Now Playing

The Dark Underbelly of Golden Gate Park: A Timeline

A century and a half of criminal, mystical, and downright bizarre behavior.

After the 1906 earthquake and fire, some 200,000 people camped in the park.


Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories about Golden Gate Park that San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the June 2017 issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

1870s: Criminals evicted from downtown by the Vigilante Committee inhabit the neighborhoods surrounding the park, leading the sheriff to authorize park workers to carry guns.

1881: The Wasp reports widespread tut-tutting over an epidemic of hugging on park benches.

1881: A casino is built on the ridge west of the Conservatory. There are no toilet facilities, so “potty chairs” are provided.

1882: A letter writer complains to the Examiner that “fast women” and their pimps are overrunning the park. Another writer complains that the park has been handed over to the “fast-horse set.”

1880s and 1890s: Bike-riding mania rages. When a law is passed requiring bike riders to sound a horn when approaching intersections, a proto–Critical Mass contingent of Oakland riders protests. The Argonaut editorializes, “Bicycle riders must be taught that not the entire earth and the fullness thereof are theirs.”

1891: An enterprising man bags some park quail for dinner. A park ranger arrests the man and fines him $10, far more than the cost of a turkey.

1894: The Midwinter Fair is marred by tragedy when Parnell the lion kills a man at Col. Boone’s Wild Animal Arena.

1900: In response to cars being allowed on South Drive, the California Horseman opines, “With fiendish delight the chauffeurs of these ugly, vile-smelling and death-dealing machines wheel around the curves and startle the horses and the occupants of the vehicles.”

1904: New park ordinances prohibit profane language, gambling, loitering, sleeping, and camping. Additionally, vehicles are not allowed to carry dead bodies.

1905: The sand dunes near Pine Lake, south of the park, become a favorite site for suicide, the Chronicle reports.

1906: The Dutch Windmill keeper is found dying on the platform. He had climbed the windmill to oil the mechanism when the sail struck him and fractured his skull.

1906: Some 200,000 people camp in the park after the Great Quake. By January 1907, all have been transferred to other shelters.

1908: Convinced he is conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa, a German laborer plunges into Spreckels Lake. He is booked for insanity.

1915: Culprits steal a white turkey gobbler and another prize bird from the Aviary.

1916: A con man sells all 60 sheep in the park to an innocent farmer from Merced.

1917: Captain J. O’Meara of the park police declares that all spooning in automobiles must cease.

1921: An ancient tortoise named Anastasia escapes from the conservatory.

1924: A woman reports a “big cow” in her yard—one of 23 buffalo that have escaped from their paddock.

1924: Police acknowledge they’ve been practicing archery so as to fire tear-gas bombs into houses that criminals have holed up in. Chief Daniel O’Brien explains, “It pays to be progressive.”

1926: The ship Yosemite runs aground, scattering pieces all along Ocean Beach, leading to the biggest bonfire in city history.

1929: Little “Miss Nobody,” a six-week-old baby, is found near 10th Avenue and turned over to park authorities.

1930: Four-year-old Jimmy Hoffman is arrested on Main Drive (now JFK Drive) for driving a horse hitched to a junk wagon.

1930: Vandals steal 45 of the rarest and most valuable plants from de Laveaga Dell.

1932: A man climbs into the bear cage and is so badly mauled he loses partial use of a hand and arm.

1934: A local man finds marijuana growing just off Lincoln Way. Inspectors report it’s enough to drive half the population “murderously insane.”

1934: The body of 23-year-old Louise Jeppesen is found in the park. She’d been raped and strangled.

1936: Two men attempting to scatter their friend’s ashes from an airplane above the park stall out and try to land in Kezar Stadium, but abort when they realize it’s filled with people. They crash into trees as they land on the archery range. Somehow both men live.

1936: A football game between St. Mary’s and USF at Kezar Stadium goes haywire when hydrogen-filled balloons reading “Franck Havenner for Congress” drift into the crowd. One ignites on a fan’s cigarette and explodes. Seventeen people are burned, one fatally. After the game ends in a tie, the teams get into a fight.

1939: A police horse steps on an exposed electrical line and is killed.

1942: The Hagiwara family, who had run the Japanese Tea Garden for decades, are forced to leave for a prison camp, and the word Japanese is removed from all signage.

1942: In Kezar Stadium, a woman is killed during a demonstration of the latest military weapons, which include a flamethrower and a tank crashing into an old car.

1943: A man is banned from the park forever and sentenced to 90 days in jail after being caught twice picking flowers.

1944: Willoughby Wallaby, a wallaby, is stolen from his enclosure in the conservatory.

1944: Two carloads of police armed with submachine guns race to the park after citizen reports of Japanese commandos climbing in trees. The enemy forces turn out to be ROTC youth from Lowell High.

1945: Alvord Lake is vandalized, a black swan is killed and thrown into Stow Lake, and 50-year-old ferns in the Fern Dell are mutilated. Citizens are asked to report any suspicious behavior.

1946: Oscar the seal at the California Academy of Sciences dies of zinc chloride poisoning caused by eating wartime pennies. His stomach is found to contain 514 pennies, 27 nickels, eight dimes, one quarter, one Canadian penny, one streetcar token, and one amusement park token.

1947: A snowball fight turns into an out-of-control melee after 175,000 pounds of shaved ice is spread on the lawn in front of McLaren Lodge. At least 35 children and 10 adults are hurt.

1949: A broken pipe causes the Stow Lake reservoir to overflow, washing away 20,000 cubic yards of sand and many trees and plants on Strawberry Hill.

1957: Two men are charged with trying to “rub out” a man near Seventh Avenue and Main Street to prevent him from testifying against them.

1967: In response to Hippie Hill becoming a favorite hangout during the Summer of Love (and a magnet for gangs preying on hippies), a special patrol of cops on silent Honda motor scooters is created to patrol the area.

1970s: A colony of stray cats haunts the Lily Pond.

1987: Bill Hagemeier, 42, tells the Chronicle that he and his dog, Princess, have been living in the park for 10 years.

1989: Amid rumors of Southeast Asians hunting dogs in the park, Assemblywoman Jackie Speier sponsors legislation making it a misdemeanor to have, sell, or give away “any animal commonly kept as a pet or companion” for the purpose of killing it for food.

1991: A concrete traffic barrier near the Rose Garden suddenly and inexplicably becomes known as a shrine to the phallus of Shiva. Hindu worshippers from around the world begin visiting the shrine and laying flowers at its base.

1997: Rec and Park shuts down more than 700 homeless encampments in the park.

1998: Stanlee Gatti proposes a sculpture commemorating the park’s hippie past. The idea is shot down on the grounds that it would draw a bad element.

2001: Vandals tear out a 20-foot agave stalk in the Botanical Garden to use as a didgeridoo. The agave was a habitat for nesting birds.

2014: A naked man jumps into the bison paddock and taunts the bison. They are apparently not impressed.

2015: In a case that horrifies the city, three young drifters rob and murder a Canadian backpacker near JFK Drive during the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival weekend.

2016: A 33-year-old homeless woman, Malina Berman, gives birth to a baby girl, Hillary, under a tarp shelter near the Rose Garden. She later insists she didn’t think she was pregnant.



Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at
Email Gary Kamiya at
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag