The Science of Sustainability

The Lost Lagoon

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dolores laguna

Did San Francisco's Dolores Lagoon ever exist?

At first glance, it seems like a pretty esoteric controversy: Did a famous, now-vanished lake ever exist in the first place?

But the Dolores Lagoon isn't just any old lake. It's San Francisco's Plymouth Rock, the place where the modern city was supposedly founded. Questioning its existence is a little like suggesting that Plymouth Rock wasn’t in Massachusetts at all, or the Gold Rush didn’t begin at Sutter’s Mill. For Christopher Richard, a curator at the Oakland Museum, it’s become an obsession. For others, it’s sacrilege.

This 1912 map includes the Laguna Dolores

This month, Richard, along with his collaborator, geologist Janet Sowers, are getting something like a final word on the matter: A new revised version of San Francisco’s Creek and Watershed Map is being released by the Oakland Museum. For the first time, it excludes the old Dolores Lagoon that was once said to engulf Mission and Valencia streets between 15th and 18th streets. I called Richard to ask for an explanation.

We met in a porn studio.

Though you wouldn’t know it from their wide range of video offerings online, Kink.com is one of the best places in San Francisco to see the ways fresh water still moves underneath the Mission district, despite the efforts of a century of city planners to excise San Francisco's erstwhile creeks and marshes from the urban landscape.

Kink's basement is below the neighborhood's water table, which means water is constantly seeping in through cracks in the walls. In the rainy season, sump pumps suck thousands of gallons of fresh water out of this basement each day.

Kink.com's underground creek is not something you want to throw a line into.

Chris Gaw, who directs arts and facilities for kink, and unit production manager Duke Cole, were kind enough to give us a tour. Chris says once, not long after Kink.com bought the historic building, they held a mud-wrestling match in one of the ponds that form on the floor of the basement. That was before they took the water in for testing. Lab results showed e.coli. Now they steer clear of it.

What has Sowers and Richard tromping through adult film sets is a longstanding interest in water. Not just any water, but the streams and marshes that are now invisible, because they have been filled and paved over, channeled into pipes and sewers under our city streets.

In that way, Richard and Sowers function as water detectives, looking for clues of the city’s long-lost aquatic past. Recently, they believe, they solved a mystery that had nagged them for years.

Where a modern multicultural city began

After we leave Kink.com, Richard, Sowers, and I walk a few blocks south, to Albion Street, a narrow lane between Valencia and Guerrero, and bordered by 16th and 17th streets. We stop at a bronze plaque. Richard reads the first sentence aloud:

"Site of the original Mission Dolores Chapel and Dolores Lagoon. On June 29th, 1776, Father Francisco Palou, a member of the Anza expedition, had a brushwood shelter built here, on the edge of a now-vanished lake, Lago de los Dolores (Lake of the Sorrows), and offered the first mass."

The settlers had walked north from Monterey, up to San Francisco. But what they found was sand. There was nowhere to graze the cattle. So they set up camp in the city’s south east corner, on the shores of a lagoon, called Laguna Dolores, where Ohlone Indians fished and paddled canoes.

"At that moment, two cultures encountered each other, tried to deal with each other," says Andy Galvan, an Ohlone and curator at Mission Dolores. "And today we are a very multicultural city, and that’s something to be very proud of."

Decoding the myth

The problem with this long-told story, as recounted on the plaque on Albion street, says Christopher Richard, is that a lagoon couldn’t have existed here.

He pulls out a topographical map, and points to the place we’re standing. He says back in the 18th century, it overlooked a creek bed, a canyon.

"You can't have a lake on a highland," he says. "You can't have a lake in a bathtub when you've pulled the plug. The water would have immediately drained away."

When Richard and Sowers produced the 2007 version of the map, they left the lake on it. "We couldn't come up with a strong enough argument to not put it on," says Sowers.

On the updated, 2011 Watershed Map, the historic Dolores Lagoon is gone.

But the mystery of the Laguna nagged at Richard, so he started looking into historical records, many of which had only recently become available online.

Today, he says the myth of the lagoon can be traced back to a single paragraph, written by the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza in March, 1776.

“After continuing to the southeast a league and a half along the coast of the estero, I found a good site for planting crops with irrigation by taking the water from an ojo de agua o fuente…” the passage begins.

What’s confusing about this passage, according to Richard, is that de Anza is actually talking about three separate bodies of water: A creek, here in the Mission, and two different lakes: one in the Presidio, one in Cow Hollow.

But a hundred years later, historians got confused. They thought deAnza had described a lake in the Mission District. San Francisco, they said, was founded on the banks of a lake. Generations of map-makers then followed suit.

What difference does it make?

Richard’s and Sowers' work has ignited a controversy. One local resident, who helped get the plaque put up, said he was too angry to even be interviewed. He and others spent years researching the Lagoon and its history. They feel confident there was a lake here. Now someone’s telling them they were wrong?

While Richard, Sowers and I were studying the plaque, a car pulled into the driveway of the adjacent apartment building. Tom Schmidt, a software engineer got out. I asked him what he thinks of the plaque.

"Honestly it’s the bane of my existence, that sign," said Schmidt.

He told us the sign attracts tour buses, groups of school kids, drunk teenagers. It's a nuisance. But even beyond that, he's just not really sure what the point is.

"It would be one thing if there were some historical buildings to look at here," he said. "But there are just apartment buildings now, bars and homeless people. There's nothing here."

To, Janet Sowers, that is the point. We can't see anymore what this city looked like 250 years ago. So you have to you use your imagination.

"Imagine it as grassland," she says. "Imagine it with cattle grazing on it. And imagine being able to see the Mission Dolores over that distance, without any of these buildings in the way."

But to do this, it helps to have a few clues. Richard says his job is making sure they’re good ones. "Our lives are dedicated to finding out what is from what isn’t," he says. "That’s what a scientist does."

Richard and Sowers would like to see the plaque taken down, or at least revised, but that idea is bound to be controversial in the neighborhood. The final decision belongs to California's Office of Historic Preservation. That process could take years.

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Category: Geology, News, Radio

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About the Author ()

Amy Standen is a radio reporter for KQED Science. Her email is astanden@kqed.org and you can follow her on Twitter at @amystanden.
  • Eric

    You should check out the water under Mission High School – it's flowing down there!

  • Christopher Richard

    Thank you for this delightful piece… but then, I'm biased.

    Thanks again!

  • Diana

    I am an sf native and love the unraveling of the city's history. I can definitely imagine the area in 1776. Thank you for the excellent article.

  • Sediment guy

    There is a simple way to test whether or not there was a lake present that any geologist should be able to do. Take borings and see if there are any lake sediments present. Such sediments are very distinct and often can be dated with various methods.

  • http://museumca.org/creeks/1640-RescMission.html Christopher Richard

    Sediment Guy,
    In fact we do have cores and there are no lacustrine (lake bed) sediments. We lucked into those because of construction next to the monument. Rigor would suggest additional cores farther east, budget suggests not.

    See our new map at:
    http://museumca.org/creeks/1640-RescMission.html

  • http://museumca.org/creeks/1640-RescMission.html Christopher Richard

    Let me clarify a few points.

    Direct your attention to the map above from 1812. For 130 years, Spanish explorers, British and French explorers, and finally the U.S. Coast survey drew increasingly accurate maps of the Mission District. Of the over 100 such maps we have examined, the maps only ever showed one body of standing water, known from early days as Laguna Dolores. Elderidge, publishing the above map in 1912, was the first to represent the existence of two separate water bodies. The one east of Shotwell St., which he labeled "tidal inlet," is in good accord with reliable sources like the U.S. Coast Survey navigation charts. It is the one to the west, labeled "Laguna de Manantial" that is the problem; the map on the plaque at Camp & Albion Streets represents a lake at the location where Elderidge portrayed "Laguna de Manantial," which no one in the prior 130 years had represented. It is the tidal lagoon that deserves the name "Laguna Dolores."

    As to de Anza's confusing paragraph in his journal, the sentence read in the Quest report is just fine, but in that paragraph he went on to compare Laguna Dolores to Washerwoman's Lagoon, which was in Cow Hollow, near Fort Mason, which de Anza had referred to as "laguna o manantial." It seems quite clear that Elderidge took the description of Washerwoman's Lagoon, penned by de Anza while he was sitting in the Mission District and drew it in the Mission District rather than where de Anza had found it.

    Ironically, Elderidge's map quite uniquely does accurately show the spring de Anza was writing about when he gave the name Fuente de Dolores to the water body that rightly deserves the name Dolores. It is the little loop at Duboce and Sanchez at the west end of the creek running up 14th St. So, actually de Anza was in the Castro when he gave the name Dolores!

  • http://museumca.org/creeks/1640-RescMission.html Christopher Richard

    If this is not enough detail, I will be lecturing on the topic at CounterPULSE on Wednesday Sept. 28th.

  • http://www.fugroconsultants.com/ Janet Sowers

    A main point, buried in Christopher's message above, is that there was a Laguna Dolores, but located downslope to the east, and it was the wide arm of the Mission Creek tidal inlet. The water in this part of the inlet would have been almost fresh, fed by creeks and groundwater. And it was probably navigable, at least at high tide. To see what that looks like on the new map, go to http://museumca.org/creeks/1640-RescMission.html. We labeled it "Laguna Dolores."