Articles,  Features

Scot Enlisted Wealthy S.F. Men to Aid in Park (Part 5)

Monday 18 January 1943 

The fifth in a series of articles on the life of Uncle John McLaren is presented herewith by The Call-Bulletin. Their author, the late J. Lawrence Toole, noted San Francisco newspaperman, was a friend of the man who developed Golden Gate Park.

By J. Lawrence Toole

Strawberry Hill, with its native oaks, and atop of it the McSweeney Panorama, later shaken down in 1906, was here, of course, when John McLaren came, but there was no waterfall leaping down its steep sides and no beautiful, winding lake at its base.

Both of these he added to the beauty of the park. The story of the falls, as he told it, divested of the Scotch vernacular that added charm to his halting talk, was this:

“I had been up to the high Sierra and Ince I met John Muir there and he showed me some beautiful waterfalls. And the Sequoias – we had nothing like them in San Francisco. Now we have them both right here in Golden Gate Park, as I’ll show you; a Sequoia growing right alongside a cedar of Lebanon and a eucalyptus, and they get along fine together, enjoying themselves. 

“So much for our climate, though maybe I talk more about that some other day.

Real Waterfall

“And, as you can see any day you live, we have a real waterfall. The waterfalls John Muir showed me stuck in my mind. Not every San Franciscan could go up to the Sierra to see a waterfall. So we brought a waterfall to San Francisco, Huntington Falls.”

John McLaren did not bring Huntington Falls into being unaided. He had powerful moneyed help. 

“I want you to understand I didn’t myself do any of these fine things in the park we’re talking about. Don’t ever forget that,” he said, and he was serious about it. “I worked for wages just like any other of thousands of men who’ve worked in the park. But the park commissioners I’ve seen come and go, and I’ve seen a great lot of them, worked for nothing. They got no wages and they loved the park. They gave the money, or raised it, for nearly everything that’s been done.

“They’ve been wonderful men the park commissioners, every one that I’ve known since the day I came to the park, to this. Gie them the credit, not me, and gie credit to the men who put up the money. There’s one or two fine things in the park that I might say were mine and cost the city nothing. I’ll show them to you some day.”

Credit to Stow

“We’re talkin’ aboot the waterfall on Strawberry Hill, were we no?” He went on. “Well, it was W.W. Stow, president of my first park board, who must get credit for that – he and Colis P. Huntington, who put up the money. I was just the paid workman who built it, though of course I’d talked a lot about it too Stow.”

McLaren never did like to blow his own horn, thought he’d been known to do it when occasion arose. Men who knew him as a youth remembered him as a persistent and persuasive talker on occasions. This, then, is the story Huntington Falls, told by his don’t-quote-me associates at the park.

John McLaren told his boss, Board President Stow, that a waterfall on Strawberry Hill would be a grant thing. Finally Stow agreed and became as enthusiastic as McLaren, and even more.

“What would it cost?” Stow asked, for the Park Commission at that time had little money to spend on pretties. 

“Oh, I’ve figured $25,000 would do it,”McLaren answered and Stow said: “Well, we’ll see what can be done.”

Huntington Enlisted

At the time W.W. Stow and Colis P. Huntington were intimate friends. On a Sunday afternoon soon afterward, Stow invited Huntington for a buggy ride in the park and took him up and around Strawberry Hill. They stopped at the base, near the place McLaren had selected for the waterfall. 

“Nice, eh?” Said Stow.

“Yes,” Huntington agreed, “mighty nice.”

Huntington’s mind and heart and pocket book were fixed on railroads at that time and the beautiful oaks on Strawberry Hill, and the view from its top, didn’t impress him much. He was not park or scenery minded and it was about the first time he’d ever driven through Golden Gate Park. 

“Mac,” Stow remarked quietly (McLaren had gone a bit of the way with them so Huntington knew him), “Mac has an idea for a waterfall down the there. And Collis, you know you’ve made a lot of your money here and I thought you’d be doing a fine thing for San Francisco if you put up the money to build that waterfall. What do you think?”

‘What’ll It Cost?

Huntington sat there a long time in the sun, thinking, then suddenly asked:

“What’ll it cost?”

“Oh, just $25,000.”

“Sure he can do it for that?”


“Then come around to my office Tuesday.”

That little talk, as “Mac” would say, “was of a Sunday.” On Tuesday, there was a check for $25,000 awaiting Stow on Huntington’s desk. After that came the falls.

“From that time on,” McLaren said, “Huntington and I were great friends. I used to take him riding around and tell him all the plans for the park. He got to like trees and plants and flowers and to know the park, and what it would mean to the city. But he kept a tight head on his purse. One day we were joshing and I told him I could improve his waterfall if he could spare a little more money. ‘What on earth for?’ He asked me, ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘a wee bit branch waterfall, just like a branch railroad.’

“Well he blew up at that. ‘A branch waterfall, like a branch railroad,’ he said, ‘why, man, don’t you know a branch railroad might make money, but a branch waterfall waterfall would only run away with money. Run along, Mac, and get the heather out of your eyes.’”

McLaren’s Joke

Well, McLaren didn’t get his branch waterfall, but he got a big laugh out of his joke, for it was only a joke.

And not only did McLaren make the great Huntington park-and-beauty conscious, but his whole family. Later on Mrs Huntington made the city a gift of beautiful little Huntington Park on Nob Hill and a son, Arthur Huntington, gave the Huntington Room, a million dollar room of fine paintings to the Palace of the Legion of Honor here.

John McLaren took a lot of pride and pleasure of accomplishment in the many beautiful lakes scattered through Golden Gate Park.

“Aye,” he said, “the Park lakes are fine and I can’t help feeling a bit proud of them. You see, when I first started to build lakes in the Park, the whole town laughed at the idea. What, they said, build lakes on sand? The water will just seep away through the sand. But I knew that with what I had in mind the water would not seep away. And some of the park commissioners, and others, men like Stow, agreed. So I went ahead.

Known Over World

“The lake around the base of Strawberry Hill was the first. It was nearly all sand there then and first that sand had to be smoothed off, which was a big job in itself.”

Everyone in San Francisco knows Stow Lake, and hundreds of thousands of visitors to the park from all over the world. 

“And they said,” John McLaren smiled, “that it would never hold water. Well, you can see it has. It never leaked since it was made. Why, man, not even when the McSweeney Panorama was shaken down in 1906, and a lot of other things in the Park were wrecked, Stow Lake never even leaked.”

Stow Lake was McLaren’s first venture in lake building in the sand. The Chain of Lakes and all the other lakes in the Park came afterward.

(To Be Continued)