Articles,  Features

McLaren Gave Credit to Aides in Park Work (Part 3)

Friday, January 15, 1943

The Call-Bulletin presents, herewith, the third in a series of articles on the life of Uncle John McLaren. The biography was written by the late J. Lawrence Toole, noted San Francisco newspaperman and friend of the creator of Golden Gate Park.

By J. Lawrence Toole

Two mild Monday morning grouches collided in John McLaren’s sanctum in Golden Gate Park Lodge while rain streamed down outside.

John swung around in his chair and barked.

“Ye’re late.”

“Sorry. But it’s a long way from The Call-Bulletin office and the cars…”

“Aye, I know about the cars,” as if he’d heard that excuse before, “but I’ve been waiting here more than an hour when I should have been oot about my work.”

“And then there was the rain. See it?”

“Well, what aboot a bit rain. Aren’t ye used to it by now?”

“And maybe I’m not as spry as you are. You see…”

“Aye, that’s something I can understand. Yes I can…”

McLaren might have been reminded it was just about half an hour since he’d received a telephone call that his interviewer was on the way. But one doesn’t argue with a czar in his own domain. Besides his face had grown a grin.

The storm was over.

‘Stick to the Park’

“Well sit ye down,” McLaren said. “But before we begin, let me tell you again. Don’t you put too much of me in this. Stick to the park.”

“But this is supposed to be about you, Mr McLaren. You and the park are the same, you know, to San Francisco, and…”

“Well, never mind that. Just remember that hundreds of men have had a hand in making the park. True, they worked under me and with me. Why man, I could take you this minute to a man who was working here as a boy when I came to the park and he’s still here, working in the same place around Strawberry Hill and Stow Lake. Albert Chaquett is his name. He’s worked in the park since he was a wee lad. A fine man and a fine worker. And there’s Quigley and Owens, who worked in the greenhouses. Owens’ sons work there now. Oh, there’s lots of other old, old timers here.”

Golden Gate Park acquired John McLaren the same year that San Francisco become custodian of Seal Rocks by act of Congress, 1887. The Board of Supervisors accepted the trust of custodianship and committed the seal reservation to the park commissioners “in trust for the people of the United States.”

Waste of Sand

“What was the park like when I took it over?” was McLaren’s answer to a question of the day. “Well, you see most of it in that photograph right over your head. West of Strawberry Hill it was just sand.”

Imagine a photograph of the ocean, looking west, a gray level of unbroken sea and you have a little idea of the waste of sand in that photograph.

“Yes, a lot of work had been done at this end of the park, trees and grass planted and roads made. But west of Strawberry Hill there wasn’t much but sand. Tho’ here at the eastern end there was a park. Ye’ll find the early history of the park in that speech of Frank McCoppin’s.”

In truth, the famous McCoppin speech is a big chunk of the earliest history of the park and the battle with the sand settlers McLaren called squatters. He knew many of the more prominent. 

“Among the numerous claimants to the land,” McCoppin’s speech runs on as McLaren nods, “were such able , influential and powerful men as John B. Felton, Eugene Casserly, Eugene Sullivan and Eugene Lies and many others…

“They were got together finally and asked if they would be willing to surrender 10 per cent of their holdings and cooperate with the city in carrying out the plans for a great public park. They said they would. Thus was settled forever the largest and most momentous question ever dealt with by this municipality. The park should have commenced at Divisadero and embraced all the land between the cementeries in the north and Buena Vista Park in the south. Such would have been its boundaries were it not for the – harsh words not speaking well of the dead – of a few individuals.”

Give City McLaren

Final settlement of the fight with the sand settlers cost the city $800,000 but it gave San Francisco complete and unassailable title to Golden Gate Park – and it gave the city John McLaren, who made the park what it is today.

It’s a pet legend of San Francisco that John McLaren created Golden Gate Park. But looking at the facts in this legend realistically, it is seen the park was created and was emerging from its chrysalis of sand long before his time. As early as 1870 the first park commissioners, S.F. Butterworth, D.W. Connely and C.F. MacDermot, were appointed by Governor Haight, and William Hammond Hall was commissioned to make the first topological survey of the more than one thousand acres of sand to be turned into a park. 

That same year Hall was appointed engineer of the park, and under his direction the eastern section, including the Panhandle, was laid out and improvements started. 

“Yes,” interjected McLaren, “ and it was Hall, years after that, that laid out the children’s playground. I worked with him.”

From McLaren’s very earliest recollections, and for nearby a generation before his coming the park had been the most popular resort in San Francisco for every class of its citizens. The city’s earliest and gayest carriages, all the fashioh and elegance of the seventies and early eighties, were to be seen on its roads and walks, first loves and young romances blossomed on its paths, and under its trees poets, writers and painters destined for fame found their inspiration.

We’re “Gude Men”

“And ye know the story of the greenhouses, the conservatories over there,” reminisced McLaren. “Aye? Well, ye know that James Lick had conservatories built for himself in England. They were modeled after the greenhouses in the London Kew Gardens. He had them shipped over here with a great deal of fine plants and flowers intended to put the conservatories up at his place down at San Jose. He died before that could be done. A group of San Francisco men bought the materials from the trustees of the Lick estates and gave the conservatories to the city.

“Grand men they were, too, men after my ain heart,” McLaren added, when their names were recalled to him. “Aye, gude men they were who gied yon flowers to the city and put the conservatories in the park. That was in ’77, mind you, 10 years before I came here.”

The “gude men” of San Francisco’s ‘70s, who bought and gave the conservatories to the park were William Alford, A.J. Pope, William F. Whittier, James Irvine, M.P. Jones, J.M. McDonald, Adam Grant, William F. Babcock, R.N. Graves, Samuel Crim, Isaac E. Davis, Charles Lux, George C. Hichox, Milton S. Latham, W.W. Montague, A.P. Hotaling, Robert C. Johnson, Charles Crocker, A.L. Tubbs, J.G. Eastland, S.L. Jones, Claus Spreckels, Leland Stanford and D.A. Macdonald – all outstanding names in San Francisco’s history.

Golden Gate Park was then under state control – not until 1900 was it turned over to the city – and the Legislature appropriated $40,000 to erect the greenhouses planned by James Lick in the park’s Conservatory Valley. Subsequently they were destroyed by fire, long before 1906, and Charles Crocker furnished money for their restoration. Leland Stanford was a member of the park commission when the conservatories were the pride of the park and the city about 1882. 

Dream of Pioneers

All these men had been figures in the life of San Francisco a long time before McLaren came and before there was any Golden Gate Park. In their youth and prime most of them were lovers of horseflesh and drove much to the beach, far away in that day. It was in their youth, or thereabouts, the dream of a park and a road to the beach was born. In the 60s and early 70s favorite drive of San Francisco’s fashionable to the beach was over the Howard street planked road, which for part of its length was lapped by the waters of the bay, and then from Mission Dolores down San Bruno turnpike to the San Jose stage road and, after the Cliff House was built in the 60s, out to it along the Point Lobos road.

On bright afternoons, says an ancient chronicle, many a spanking pair and fast trotter passed out O’Farrell street to turn into the Point Lobos road, past the waste of sand which later became Golden Gate Park, to the ocean beach. 

Not much of this came within the ken of John McLaren, he admitted, though the brilliant panorama of wealth and fashion on the Point Lobos road was still rolling long after he took over the park in 1887, before it transferred itself to the new roads.

(To Be Continued)