June 11, 2007
Here it is, the re-post of #3 in the new series of little pieces for the SFist, one of San Francisco’s fastest growing collaborative blogging projects.
San Francisco was once pretty much a giant sand dune. We’ve even heard it said that the very name derives from the once common epithet “sands-can-drift-so”, but we’re pretty sure that this tale is apocryphal. Okay, we’re positive, but a sunny weekend of wandering through Golden Gate Park prompted us to drift back to those early, sandier days.
Golden Gate Park was established in 1868, and a local newspaper described it as a “dreary waste of shifting sandhills where a blade of grass cannot be raised without four posts to keep it from blowing away.”
And so it was. It was up to the first Park Superintendent William Hammond Hall to figure out a way to turn those rolling dunes into parkland, and he wracked his brain over the problem. Every exotic plant in the nursery was planted out in the dunes, but the strong ocean winds made short work of every one.
In fact, we might still be picnicking on sand today if it wasn’t for one hungry horse.
Horse-power was the transportation of the 1860s, and the stuff that fueled the equestrian fleet was barley grain. One fine afternoon in 1869 a local citizen happened to stop for a spell along the beach. His horse, feeling peckish, dug into the feed bag for a snack. In his enthusiasm, the bag tore loose and a load of barley spilled out onto the moist sand. Before the winds could blow it away, a tiny crop of green shoots had popped up on the beach.
Superintendent Hall spotted the serendipitous sprouts and hollered “Eureka”! He ordered bushels of grain to be spread inland from Ocean Beach, parallel to the shoreline. As the grain took root and stabilized the sand, Hall added other, deeper rooted plants, and then called on the horses to contribute their plentiful (ahem) “exhaust” to the project.
By 1873 the sand had become soil, and a long fence was built and mounded over with tree boughs and brush. As you cruise along the Great Highway today, check out the high berm of grass-covered sand that separates the beach from the Park — that ancient fence lies somewhere underneath.
The hills, trees, meadows and lakes of our beloved Golden Gate Park? Thanks to William Hammond Hall — but don’t forget the hungry horse whose feedbag of barley jump-started the whole spread.