Articles,  Features

Expert Made Stow Lake By Lining It With Clay (Part 6)

Tuesday 19 January 1943

The Call-Bulletin presents, herewith, the sixth in a series of articles on the life of Uncle John McLaren “father” of  Golden Gate Park, who died here last week. The articles were written by the late J. Lawrence Toole, noted San Francisco newspaperman.

By J. Lawrence Toole

John McLaren, asked about Stow Lake or the Chain of Lakes or any of the other fascinating lakes in the park, all his creations, and he referred you to old and forgotten, and mostly lost, annual reports of the many Park Commissions under which he served. He never burdened his mind with exact dates or figures, which is one of the reasons, perhaps, he lived and worked into his ninth decade.

No, the history of what was done during this year or that, although he saw it all done and was the biggest part in its doing, never much interested him.

Through every day of his life in the park he had watched wonders of beauty performed. He had only to drive in the park, which he did every day, to see with his eyes what had been wrought. Why should he bother remembering dates or figures or even names?

Making Stow Lake

“They’re a’ in the books,” he’d tell you with that grin of his that seemed to light up his old face, and sometimes even the room.

No, he’d leave figures and facts to you to dig up, even if you hated them as much as he did. But he could be drawn out.

“How was Stow Lake made?” He said. “Well, after the sand was smoothed down a hole for the lake was dug in it, as you might say. Then we got a lot of clay, I think it was from a big clay bank over in Turk or Divisadero street. We laid the clay on the sand at the bottom and on the sides of where the lake would be. We puddled the clay so there would be no joints.

“When that was done and we had a floor of solid clay for the lake, we carted over a lot more clay and laid that over the first. We puddled that, too. How much clay did we have to use and what did it cost? Lord, man, I’ve forgotten. I never had much mind for figures, what do you call them, statistics? Anyway, it took a long time and a lot of work before it was done, I know that.

“Even when it was being built and laid out there were those who scoffed. And about that time I was planning a trip to Europe to look over parks and gardens for the Park Commission. They kind of made it a condition that I could go if the water stayed in Stow Lake awhile after it was done. So I had to wait a bit till they were satisfied. I went to Europe.”

Lake Holds Water

Stow Lake did not seep away through the sand, though the engineers watched carefully. The puddled clay lining held the water. Held it from that day to this. Held it through the big tremor of 1906 that cracked great dams, and every little tremor before that and since. That’s the story of Stow Lake, a bit of it at least, and, in a way is the story of all the beautiful lakes McLaren made on sand dunes. 

Apart from the manner in which he made them, with a puddled clay lining between the sand and the water after the manner of Stow Lake’s construction, there is one story about the Chain of Lakes that stuck in John McLaren’s mind through all the years. It’s the story of the two humming birds and has nothing whatsoever to do with the lakes, except that it reveals a bit of the man who put the lakes out there in the sand dunes where they said it just couldn’t be done. The story, as McLaren told it, runs like this:

“We’d started work on the first of the lakes. We had hundreds of men out there digging and scraping away at the sand. We were using four-horse scrapers and they make a lot of noise. One day I saw a scraper getting near a bush on what would be a bank of the lake and saw the man stop and watch. There was a wee bit bird, a humming bird, jumping and flying about like mad.

“We went closer and found another wee one, its mate, sitting on a nest. Well, we steered that scraper away from the nest, but I had a hard time keeping the men away. They watched that nest and the wee hen bird close and did their best not to frighten them.

Birds as Friends

“D’ye ken they two wee birdies got to know me and the men. They got to have no fear of us and the big machines that rattled around us. We used to see they didn’t go hungry, too. And when the wee ones came hopping and flying around, and squeaking, they didn’t show any fear of us. Every man on the job got to be fond of this little bird family and, I think, they got to be fond of us. They came back again and often, and I used to watch for them. That was a long time ago, but I remember the birds that watched us build the lakes. Now…”

A sentimental old man. Well, maybe. You can write your own ticket on that. But that’s the story of the Chain of Lakes humming birds, which, somehow or other, just couldn’t be left out of these ramblings. 

Now in the official language of an old Park Commission report, made by John McLaren but printed without a hint of his native burr, here’s a little more about the beginning of the lakes:

“In our estimates for the fiscal year 1899 (two years after McLaren’s appointment), we asked for $15,000 for construction of a portion of this chain of lakes… There will be many wooded islands, each with different trees and undergrowth, together with ferns, iris and other plants… Around the lakes will be planted a collection of trees such as the alder, the maple and ash and the willow, trees which do well near water. Other varieties will be planted to create skylines and form shadows and shades along the water surface.”

Gardener’s Vision

There spoke the great gardener of years ago visioning what he’d make of the Chain of Lakes. He carried out all his plans, and more.

“The main lake has been finished,” the report of 1899 goes on, still quoting the words dictated by McLaren.

“Where this lake now shows so prettily was a natural hollow running north and south across the park, with the water lying about seven feet below the level of the land.

“To create the lake effect desired, it was necessary to grade the land (sand) down to about a foot below water level.

“This lake is about 1,500 feet long, winding in and out in bends and curves, abounding in beautiful little nooks. Seven little islands were left of various sizes and outlines, each island planted with different and appropriate families of trees. Projecting points will be planted with different kinds of shrubbery, those of the bamboo and pampas families being used especially. 

“Each point will harbor a distinct species, the stronger growing kinds on the larger spaces. This will prevent the less hardy from being crowded out.”

This little bit of the first report made by John McLaren to the commissioners of his plans for the lakes is enough perhaps to show how carefully the master gardener mapped and planned his masterpieces before a shovel was put to the ground. So it was, even in more detail, with practically everything he did. He could always visualize the color and beauty of what he made before work as started. And his associates at the park sear his visualization of the finished job was seldom, if ever, wrong.

40 Year Dream

The Chain of Lakes, stretching from northeast to southwest across the park, of which John McLaren dreamed more than forty years and which San Franciscans of yesterday and today enjoyed, has been, since its completion, the delight of painters of beautiful landscapes. 

Smallest link in the chain is the lakelet near South drive, and one of the most perfect. Here McLaren chose deciduous trees for the borders. His arboreal treatment of this lakelet and of the entire chain given an effect of naturalness, which nature has aided so greatly it is hard for one who does not know their history, to realize the lakes are artificial. 

Apart from Stow Lake and the Chain of Lakes, Spreckles Lake, Lloyd Lake and Metson Lake, all the work of McLaren, are among the enchantments of the park. Spreckels Lake, 100 feet above tidewater, covers an area of about seven acres on the north side of the park about a mile from the ocean. Here two generations of San Franciscans have sailed and still do with greater enthusiasm than ever, smart miniature boats. 

Love of the sea and of boats is born in San Franciscans and here on Spreckels Lake they realize a dream to sail their own boars, until later in life they can afford to sail real boats on the bay.

‘Portals of Past’

Beautiful little Lloyd Lake, also on the north side of the park, is a frame with the thickly foliaged greenery on its border for a shrine known as “The Portals of the Past.” Its marble columns once formed the entrance to the home of A.N. Towne on California street, and came almost unscarred through the fire of 1906. It was presented to the city for the park by Clinton E. Worden after the fire, and the spot on which it stands was chosen by McLaren with all his eye for beauty. 

Like a gem almost in the middle of the park, gleams Metson Lake, beloved for no particular reason except that it’s a beautiful sheet of water, by John McLaren. Chief water supply of all these lakes comes from wells near the ocean beach, drawn up by windmills in the farthest-west reaches of the park. Dutch windmills that recall Holland except for the murmur of the ocean almost in their backyard.

(To Be Continued)