Tramps of San Francisco

In search of San Francisco's forgotten histories

Weekend Logjam: Picnics and Excursions Beyond San Francisco

From the San Francisco Call, July 21, 1901.

Day-tripping and weekend trekking are favorite pastimes of San Franciscans. As Friday draws near, many of us consider our options for getting the heck out of town, whether it be a tramp on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, wine tasting in Napa or Sonoma counties, or adventure in the Gold Country or Sierra Nevada Mountains. But, oh the getting there … throngs of like-minded San Franciscans have the same need for escape as you. So there you sit, exhaust fumes wafting about, advancing north or east in a boatload of traffic moving at a snail’s pace. However long your trip took a quarter century ago can now take twice that long or more, and getting home can be just as painful.

While this may seem a symptom of our 21st-century lifestyle, the weekly mass exodus out of San Francisco is really nothing new. Almost as long as there has been a San Francisco, there has been a desire to escape the confines of the City. The Annals of San Francisco noted of Gold Rush San Francisco that in life, “People require what they call amusements, to make life tolerable.” In the 1850s, many citizens would visit Russ’ Gardens, located between Mission Road and South Beach (near today’s Harrison and 6th Streets) that offered:

“… the weary citizens an opportunity of relaxation away from the scene of their toil … hither celebrations, excursions, and the like rejoicings, are held by societies and coteries … while continually gay carriage loads or cavalcades, or solitary individuals, mounted or on foot, wend their way thither and amuse themselves about the pleasant grounds with games, athletic feats, and merry feasting.”

As the population of San Francisco continued to expand rapidly, such respite away from the masses could only be found at greater distances beyond the City. One of the earliest reports of throngs of San Franciscans departing for a Sunday excursion was reported in the California Farmer and Journal of Useful Sciences in August 1856. The steamer Surprise was ready for departure to the village of Martinez at Pacific Wharf:

“The steamer began to be crowded with ladies and gentlemen … who from the smiles on their faces and the size of their lunch-baskets, were evidently bent on having at least one day of real enjoyment away from the dust and excitement of San Francisco. Such days are, indeed, absolutely necessary for the preservation of the finer feelings of the heart. They direct our thoughts from the cares and vexations of business, carry us back to the golden period of our childhood, revivifying us by a remembrance of its pleasures, unlock treasure houses of the soul and increase our fitness to perform the duty of good citizens. Glad, indeed, were we to see the boat so crowded. It spoke well for San Francisco, and we hope that excursion of the kind will be more frequent than heretofore, and as well attended as this one was.”

In the 1860s, advertisements frequently appeared in the Daily Alta California announcing upcoming picnics, such as the:

  • Picnic Excursion! of the Exempt Fire Company to People’s Park in San Mateo;
  • Slavonic-Illyric Mutual Benevolent Society of San Francisco at Live Oak Park in San Jose;
  • Grand Scandinavian Picnic and Excursion to San Quentin;
  • Picnic and Excursion of the Fenian Brotherhood to Bay View, Marin County (opposite Angel Island), for “Every Irishman and sympathizer with the cause of Ireland”
  • Grand Military Encampment, Target Excursion, and Picnic of the Grand Hussars to Redwood City;

Other societies representing the melting pot of citizenry, including the French, Italian, and British Benevolent Societies, also traveled to many of the same locations. Roundtrip train fares were $1.00, and fares for trip by ferry were 50 cents. Passengers would board the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad at 4th and Brannan Streets, or embark on one of the many steamers along the wharf to venture to San Quentin. The Saucelito Water and Steam Tug Company advertised its steamer Goliah was available for charter excursions on any day of the week, with Sausalito being “the most eligible place in the vicinity of San Francisco for Picnics.” To reach their departure point, many groups marched in procession, often with a military or other type of band in accompaniment. Sunday excursions had become a grand affair.

Advertisement for picnic supplies, appearing in the San Francisco Call, April 26, 1891.

Continued growth in population led to a booming Sunday exodus out of the City. By the 1870s, picnic excursions were advancing deeper into Marin County, especially with the opening of the North Pacific Coast Railroad Company in 1874. The railroad announced to, “Military Companies, Churches, Sunday Schools and Other Societies” that the, “Fairfax Picnic Grounds … 1000 acres in extent,” were ready to receive “Picnic Parties and Excursionists.” Located “… at the convergence of two beautiful valleys [Fairfax and Ross Valley], each traversed by a stream of living water, … surrounded by hills covered with trees, and in full view of Tamalpais Mountain.” A new dancing hall, booths, and tables were available for use. The trip was only one hour fifteen minutes from San Francisco via “the swift and splendid steamer Contra Costa” that had an upper deck for “hundreds of couples to dance at one time.” Passengers transferred to the train at San Quentin or Sausalito to reach their destination.

With the start of picnic season every April, the Daily Alta California issued Monday picnic reports, covering weather, attendance, and activities. For example,

“Picnics and pleasure-seekers took advantage of the fine weather yesterday, and turned out in full force. The picnic season may now be said to have commenced, as all the picnics and places of amusement, outside of the city, were yesterday crowded.”

“Perhaps the largest attendance was at the picnic of the Independent Steuben Guard … at Fairfax. The steamer San Rafael left the wharf at half past nine in the morning, with a very large crowd of ladies and gentlemen on board. An excursion train was in readiness at San Quentin to convey the pleasure-seekers to the picnic grounds, five miles beyond San Rafael; here a pleasant day was spent in dancing, etc.”

“The San Francisco Cadets … held a picnic at Badger’s Park, Brooklyn, which was attended by an immense throng of people.”

“The German Fusileer Guard … at Damon’s Grove, Saucelito. The picnic was well attended and the trip over in the boat was enjoyed by all, being enlivened by selections from Italian music by itinerant harpists.”

“The German Dragoons … gave their picnic at Damon’s Grove, Saucelito, but nothing of interest occurred.”

“The Independent Rifles .. held a picnic at Scheutzen Park, Alameda. The picnic was well attended, and the absence of the “hoodlum” element, who generally patronize Sunday picnics, was noticeable, as no person of questionable appearance was admitted on the grounds.”

By 1871, hoodlums had apparently become a public nuisance. According to an article in the Daily Alta California,

“One of the eccentric developments of our style of civilization is the race of creatures variously known here as ‘Rowdies,’ ‘Jakeys’ or ‘Hoodlums.'” The genus is peculiar; it becomes manifest in youths from ten to twenty-one years of age … Your regular ‘Jakey’ is unmistakably advertised by his attire and personal appearance. He is baggy as to pantaloons, preternaturally high as to boot-heels, brilliant in plumage of waistcoat and neckerchief, bob-tailed as to coat; and the soap-lock, carefuly [sic] trained to lie flatly down over the forehead to the arch of the right eyebrow, proclaims the genus to which he belongs as indubitably as though he wore a lettered badge upon his brazen front … The more highly developed ‘Hoodlum’ finds his highest joy in the picnic and excursion to which he is a constant though uninvited guest. In the pastoral, defencelessness of the country the city rowdy has abundant opportunity for the exercise of his mischievous propensities. Last year many picnics and excursions were made wretched to the rightful participants by the brutal violence of the ‘Hoodlums’ who trailed behind. Ladies were grossly insulted; music and dancing were broken up by offensive antics and violence; fierce raids were made upon the provisions; and the pleasure-seekers who left the city for a day’s pleasure, came home at nightfall, weary with fruitless exasperation, wounded in unavoidable affrays, and persecuted to their homes by the ruffians who had pursued them all day.”

Seventeen years later, another article decried not only the hoodlum but the picnickers themselves. In the opinion of many ministers and religious citizens, the desecration of the Sabbath was a growing problem. Such “Sabbath-breaking” was most noticeable in the “gross and flagrant” Sunday picnic which, at the time of the writing, was in “full blast.” The number of residents in neighboring communities of San Francisco with anti-picnicker attitudes was growing. A gentleman of Petaluma complained that every Sunday during the season, “… fully a thousand riotous, dissolute, depraved hoodlums descend upon that otherwise orderly town and turn it into a perfect hell of vice, crime, and debauchery.”

The Sunday picnic had become, “… one of the worst features of San Francisco’s bad ones.” Even the local railroads that had once advertised picnic and excursion fares were no longer offering their lines for this “unworthy business.” The land auction that helped establish Mill Valley in 1890 boasted there would be no picnics or liquor and that all roads through property would remain private. Posted as only 50 minutes from San Francisco, many of Mill Valley’s original land owners purchased their property as private summer retreats.

Yet, such affronts did not stop the pleasure-seekers. The wilderness of southern Marin County brought trampers, picnickers, and campers in large numbers. Why wait for an advertised picnic? Now with transportation via train and ferry to all points near and around San Francisco Bay, individuals and smaller groups began making treks from the City on Sundays for:

“… shady walks amongst the redwoods, the madronas … where those of a romantic turn may wander and commune with nature undisturbed by the giddy crowd who seem to prefer the open hill side to work off the exuberance of their spirits.”

Well-dressed group picnicking on the East Peak of Mt. Tamalpais, date unknown. Author’s personal collection.

Especially with the opening of the spur of the North Pacific Coast Railway to Mill Valley in 1889, areas up and around Mt. Tamalpais became even more accessible. With 360-degree panoramic views from atop its approximate 2600-foot peak, Mt. Tamalpais was (and still is) a tramping mecca. So close to the big City, but far enough away to be in the wilds of Nature. A number of hiking clubs were established, such as the Sierra Club, Alpine Club, Down & OutersTourist Club, Tamlapais Conservation Club, and the Cross Country Boys. A tramp of 10 miles or more from any of the local train stations to the top of Mt. Tamalpais, over Throckmorton Ridge into Redwood Canyon (today’s Muir Woods National Monument), to Big Lagoon at today’s Muir Beach, or all the way to Willow Camp (Stinson Beach) was not uncommon. Camps were established throughout the area, some able to accommodate 100 tents or more.

The Tamalpais Club kept a log of visitors (now archived at the Mill Valley Public Library) who ascended the East Peak of Mt. Tamalpais. In Volume I (1880-1884), about 850 people had already signed their names, many stating they had been tramping to the top of Tam many times over for up to a decade. Volume II also lists many visitors from Europe. One-third of signers of the log were women. Comments remarked on the, “Glorious views of the snow-capped Sierras and the sea,” and “Will we ever be able to get nearer to heaven than it has been allowed today?”

A wagon road known as the Eldridge Grade was constructed from San Rafael to the top of Mt. Tamalpais in 1884. Those who had no interest in breaking a sweat getting to the top could now travel by horse and buggy. Horses and burros were available for rental in Sausalito, Mill Valley, or San Rafael. Later, in 1896, a scenic railroad – The Mill Valley & Mt. Tamalpais Scenic Railway (later the Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods Scenic Railway) wound its way up the “Crookedest Railroad in the World” to the top of East Peak, where a hotel with fine dining, dancing, and modern accommodations could be had.

Some of these locations allowed campers from San Francisco to pitch tents on their grounds. An article in the Sausalito News in June 1892, in reporting the activities of the motley camps, stated that one grounds had 150 camps, amounting to about 700 campers alone. The article went on to say,

“We … are no longer astonished at beholding the crowds which swarm into the open spaces as twilight approaches, for we have discovered that the woods and cozy retreats are thickly studded with tents … But alas! for the quiet and primitive aspect of our valley even one short year ago. Then we could wander along our thoroughfares, fearing not slaughter beneath the hoofs of goaded horses for the mounted idiot … had not yet materialized. Then we could stroll by the babbling brook, beneath the shade of the giant redwood, speaking sentiment, or whispering love, for droves of flannel youths blowing sounds most agonizing to the cultivated ear, from instruments made for a better purpose, were unknown. Alas! for those days when we could wander beneath shady retreats without fear of the demon cyclist, with his pneumatic tires, being upon us unawares, and within ear-shot of the sweet stolen kiss – all the sweeter for the theft. This great influx of people has astonished and eclipsed many of the older inhabitants …”

It was not long, however, before more permanent residences were constructed in Mill Valley and the surrounds. While the number of campers dwindled, the number of excursionists continued to increase. An article entitled The Sunday Exodus from San Francisco appeared in the San Francisco Call in July 1901. To dig deeper into why citizens were in an uproar over excursionists,  and why the California Northwestern Railroad had recently announced, “picnics not allowed on our roads,” reporter Madge Moore embarked on a journey “ferryward … to get into the thick of the picnic jam.” And, that she did:

“There was a sea of seething humanity from one end of the ferry building to the other … Ye gods! Talk about bedlam turned loose. All San Francisco had donned white ducks and sallied forth with its lunch basket on one arm and its girl on the other … The thousand and one wagons are not to be dreaded half as much as that crowd … It is a picturesque sight, this Sunday picnic crowd. The people winding in and out and the white-slippered, white-frocked, white-capped damsels tripping merrily along with Johnny White-trousers to ‘Lamb, Lamb, Lamb’ or ‘Goo-Goo Eyes’ that is played right heartily by two or three brass bands all at one and the same time … it is a pretty sight to watch but once lose your footing … and you are a goner. And everybody goes. Well people, lame people, cripples in chairs, babies in arms, and even dogs on chains. Everybody in the city seems imbued with the same idea, and that is to get out into the country for some fresh air!

In getting to the ferry, Madge reports:

“Every waiting-room along the line is jammed to its fullest capacity. Slowly and singly and with infinite patience one by one pass through the gates and then make a mad rush toward the boat. On they sweep, a mass of jolting, jostling, laughing pleasure seekers. There doesn’t seem room for any more. Still they come. Standing room is at a premium. The band marches proudly on playing ‘We Won’t Come Home Until Morning,’ and the waves whirl and eddy and curl about the boat as she slowly glides into the bay laden down with 2500 souls … These people are bent on forgetting their daily labor, bent on having a good time, and have it they will.”

On July 4th of that year, the Southern Pacific reported that 60,000 had left San Francisco either by ferry or train to a variety of locations north, east, and south. Trains needed four or five engines to carry as many as 2,000 to 5,000 passengers on Sundays, and an estimated 20,000 rode the ferries. Mill Valley reported 4,000 visiting their community. Throughout the summer, even moonlight hikes to the summit of Mt. Tamalpais might number up to 300 people, many of whom would engage in doing the light fantastic (ie, dance), under the stars.

So it continued into the early 20th century. That is, until the advent of the automobile. A Ford Motors assembly line was displayed at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Automakers tested the hill climbing ability of their vehicles on the inclines of steep City streets, including Fillmore, California, and Duncan. More and more individuals were purchasing vehicles, and when auto ferry service began between San Francisco and Sausalito in 1922, ridership on trains and passenger ferries began a slow decline. Picnickers were now driving themselves to their desired destinations. When the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opened in 1936, and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, the transport of pleasure seekers made the everlasting change to the vehicular traffic we know and revile today.

Over the ensuing decades, the weekend exodus out of town has never waned. We still seek the pleasures of Nature, fresh air, and the delights of picnics beyond our City boundaries.

And where might you be trekking this weekend?

View Sunday Picnics and Excursions in a larger map


  1. Soulé F, Gihon JH, Nisbet J. The Annals of San Francisco, 1855 (Facsimile edition, 1998).
  2. Daily Alta California, Sausalito News, San Francisco Call, various issues, 1855-1905. Available at California Digital Newspaper Collection.
  3. Fairley L. Mount Tamalpais, A History. Scotwall Associates: San Francisco, CA. 1987.
  4. Spitz B. Mill Valley, The Early Years. Portrero Meadow Publishing Company: Mill Valley, CA. 2001.
  5. Pinkson LJ. A history of motoring progress in San Francisco. San Francisco Chronicle, January 28, 1940.
  6. Wurm TG and Graves AC. The Crookedest Railroad in the World. Howell-North, Berkeley, CA. 1960.

© 2012. Evelyn Rose, Tramps of San Francisco.     Last update August 12, 2012.

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