Victorian San Francisco: Woodward’s Gardens


In the countdown to the publication of Bloody Lessons, I am going to explore some of the places in I have let my characters visit in my Victorian San Francisco stories. For some of those places, you can still visit and experience what they would have been like in the late 19th century, for example, the famous Cliff House Inn, while others are so long gone that it is hard to imagine how important they had been to residents of San Francisco in the past. 

Woodward’s Gardens is one such place. In 1879-1880, when my novels are set, Woodward’s Gardens was the preeminent place for San Franciscans to go to recreate–even more popular than Golden Gate Park, which was just still a good deal of sand dunes, newly landscaped carriage drives and a single Flower Conservatory. 


However, today, if you go to look at the four city blocks between 13th and 15th street and Mission and Valencia where the Gardens used to be located, you will see a rather pedestrian mix of commercial and residential buildings, overshadowed by an overpass of U.S Route 101. There is a restaurant with the name Woodward’s Gardens, and an historical marker, but nothing else is left to remind you of the what used to be so famous.

What was most disconcerting to me when I visited this neighborhood this winter was how flat it was. As you can see from the pictures above, when Woodward’s Gardens existed, it was far from flat. Clearly, at some point, I expect when the overpass was built, these four blocks were leveled and all signs of the Gardens were lost. I rather felt like I had gone to Disneyland and found that it has disappeared.

In its heyday, Woodward’s Gardens was the former mansion and grounds of Robert Woodward, a man who came to San Francisco during the Gold Rush in 1849 and made his fortune running a popular hotel, The What Cheer House (where no alcohol was served!). Woodward loved collecting (artwork, curios, plants, and animals) during his extensive travels, and in the 1860s he started to turn his home into an amusement park for the city.

The entrance fee was 25 cents for adults, and 10 cents for children, and the grounds contained museums, art galleries, plant conservatories, an aquarium, a zoo, a performance pavilion, and a restaurant. It had the largest roller-skating rink on the west coast, a circular boat ride, and hot-air balloon events. Pretty much something for everyone, young and old alike.

Located in walking distance of the working class neighborhoods south of Market, and reached by frequent horse cars that funneled riders from the business and middle class residential districts north of Market, Woodward’s Gardens was relatively inexpensive, conveniently located, and because it was alcohol-free, it was considered a respectable place for young men and women to go courting.


In my first Victorian San Francisco mystery, Maids of Misfortune, the Gardens are mentioned as a place where one of the suspects goes on her day off and it figures in the question of whether or not she has an alibi (for the curious, check out Chapter 26).  In Uneasy Spirits, my two main protagonists, Annie Fuller and Nate Dawson, meet there after several months’ separation, and I had particular fun having them stroll through the Conservatory and the Marine Aquarium (Chapter 15). In Bloody Lessons, I have a whole group of people from Annie Fuller’s boarding house make a day of it at the Gardens, and this time it is the zoological gardens that sets the scene (Chapter 16).

If you would like to get a better visual sense of the Woodward Gardens, do check out my pinterest board, and this website is particularly detailed in its description of the place. But of course, you can always just read my books!


You can pre-order both print or ebook on Kindle, here.


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