Mountain Lake Park History

Established: 1867
Location: 12th and Lake Streets
Bus: #1 or #28
Contact: Judy Whilt, (415) 387-7120

 Photo: San Francisco History Center,
San Francisco Public Library.

In the spring of 1776, after a 900 mile journey from what is now Mexico, Spanish Captain Juan Bautista de Anza and his soldiers came upon Mountain Lake. They were searching for a suitable location for a northern settlement and found the lake an ideal location. It offered abundant water and pasture land, grazing deer, and one of the finest harbors in the world. They broke ground half a mile from the lake and called the settlement the Presidio.

The landscape, on which the early explorers settled, has undergone radical changes over the last two centuries. De Anza found sand dunes covering nearly all of the area that became the Sunset, Richmond, and Golden Gate Park. And today, Mountain Lake's cypresses and Monterey pines tower over the green slip of land that the Captain described as lacking a single tree.

Decades passed and San Francisco grew. The dunes were paved over as residents built houses and planted trees. The western pond turtles and California red-legged frogs native to the area disappeared, due, some say, to food shortages during the Gold Rush of 1849. The lake suffered further damage in the 1930s when the MacArthur Tunnel was built, and dirt and rock from the construction were dumped into the lake. Subsequently, nitrogen and phosphate run-off from the Presidio golf course has polluted the waters. And four years ago, local favorite Myrtle the Swan had to be moved to another lake, after having almost died from lead poisoning.

Today efforts to save Mountain Lake from becoming an environmental disaster are underway, led by the Friends of Mountain Lake and involving the Golden Gate National Parks Conservatory (formerly the Golden Gate National Park Association), the Presidio Trust, the National Park Service and researchers from the California Academy of Sciences. Recently the San Francisco International Airport provided $500,000 in mitigation funds. The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy managed the project, a partnership with the Presidio Trust and National Park Service in cooperation with community groups, especially the Friends of Mountain Lake Park.

The Mountain Lake Enhancement Project, expected to begin later this year will, in addition to the dredging, include removal of non-native species of plants and installation of native grasses. The lake is 14.2 acres, of which 13.1 acres are within the national park and administered by the Presidio Trust. Mountain Lake has become a living classroom for researchers at the California Academy of Sciences who are using it for students from middle school through college who serve as "science citizens." They are collecting data on habitat patterns among the birds, reptiles, amphibians and zoo-plankton that thrive in the lake. With Rec and Park's Natural Areas program, the Friends and students from Wallenberg High School have collected native seeds and planted them along Mountain Lake's beautifully renovated southern shore.

Says the Friends' Judy Whilt, "We are grateful indeed to the groups who have come together to rescue one of San Francisco's two freshwater lakes and one of its historic jewels."

Jeanne Alexander, Neighborhood Parks Council