Tramps of San Francisco

In search of San Francisco's forgotten histories

The San Francisco Mission Zoo: Wilder Days in Glen Park (Part I)

Part I: Fisticuffs Over a Monkey Ranch

This “Chevalier” Map of San Francisco shows the layout of Glen Park Terrace and the adjoining Gum Tree Tract in today’s Glen Canyon, home to the Mission Park and Zoological Gardens beginning in 1898. Courtesy of the Rumsey Historical Map Collection. (Click image to enlarge)

Picture yourself in San Francisco in the waning years of the Gay Nineties. It’s a pleasant Sunday morning and over the breakfast table, while sipping a cup of freshly brewed Golden Gate Coffee, you hear the question, “My dear, whatever shall we do today?”

Before the days of indoor electronics and high-speed super highways to distant locales, such a query likely passed over many a table. Hordes of San Franciscans sought Sunday excursions of one sort or another for a day-long escape from the City’s confines. If not by ferry across the straits of the Golden Gate to Marin County for a tramp up and around Mt. Tamalpais, then amusement could be found in the largely uninhabited areas both around and beyond the City’s own San Miguel Hills (today’s Mt. Sutro, Twin Peaks, and Mt. Davidson).

In 1898, Glen Park became one of those destinations. Also known as Rock Canyon or Rock Gulch, the area was originally part of José de Jesús Noé’s Rancho San Miguel, providing pastures for some of the enormous herds of cattle maintained by Mission Dolores under Spanish and Mexican rule. It served briefly as the location of the first dynamite factory in the United States, personally licensed by Alfred Nobel, before it blew to smithereens in 1869 and killed two men. Eventually, the Crocker Estate Company purchased the tract in 1889 from the family of the late Adolph Sutro. With an ever-increasing population, this commercial interest foresaw the sale of new tracts of residential property to San Franciscans, hoping to gain handsome profits. They called the new neighborhood out in the Outside Lands of San Francisco Glen Park Terrace.

The next challenge: how to get people out to the Outside Lands so they could make the sale. Fortunately for Crocker and colleagues, the Joost Brothers (Behrend, Isaac, and Fabian) owned the adjacent Sunnyside tract and had built a railroad to the area five years before. Starting at the ferry building at the foot of Market Street, they had proposed a route that would wind through the remote lands of the old Rancho San Miguel as it made its way to the San Mateo county line. Approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the San Francisco & San Mateo Railroad Co. initiated service on April 27, 1892. Passengers traveled by trolley to Church and 30th Streets, where they transferred to another car that advanced through the Fairmount tract along Chenery Street. At today’s intersection of Chenery and Diamond Streets, the little railroad turned left and crossed a 50-foot high trestle over Islais Creek before traveling along today’s San Jose Avenue to reach the county line.

Now all that was needed was a perk attractive enough to encourage residents to get on the train and make the trip to see Glen Park Terrace. So, the Crocker organization partnered with the firm Baldwin & Howell to promote and manage the property. The firm had been founded as McAfee & Baldwin in 1885 but was incorporated as Baldwin & Howell later that year. According to the 1897 edition of the Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory, A. S. Baldwin, President, and J.R. Howell, Secretary, maintained offices at 10 Montgomery Street and dealt in real estate, collected rents, and were also auctioneers and insurance brokers. In a company history from the mid-20th century, Baldwin and Howell was noted to be the “oldest and largest independently owned real estate firm in California” and had “pioneered residential growth in San Francisco.”

Baldwin & Howell managed to come up with a worthy marketing scheme certain to attract the masses – establish a pleasant park, build a Spanish castle, add some wild animals, and mix it up with entertainment and death-defying acts. Now that would sell real estate!

Baldwin & Howell anticipated that the City and County of San Francisco would be the first entity to buy land so that the new Mission Park and Zoological Gardens could become an official component of the world-class City, just like Golden Gate Park. The idea was well received by property owners and residents of neighboring Noe Valley in August 1897, some of whom formed a club to further the proposed zoo. Frederick E. Hackney, a solicitor who worked for Myers, Carrick & Williams and who resided at 820 Diamond Street, was elected President. Joseph B. Niderost, an employee of the Tubbs Cordage Company and who lived at 816 Diamond street, was elected Secretary.

At about the same time, the West of Castro-street Improvement Club recommended the purchase of the “Gumtree Tract” (the grove of eucalyptus trees in today’s Glen Canyon) as the most desirable location for the proposed Mission Zoo, after hearing the City and County’s Board of Supervisors had favorably considered the proposition of purchasing a site. Member Frederick E. Hakney was quoted as saying, ” … it will benefit the people around here. If we don’t look out for ourselves no one will look out for us, and therefore I am in favor of this park. We don’t want to see flower gardens; we want to see instructive things; we want to go to a place where we don’t have to pay carfare.”

The Fairmount Improvement Club also supported the idea. As reported in the San Francisco Call:

“… a rousing open-air mass-meeting was held last evening at Johnson’s Hall at 235 Chenery street. It was a representative gathering, and the purpose of the assembly was to give voice to the demand for a zoological garden in what is known as the ‘Gum-tree Grove,’ just east of Sunnyside. A platform had been raised on the outside of the house, which served for the speakers and the band … Near by [sic] a huge bonfire threw thousands of sparks in the air. President John L. McLaughlin [a contractor and builder who had purchased his residence at 233 Chenery from Baldwin & Howell in 1897] … opened the meeting by stating that the Mission is sadly in need of a breathing-spot for the inhabitants and particularly the younger element. He called attention to the fact that all the large cities of the world have their recreation parks, and so has San Francisco for that matter, but what the people of the Mission desire is a place near by, where they will not lose half a day in travel, as they do now whenever they go to Golden Gate Park.”

Not everyone was enamored with the idea of a new park and zoo, however. And, that the City was being asked to buy additional land raised even more hackles. In fact, discussions and deliberations would become rather contentious in the press and in the chambers of the Board of Supervisors before it was over.

The initial purchase price offered by Baldwin & Howell to the City in September 1897 was $387,500 ($10 million in 2012) for 144 acres of land valued at $45,000 (about $1 million today). The Gum Tree tract comprised about 5 acres of the total and was valued at $25,000 ($500 per acre). The remaining 139 acres was valued at $300 per acre. In an article entitled “Mission Zoo – Park Jobbery,” the promoters of Glen Park Terrace were accused of being “land schemers” who were “clamboring” at the door of the Board of Supervisors. The Call, whose editors sternly opposed the zoo, noted that the park site was being offered to the City at nine times its assessed value and accused Baldwin & Howell of committing “robbery through a plot by a real estate ring.”

Major B.H. McKinne, an attorney who lived at 317 Hilll Street and served as vice president of the Mission Park and Zoological Association, supported the park and zoo but spoke against the Gum Tree resolution, believing the land was being offered at too high a price. After discussion, the members voted against the resolution. Eventually, the local improvement clubs agreed that the Mission Park and Zoological Gardens should be established, but the decision for the purchase of a specific site should be left to the Board of Supervisors.

Property owners of the Mission District meet to express opposition to the new “Monkey Ranch” and believed City money was better spent on a new hospital and better schools and sewer system. From the San Francisco Call, February 13, 1898. (Click image to enlarge)

The debates continued. In reference to the Fairmount Improvement Club’s Meeting described above,

“The big bonfire and the strains of the brass band were not necessary last evening to draw the representative property owners of the Mission district to Mangels Hall to protest against the threat of the Supervisors that they intended to purchase the Gum Tree Tract at seven times its assessed valuation, and to establish in the gully and on the hill slopes a monkey and parrot ranch.”

The atmosphere continued to heat up. William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner had printed many favorable columns about the zoo but then had fallen silent after the Call had exposed the land scheme. The Call challenged their competitor, who they called “… our yellow-covered contemporary,” to express its stand for or against the “Mission monkey garden,” and that “… sometime ago it yielded to the real estate boomers a sort of half-hearted support. Does it still entertain the opinion that a pestilential animal preserve, costing nearly half a million dollars, would be a good thing for the city? That a monkey ranch at the Mission is necessary for the intellectual development of the youth of San Francisco?”

No one was holding back. The Mission Park and Zoological Gardens club led by Hackney was renamed by Professor David Starr Jordan, founding president of Stanford University, as “The Squirrel Hollow Club,” after Starr’s new moniker for the Gum Tree Tract, “Squirrel Hollow.” Dr. Charles Clinton, a City supervisor, believed the Mission did not need a zoo because residents already had free access to Golden Gate Park. He and others believed funds should be used to maintain Golden Gate Park, lest the City would “… endure the spectacle of its world famous park being crippled for lack of funds,” if money was needlessly spent on the Mission Zoo. He added if Mission got a zoo, then the Western Addition, Rincon Hill, and North Beach would each want one, too.  All in all, the land sale was designed to “loot the public treasury” and he could not understand why nine of the 12 supervisors sitting at that time actually supported the plan.

As the day for the supervisors to vote on zoo funding as part of the 1898 tax levy for San Francisco approached, the newly expanded Fairmount and Glen Park Improvement Club voted to fully endorse the City’s purchase of the Gum Tree tract for the zoo. They complained that “… thousands of dollars are annually spent for parks on the north side of Mission street, whereas the Mission District is neglected.” Members voted “… to oppose any and all Supervisors who may be nominated next November for any office if said Supervisor does not vote in favor of the purchase of the Zoo tract.”

Debate over the Mission Park and Zoological Gardens came to fisticuffs late one night outside of the chambers of the Board of Supervisors. Mayor Phelan helped quell tempers. From the San Francisco Call, September 20, 1898.

On September 19, 1898, the Supervisors were making final decisions for appropriations under the new tax levy. In the final weeks of the zoo campaign, support for the zoo among supervisors had been fading as other civic needs rose in importance. Realtor A.S. Baldwin presented a letter to the Board asking for a reduced appropriation ($150,000 according to the Examiner, or $275,000 according to the Call) for purchase of the Glen Park tract. He also asked that the Board transfer the decision for selecting the zoo’s location to Mayor James D. Phelan. Supervisor Clinton did not mince words in his negative response to Baldwin, and Mayor Phelan declined to accept the responsibility.

At 10 pm, after a long day at City Hall that would continue late into the night, the Supervisors took a break outside of chambers. Baldwin stopped to speak with Mayor Phelan, and Dr. Clinton soon joined them. According to eyewitnesses, a “merry mix-up” in an “exciting fracas” ensued. The conversation began cordially enough but Baldwin soon raised his voice to Dr. Clinton over his denouncement of the Mission Zoo, saying, “My name has been bandied about here and I don’t propose to stand it!”

Mayor Phelan tried to calm the situation, but Dr. Clinton was heard to say, “I still believe that it is a job and a steal, and I base my own opinion on the opinion of several reputable and capable real estate men, who have placed a value on the tract in question of from $85,000 to $110,000 only … Hence, I consider the property worth only about $75,000. And when the people of the Mission have much-needed school facilities, and their other pressing necessities have been provided for, I shall then, and then only, vote $75,000 for the Mission Zoo.”

Baldwin responded, “If you say that is a job I say you are a liar.” According to the Call, Dr. Clinton then planted an open-handed slap on Baldwin’s cheek (the Examiner described it as a “straight shoulder punch to the right jaw”). Mayor Phelan grabbed Clinton’s arm and Sergeant-at-Arms Henry P. Gianinni grappled with Baldwin just as he was about to strike Clinton with his cane. Upon return to the Supervisors’ chambers, Baldwin demanded that the Board act on the zoo then left City Hall. Both men later expressed regret for the incident.

There had already been some preliminary discussions about the use of existing City property for the Mission Zoo among the supervisors. A second physician on the Board, Dr. Tulio A. Rottanzi, fresh from his success in the banishment of the wearing of “unduly large hats” by ladies in theatres, wanted to convert the existing hospital tract at Portrero and Twenty-sixth Streets, about 10 acres, into a park. He noted,

“It is not very well situated for a park, but for a monkey garden it possesses distinct merit. It is located at the foot of a bluff and is bounded on three sides by civilization. With proper improvements, therefore, the smell inseparable from a zoo could probably be confined during any but very warm weather. The tract possesses another merit. It can be turned into a zoo or a park without much expense … the present hospital has been a disgrace to the city for over ten years … that structure never was much more than a barn. It is now saturated with disease germs and is a disgrace to the city.”

Supervisor Clinton offered up the Branch County Jail on the House of Refuge property (the latter a predecessor of today’s Juvenile Hall; both institutions were located on the property of today’s San Francisco City College in Balboa Park). Clinton described the jail as “a comfortable summer resort for a horde of hoodlums.” He proposed that when the new Hall of Justice was completed and the police department and prison moved into it, then the Mission Zoo could be established on the property at minimal cost to the City. His resolution passed and was to be taken up by Board the following week.

None of these plans came to pass. The Supervisors voted in favor of a new hospital at 26th Street (today’s San Francisco General Hospital) to replace the existing structure. The Branch County Jail would remain active until 1934 when inmates were moved to the new facility in San Bruno. Ultimately, the purchase of land for the Mission Park and Zoological Gardens was a no-go.

That didn’t stop Baldwin & Howell. Lots needed to be sold and the grand opening was still planned for the following month on October 16, 1898. And how grand the zoo would become! World-famous entertainers, wild animals, balloon ascensions, parachuting, pugilistic exhibitions, sword fights, and much more would attract thousands of visitors to Glen Park every week during the park’s annual season, giving the children of the Mission the excitement (though perhaps not the instruction as some had predicted) they needed.

In Part II, Dame Nature Has Done Her Part, a long forgotten history of Glen Canyon will be revived.


View San Francisco’s Mission Zoo in a larger map

Sources

    1. Rose E. Explosive Revelation: Glen Canyon Ties to the Nobel Prize. Glen Park News.Winter 2007/2008. Available at FoundSF.org.
    2. The San Francisco Call, various issues. Available at the California Digital Newspaper Collection.
    3. The Oakland Tribune, various issues. Available at NewspaperArchve.com.
    4. The San Francisco Examiner, various issues. Available at the San Francisco Public Library.
    5. Verplanck, C.P. Glen Park – The Architecture and Social History. Available at the San Francisco Apartment Association.
    6. Anonymous. Crocker-Langley San Francisco Directory. H.S. Crocker Co.: San Francisco. 1897. Available at Archive.org.
    7. Hoag, J.J. San Francisco Blue Book and Club Directory. Charles C. Hoag, Publisher: San Francisco. 1904. Available at Google Books.
    8. Anonymous. Baldwin & Howell Company History. In the Baldwin and Howell Records. San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library. Finding guide available at Online Archive of California.

© 2012. Evelyn Rose, Tramps of San Francisco.     Last updated September 3, 2012.

4 ResponsesLeave one →

  1. Marion

     /  August 5, 2012

    I will now look at Glen Canyon differently. Very informative and entertaining article. Thanks Evelyn

    Reply
  1. GP History Links – Glen Canyon Park Project
  2. A Park for Sunnyside – Sunnyside History

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