By Amy O’Hair
Update 2023: New map to chart the route of the creek found here.
Before it was diverted into the drains—probably in the 1920s after improvements to streets and sewers—Sunnyside had a tributary of Islais Creek running through it. Sounds bucolic perhaps, but it seems mostly to have been a nuisance to residents, and for one man, his death-trap.
When thinking about the past waterways of San Francisco, it is important to bear in mind that the season and the year had everything to do with how much water—or even if any water—flowed in any given creek. The actual path could shift from year to year, as shown from comparing historical maps of the peninsula before development. Man-made changes to the land also moved creek routes. Our tributary may well have been a dribble or completely dry much of the year. Photos of Sunnyside in its first decades uniformly show a barren landscape; no obvious clumps of trees that give away the consistent presence of water to draw on. However, newspaper reports suggest that when the rains came, it flowed, and was a force to be reckoned with in Sunnyside. It wound its way along this path:
It began at around Foerster Street and Las Palmos, and ran along the western side of the current Sunnyside Park. It then traversed Mangels Ave at about the 470s, and Joost Ave in the 550s, winding its way through the intersection of Edna and Sunnyside Ave (now Monterey Blvd).
Impassable Roads and Broken Bridges
A century ago, during winter, the waters consistently created a great muddy mess at that intersection on Monterey—at least for the horse carriages that constituted traffic at the time. From there the creek flowed on through the 200 block of Hearst on the north, sometimes flooding residents’ backyards, according to the recollection of one longtime resident in an oral history. At the corner of Hearst and Detroit, it pooled–I find at least two reports that it was dammed here, for reasons that are not clear. The 1905 map below shows the pooling, and a small bridge near this intersection, as well as another bridge further along in its path at about 105 Flood Ave.
Winding Somewhere Safe to Sea
The creek continued its way down to the bottom of Congo Street, which was described by one longtime resident as “a swamp” into the 1920s. From there it crossed the railroad tracks (now the I-280 freeway) through a culvert, went down into the Mission Terrace neighborhood, and eventually into the Bay via the Islais Channel, which is still there today. (Visit SeepCity.org to learn more about our lost waterways.)
Sometime in the 1920s, with land increasingly fully paved over, and sewer system infrastructure filled out, the water that would have formed our creek simply entered the sewer system–and in droves during heavy winters. The Mission Terrace area in the last few years has seen many residents struggling with sewer overflow during storms–it is in part our would-be creek waters, diverted into an overtaxed sewer system, that are the source of their woes. Actually, to be clear, it is the SFPUC’s lack of effective management of that system that is the real source of the repeated damage to their houses. Here is an excellent piece detailing the matter in SFWeekly [this piece has since been removed from the internet. -ed.], and here some recent news [Oct 2015, via Wayback Machine].
Going With the Flow or Getting Washed Away?
What was it like to live with a creek in your midst? There are traces in the newspapers from a hundred years ago. In the summer of 1899 residents petitioned the City to install a culvert under Sunnyside Avenue at Foerster, to keep the creek from inundating the road there, but they were told the work would have to wait for at least another year [SF Call 30 June 1899]. An El Niño followed in the winter of 1899-1900, and local people were back at the Board of Supervisors asking for repairs to be made in the road which had, naturally, been damaged in the massive rains [SF Call, 30 January 1900]. Plus ça change.
The “pond” at Detroit and Hearst during the rainy season seems to have been substantial and deep. In 1910 the Sunnyside Improvement Club petitioned the Board of Public Works, saying the bridge there was in an “impassable condition … the timbers have rotted away and the structure is declared to be in a dangerous condition” [SF Chronicle 24 January 1919]. The outcome of their plea didn’t make the newspapers.
Early Morning Madness
Things took a dramatic turn in 1915 when a man drowned in the pond there. The story is recorded in a rather melodramatic item in the Oakland Tribune: an unfortunate man named Godfrey Buchwald, who lived nearby at 217 Flood Ave (now 227), suffered from delusions, we are told by the reporter. He had recently been abandoned by his wife and child due to his erratic behavior.
Apparently at 3 o’clock in morning he thought he heard the cries of his son from the pond, and left his house, crossing the empty lots through the middle of that block to the pond with the intention of rescuing the child. The pool of water was a known hazard—there was a wire fence around it to keep out children. It would have taken some effort and determination to get past the fence, but that was what Mr Buchwald did, with tragic consequences.
A young man named Joseph Molinari living in the house on the corner, 401 Detroit, was awakened by the sound of the man struggling in the water. He went out to help, but he was too late. Sadly, Mr Buchwald had already drowned.
What is Left?
The one standing physical remnant of the creek may be this modest concrete post between 305 Hearst and 337 Detroit. A woman who lived much of her life near this corner reported in an oral history, being told as a child by an older neighbor that it formed part of the bridge that once stood at this corner. (Read more about these interviews here.) I think it much more likely to have been part of a retaining wall which kept the water from flooding the corner lot (although this lot did not have a house on it until 1940).
There remains another kind of trace of the creek’s path in the empty lots that the City retains for sewer drainage. See the map below for the position of these lots. The City prefers having sewer pipes under streets, but when the land dips in the middle of a block, another way must be found. It is no coincidence that the lots that the City owns for drainage are near the creek’s old route–that is the way water wants to flow.
Certain lots owned by the City for drainage have been creatively double-purposed: two such lots in Sunnyside, though not on the creek’s path, were turned into a public mini-park–the Joost-Baden Mini-park, which runs between about 151 Mangels Ave and 250 Joost Ave–a really sweet way to climb the hill on a walk. As well, the stairsteps/garden that lead from Joost into the Sunnyside Conservatory grounds are also on city drainage lots.
The sewer drainage lots owned by the City that are on the creek’s path are marked on this map in pink, with creek’s old path in blue. One is part of Sunnyside Park, the other runs between houses, but has been fenced off, perhaps the adjacent homeowners. Could those last two make another public mini-park? Read more about this here.
In these years of severe drought, it seems worse than senseless to put fresh water into the sewer. SFPUC has made efforts in recent years to find ways to divert storm water into environmentally beneficial systems, but the basic problem stems from having a single system in SF for both sewage and storm water. That decision was made a very long time ago, and we are living with it now.
For the real estate speculators who laid out Sunnyside in 1890, the point was to get the maximum profit from the purchase of the barren Rancho San Miguel acres. One park was allotted to this working-class neighborhood (now Sunnyside Playground). Rectangular lots, neatly packed, yielded the best return. It was a time of steep real estate profits and get-rich-quick schemes; a property lot shown in summer wouldn’t yield its water-laden secrets until a wet winter made that all too apparent. Gracious public green spaces were not foremost in the speculators’ minds.
It would be wonderful if a way could be found in our neighborhood to make use of old creek patterns–the paths that usually put rain water down the sewer–for environmentally beneficial and publicly shared purposes, like the Joost-Baden Mini-park.
In previous decades this lot was open and had a footpath on it, shown in this 1956 photo, and also the 1948 aerial photo.
Today: Trees, but no Water
In Your Backyard?
Do you know something about this lost creek? Residents who live near the old path may have experienced overflow issues or other problems during storms or especially wet winters. Have a story? Write me.