Articles,  Features

McLaren’s Life: Dune Squatters Hard to Move (Part 2)

Thursday, January 14, 1943

The Call-Bulletin presents, herewith, the second chapter in the life of Uncle John McLaren, venerable creator of Golden Gate Park, who died here Tuesday night. J. Lawrence Toole, widely known newspaperman and McLaren’s biographer, preceded his subject in death.

Not even the famed Champs Elysees of Paris, not Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, nor New York’s Central Park, though the latter two may be larger, is more renowned. No, nor even those most beautiful Princess Street Gardens near Edinburgh’s famed Botanical Gardens where McLaren obtained, as a young man, a lot of his knowledge of plants and trees.

Born with Knack

But McLaren has written books, first rate books, too, about gardens and gardening in San Francisco and California. What he didn’t know about the art of gardening – and he insists it is an art – is scarcely worth the knowing. You wouldn’t catch him saying that. But horticulturists and botanists the world over say it’s so.

“When and where did I learn the gardening business?,” he said in answer to a question. 

“Well, I think I was born with a love for growing things. But my first job as a lad was helping gardeners at Bannockburn House, a big old place near where I lived. They had fine gardens. After that I worked at several big places. One of my last jobs was at Gosford House, the Earl of Wemyss’ place on the Firth of Forth. Know it? Wonderful gardens there. And it might interest you to know that all the gardens and trees there had been grown on what had been sand dunes, just like our gardens and trees here in Golden Gate Park. 

“Yes, building gardens on sand is no new thing. Along the Firth of Forth and in the south of France along the Riviera I could show you lots of beautiful places that used to be sand dunes.”

But John McLaren was a bit weary by this time. 

“Oh that’s all right,” he said. “I enjoy my lunch more when I’m tired. Come back and we’ll talk some more.”

Came to California

From his book writing it was, maybe, that McLaren got the knack of going on from where he had left off: that, and a remarkable memory for a man of his age.

“We were talking, I think,” he said, “about the time I was learning my trade in Scotch gardens around Edinburgh and had gotten as far as Gosford House, seat of the Earl of Wemyss. Aye? Well, right after that I went to do some real studying at Edinburgh’s Botanical Gardens. I worked there quite a time. Work and life in a garden were the nicest thing I could think of doing then. And I’ve never changed my mind. 

“After that I came over to this country and worked awhile in New York. That was about 1870, the time of the Franco-Prussian War. Well, I heard so much of California and San Francisco there that I came right out. I took a ship down south, a train across the isthmus, and another ship up to San Francisco.”

His face lit up as if at a happy memory, and he sat awhile thinking before he went on:

“That trip was one of the nicest experiences of my life up to then. New scenes, new places, new people and – new trees and plants and flowers. We stopped at every port going down and coming up.” He took a quarter from his pocket and fingered it, grinning. “But it cost me four bits every time I went ashore in a wee boat to look around. That was two shillings in Scotch money, quite a bit to a lad as poor as I was then.

“But it was worth it, aye every penny of it. I found trees and plants and flowers I’d heard and read about. I saw my first coconut tree at Punta Arenas, and I remember my interests withering between that and the wee, brownish bairns hanging in hammocks on the walls outside the houses – like flowers.”

And then on to San Francisco and friends from his homeland settled here, then to San Mateo to work for the Howards, the Ralston, the Millses and the Eastons.

“I was planting trees for the Howards,” he recalled, “when they sent for me to come up and see the park commissioners. That was in 1887 and I was about 41 years old. The three commissioners then were R.P. Hammond, William H. Dimond – (he called them both General) and Joseph Austin. Commissioners were appointed by the governor then. I think Governor Haight, whom Haight street was called after, was in office then, but maybe no. I didn’t know much politics then. Well, they asked me if I’d take over the work on the park and be superintendent and what else could I say but yes. Ever since that day I’ve been here and I’ve seen the park grow and spread over the sand dunes to the ocean.”

Mind you, he didn’t say he made or created the park. He wouldn’t, for John McLaren was a modest man not given to bragging, though he had more than any other man in San Francisco to brag about. Besides, he knew better. He knew, better than anyone else, the fact and fancy in the legend he created the park. 

“Maybe you don’t know,” he went on, “and I’m sure not many people in San Francisco remember about the fight the city had to get the dunes on which the park was built away from squatters who claimed it as their own. There had been squatters on the sand dunes a long time. A lot of them were hired by men who foresaw what the dunes might become.

“All the dunes, clear from what’s now Divisadero to the beach and from the Presidio to Lake Merced, were known then as Outside Lands; that is, they were outside the boundaries for the city. That was long ago, in the sixties, before my time. Nobody thought then that the city would grow right out to the ocean. 

“There were 6,000 acres of these Outside Lands and there were a lot of squatters. Some of them were paid to live there and hold the land. It was a hard job to get them off, for they had powerful backers.”

Story of Park

Out of his memory and what he has read and heard of San Francisco’s famous war with the dune settlers McLaren started to retell the story. But it had been told almost as many times as he had hairs on his head. He wound up:

“Aye, there was politics then just like now,” he said, “and the squatters, or those who hired them put up a hard fight. It went from the supervisors to the Legislature at Sacramento, then to Congress and then to the Supreme Court. It looked as if the squatters would win and the city would lose the 1,000 acres set aside for Golden Gate Park. Van Ness was mayor then and one of the supervisors was Frank McCoppin. These two had led the fight for the park. They called a meeting of the squatters.

“We’ll give you title to 5,000 acres,” McCoppin told them, “if you’ll let us have 1,000 acres without strings for Golden Gate Park.”

That, in effect and in brief, as John McLaren told it, was the genesis of Golden Gate Park. There was a great deal more to it, but the fact remains that if the settlers had hung on there might not have been any park, although that’s mighty hard to imagine today.

It was not to be expected that John McLaren in his nineties would have at the tip of his tongue any very complete history of the beginnings of Golden Gate Park. He was still an apprentice gardener in Stirlingshire, without a thought of San Francisco, when agitation for a great public park first stirred in the young city as early as 1864. And he was just planning to come to America in 1870 when the long legal fight with the sand dune settlers was ended and a sand waste site of 1,103 acres had been obtained by the city at a cost of $800,000 paid to the settlers.

A long and hard fight it had been to secure a final settlement with the sandlot claimants, some of them powerful and influential men in the city and the state.

It was in that year, 1870, that Governor Haight appointed the first park commissioners , S.F. Butterworth, D.W.Connely and C.F. McDermot and that William Hammond Hall made the first topographical survey of the sand dunes. A year later Hall was named engineer of the park and started construction at the panhandle, really the beginning of the park.

Helped by McCoppin

“Oh, aye,” McLaren said, when the park’s beginning, nearly 20 years before he came to the park in 1887, were recalled. “I’ve read all that in the books like yersel, and a lot more, for the reports of the park commissioners are here, and mighty interesting they are if ye want to ken the park. And more than that, man, I heard Frank McCoppin tell all about it in a great speech he made at Strawberry Hill back in 1891. I listened to that with all my ears.”

Small wonder the speech made by McCoppin to a huge crowd in ’91 stuck in his mind. McCoppin was a man of big affairs. He had served as supervisor, mayor and state senator during the long battle over the sand dunes and was instrumental in the final settlement which made secure the site for Golden Gate Park. 

His speech, that McLaren heard that faraway day, was later preserved in the records of the Park Commission as “The Unwritten History of the Park.” President of the Park Commission the year that was done was W.W. Stow, whose name lives in the park’s Stow Lake.

“That speech was made,” McLaren added, “when the Sweeney Panaroma on Strawberry Hill was opened. Sweeney had settled on the sand dunes in the seventies and the Panorama was a gift of gratitude to the city when title to his land had been made safe. A fine man he was, a fine man. The Panorama was wrecked in 1906, but bits of it are left. I’ve often gone up there just to sit and look. McCoppin’s speech is one of yon books,” and he pointed to a jam packed bookcase in the room.

Tribute in speech

Old John sat a little while without moving, nodding his head now and then in agreement as he listened to a few paragraphs read from McCoppin’s speech. 

“Here we find,” the speech goes, “an humble citizen, one of the masses, unmoved by ambition or the love of power, giving largely of his means for the benefit of his fellow townsmen. An example like this is certain to bear abundant fruit in the future. This is the people’s park; here the toilers come to recreate themselves, and whoever adds to its beauty and attractiveness, and thereby to their pleasure, will surely be enrolled among God’s people.”

Looking at John McLaren, silver haired and bent with the weight of many years, behind him more than 50 years of devoted labor adding to the beauty and attractiveness of the park, his garden, it was hard – at least for this more or less sensitive interviewer – to resist the thought: There sits one of God’s people. 

John McLaren would have laughed his feeble hardest if the thought had been expressed. It was not.

(Tomorrow: The Park As It Was.)