some balance on my blog, feeling that I had become a little one-sided in my conversation, never my intent, and something that the Victorians would have looked down on as very boorish. 

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In my first Victorian San Francisco mystery, Maids of Misfortune, my main protagonists, Annie Fuller and Nate Dawson, take a ride through Golden Gate Park to get to the Cliff House Inn, located on the western side of the San Francisco Peninsula.

As my series progresses, this won’t be the last carriage ride through this park because the Golden Gate Park was one of the few places close to the center of San Francisco where people could rides horses, take carriage rides, picnic, or even sit on benches and hug, if this newspaper article from August 1881 is at all accurate!

Golden Gate Park was in its infancy in the late 1870s, and it had already been the object a great deal of controversy. First, the innovative plans of the New York Central Park designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, who envisioned a series of small urban parks for the city of hills, were rejected by city leaders in favor of a single western park between the Western Addition and the Pacific ocean. Then, it took a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court to establish San Francisco’s right to the acres of sand dunes that would eventually become the park we know today.

Next, there was a division over how best to reclaim the land from the dunes. A proposal to flatten the land was eventually defeated by the plan designed by engineer William Hammond Hall, who chose maintain the natural contours of the land and lay down a series of roads that wound around the dunes, while planting trees and native grasses to anchor the shifting sands. Yet controversy struck again when Hall, the target of political retribution by a local politician, resigned from his Park position and money for further improvements was cut.  Nevertheless, the Park continued to flourish, as the trees and other landscaping grew, and the roads and paths continued to attract crowds, particularly on sunny Sundays.

As I wrote this piece I remembered that one of the few times a reviewer has questioned my historical accuracy came over my portrayal of the Golden Gate Park. Writers of historical fiction have to develop a fairly thick skin in this area since readers will sometimes find fault based on their own perceptions of the past, rather than fact. In this case the reviewer wrote near the end of her review of Maids of Misfortune that I presented the Park “…as though it was completed, a feat not fully accomplished until thousands of trees had converted the area into the park as it is known today.”

Since all I had done in Maids of Misfortune was mention the heavy traffic of other carriages on the Park road that Nate and Annie were taking to get to the Cliff House Inn, I never understood where this reviewer got the idea that I thought the Park was completed, unless she believed that in 1879 Golden Gate Park was still a desolate place of sand and not much else. However, there is ample evidence that by that year the basic landscaping of the park had been well established. Over 155,000 trees had been planted, grass and shrubbery covered the hills, and the roads were crowded with vehicles.

Here are two excerpts from newspaper clippings from February 1878, (over a year prior to when Maids of Misfortune took place) from which I drew my descriptions of Annie and Nate’s drive.

“It was a lovely day, and I knew that if I could get a good vantage point I would be treated to an equine panorama, such as no one ever gets anywhere else, outside of Central Park, New York… Meantime the procession of equipages began to fill up. Team after team went by, and the glitter of harness and spirited champing of bits showed that the park drive was a favorite with those who had the means to take their airing as becomes the aristocracy of the Golden Gate.

“Presently we reached the look-out point and sat down. It was a pretty sight–the bright green grass, cut-down so it looked like tapestry–the budding trees, the singing birds, and finally the winding drive studded with its long line of handsome turnouts.” (San Francisco Memoirs, Malcolm E. Barker, 255-258)

While there wasn’t a lot that had been done with the Park besides landscaping and road building by 1879, the Conservatory of Flowers, completed in 1878, would probably have been a favorite destination for a young man who wanted a reason to take a young woman out for a drive.

Conservatory of Flowers today

Greenhouse conservatories were very popular among the wealthy in the late 19th century and the Golden Gate Park’s Conservatory of Flowers, which still exists, started its life as a kit bought by James Lick, a wealthy real estate speculator and philanthropist who died before it could be erected. San Francisco businessmen bought the kit (in huge wooden crates) from his estate and donated the kit to Golden Gate Park.

In the fall of 1879, when my sequel, Uneasy Spirits, takes place, the Conservatory of Flowers, with its glittering panes of glass and white painted wooden arches and domes, was one of the largest conservatories in the Unites States. I had no trouble imaging Nate hiring a carriage from a local livery stable (there was one located just a few blocks from Annie’s O’Farrell Street boarding house) and taking Annie to picnic on the grounds of this imposing edifice. I hope these pictures and additional detail make the scenes featuring the Golden Gate Park from both Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits just that much more real for those of you who read my books, while simultaneously convincing you of my historical accuracy!

Conservatory of Flowers when first built