The large plot of land that was known as the Balboa Reservoir has had a remarkable history, despite never having been filled with water and once being declared “void of positive features” by the City. Through most of the twentieth century it was owned by SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), yet none of the uses the land has been put to have had any impact for good or ill on the city’s water supply. Now the last third of it still left in the hands of SFPUC is being developed as a housing project.
Spring Valley’s real estate wager
The reservoir site started as part of Adolph Sutro’s Rancho San Miguel holdings, most of which were acquired by him in 1881. Sutro sold the 42-acre lot on the far southeast corner of his eucalyptus-covered kingdom to the Spring Valley Water Company in 1894. The company’s stated purpose was to build a reservoir there. They didn’t.
Just to put a bookend on our end of this farce: in 1994, one hundred years later, the SF Water Dept, heir to the Spring Valley Company in 1930, still considered the site as a viable future reservoir—despite a century of noncompletion.
The land is clearly marked on Spring Valley’s own 1894 map showing their property and routes of water distribution. (See whole map on Eric Fischer’s Flickr page).
This was part of Sutro’s vast forest. Spring Valley cleared most of the trees off the land purchase sometime shortly after their purchase.
By the beginning of 1896 Spring Valley Water Co had leased the land to entrepreneurs for a dog coursing park with organized betting. 
In the course of my research, I had cause to wonder whether Spring Valley did not in fact purchase this lot—being the perfect size and location for a coursing park—with the focused determination to make some mighty cash off the gambling fever that was then sweeping SF, using the reservoir purpose as pretense.
This casts a disturbing light on the century to follow, during which the City built twelve other reservoirs while this site remaining forever dry. It may have been in part due to Spring Valley’s initial poor choice of the site, in terms of location and elevation.
If not for this decision taken by a private water company with a limited sense of civic responsibility, the land might have been seamlessly integrated into the surrounding burgeoning neighborhood in the 20th century.
The Ingleside Coursing Park
But these were the days before civic responsibility was much in fashion. What better use for a huge, cleared, flat bit of land on the outskirts of San Francisco than a dog-coursing park? In April 1896, Ingleside Coursing Park was opened on the site, taking its name from the nearby racetrack further west that had opened four months before.
There were a couple of other coursing parks already in operation in San Francisco at this time, so it was a proven money-maker.
On the land, which was accurately described as being one half-mile by one quarter-mile, the proprietors built seating for 2000 spectators, a 9-foot high fence encompassing the lot, plus the needed buildings for housing the keeper and the animals, with a bandstand later to add to the excitement. The Market Street Railway streetcar went right by the site, the franchise having been put in place for the racetrack customers the previous year.
About that rabbit…
This was a sport that wasn’t sporting at all: turn loose two (sometimes four) greyhounds on a lone hare inside a large fenced enclosure. Ostensibly to give the prey a sporting chance, various hidey holes were placed around the enclosure.
Sometimes the hare froze and couldn’t be goaded into running. At some point, one or more of the dogs injured or killed it, or they didn’t. Occasionally the hare escaped death. Until the next “race.”
Spectators bet on which dog would get the hare. A man on horseback judged which dog won. (Read this account of coursing in Los Angeles, where it was introduced a year or so later, and where it met with stiffer opposition than in laissez-faire SF.)
Not everyone found this a salubrious and lawful weekend recreation. The secretary of the SF Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was onto the new coursing park before it was even built. Charles H. Holbrook made fighting the new park at Ingleside a personal vendetta, calling it useless animal cruelty.
Despite threatening to arrest those persons running the Park on the day it opened, Holbrook found himself opposed by others in the SPCA who held the sport was legitimate. The opening of the Park went ahead on Sunday 26 Apr 1896.
Coursing “races” were conducted at the park on Saturdays and Sundays for much of the next 16 years, except for spotty stretches in 1899-1903, and after 1909, periods when the Supervisors changed the law about organized gambling pools inside city limits. There was naturally a reduction in events and public interest when such betting was prohibited; watching dogs run down a doomed hare and tear it to bits evidently didn’t hold the same allure when there wasn’t some substantial money riding on it.
Toward the end of the park’s days, the prize was frequently advertised as being $2000 ($60K now) and the park was mentioned almost daily in the sporting sections of the newspapers when it was in operation.
The racing hounds were spoken of with a kind of religious adoration, and their trainers and pedigrees were closely followed by aficionados.
Drunken men with dogs
To live in the growing neighborhood around the park was to be subjected to some scandalous sights and sounds. The Board of Supervisors heard many complaints in Nov 1904. By then it was the progressive era, and objections were based not on cruelty to animals but the immoral behavior of park attendees.
Regarding the drunken men and women who went to the park, Mrs Frank of Lee Ave said the sights she saw under her window “could not be spoken of in definite terms before an assemblage of men….‘I can’t describe what I see there.’“ Miss Caley of Faxon Ave told the Board that drunken men crowded the [street]cars with dogs and that she felt ashamed to have her friends visit her.
Mrs Jackson also of Lee Ave claimed that children were being enticed into the park. “Ten thousand persons go there every Lord’s day….Many of them spend all their money betting and then have to walk home,” reported Mrs McCoy, president of the Central Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
The last advertised dog coursing event was held on 9 August 1912, following years of infrequent races after organized betting was curtailed again in 1909. In December 1912, the keeper of the park, Thomas Fitzgerald, died in a fire that engulfed his cottage on the grounds.
Overlapping the last couple years of coursing at the park was use of the land as the site for aviation meets. In December 1911, the Call reported that Miss Dorothy Adams, pioneering woman aviator, was to start her daring, history-making flight down the peninsula at the coursing grounds, at a meet on Sunday the 17th.
Another aviator at this event took an eleven-year-old girl named Miss Gladys Gray up in his flying machine.
In November 1912, there was another big aviation meet with all types of stunts, including another local woman aviator, “expert birdwoman” Miss Catharine Thompson.
On the 1915 Chevalier map, made for the Panama Pacific International Exhibition that year, the land is still shown as the Ingleside Coursing Park. This map optimistically leaves out the Ingleside Jail in Balboa Park (details below).
The name of a conqueror
Until 1909, this so-called reservoir site was referred to as the “Industrial School reservoir tract,” or the reservoir at “the House of Refuge lot.” These names referred to the large tract of land nearby that the City had bought in 1858 for various county penal institutions that were located there. This is on the site of the present City College football and soccer fields. (Read about the Ingleside Jail here.) It was in 1909 that the City decided to develop the Industrial School lot as a public park, and name it for Spanish Conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa.
Although it was a tenth the size of Golden Gate Park, the park land was still 100 acres and then San Francisco’s second largest. When it was named, it included today’s Balboa Park (east of present I-280 freeway) and City College of SF (west of I-280). Plans for the vast site were ambitious: a deer park, a lake, a meadow, winding sylvan paths, sporting grounds —everything to make it the smaller-sized match of Golden Gate Park.
Unfortunately, there was this trifling matter of the extensive double jail complex that sat in the middle of the site. But no matter, the City was on a park-planning binge.
Another downside was the Southern Pacific railroad tracks that ran through the park (now I-280 freeway). This was an especially deadly section of the route, with steam trains getting up to an illegal but unofficially tolerated 35-40 MPH as they headed toward the county line The massive engines killed and injured many people over the years. (Here is one story.)
Some trees were planted and a baseball diamond laid out soon after the park was designated. But nothing else of those initial plans for Balboa Park materialized. In 1912 the Chronicle called it “a name and a vacant lot” (18 Dec 1912, p11).
But from about 1910 onward, the park lent its name to the adjacent reservoir site, which was referred to as Balboa Reservoir or Balboa Park Reservoir from then on.
Where’s my park?
Before continuing to track the sorry tale of this reservoir that never was, I will digress by touching on the century-long story of the loss of promised open space/park space in this part of San Francisco. The story of the Balboa Reservoir is tied up with the story of Balboa Park—the beautiful, amenities-rich public resort planned 110 years ago and never built.
The reservoir site remained open space, even as the park site was developed for City College beginning in the late 1930s; the I-280 freeway went in in the 1960s; and a few facilities were built at the present Balboa Park. The reservoir site provided open space in an area of the city otherwise lacking in it – granted it still has no any amenities and is covered in volunteer plants sprouting in the cracks of the 1958 asphalt reservoir lining. Grime with a view.
It is this lack of any other substantial public open space which has helped fuel local residents’ push-back against the City’s wish for development on the reservoir site in the late 20th century and at the present (details in parts two and three of this article).
Today when you stand up on the weedy old berm that is still left, you can see far in all directions and have a sense of space otherwise unavailable in this part of the city. The original lot of 100 acres for Balboa Park has been chopped up: CCSF is a fabulous and needed city treasure, but it took most of the original park land; the portion still called Balboa Park is small and bordered by a noisy, busy freeway (over which many park-goers must cross in order to reach the facility).
Plainly put, the surrounding neighborhoods have been cheated over the course of the last century of the decent-sized chunk of open space promised by the City in 1909, the type of amenity that residents in the in north part of SF have in Golden Gate Park. It hardly seems puzzling that many neighbors would rather see no development at all than suffer the final loss of open space that the current Balboa Reservoir housing project will mean for the area.
Vegetables, carnivals, and golf
But let us return to the early 1900s. Even before the coursing park’s stands and fences were torn down about 1914, the large open space was used for other purposes. In 1909 a local group used it for a fund-raising carnival, to raise money to finish the nearby Faxon Avenue. The City said they would put up $1000 for the street work, but local residents were pressed to raise the other $1500 needed.
In 1921 the Parks Commission stated their desire to turn a large part of Balboa Park, along with half of the Balboa Reservoir, into a municipal golf course, thus enlarging the park. Spring Valley Water Co seems not to have been interested in this proposition.
In the 1920s the site was leased to farmers to raise vegetables. The reservoir land is just visible in a portion of a panorama taken from the southwest in 1922, with planted rows apparent.
When there was some excavation done on the reservoir later in 1933-34, the site was referred to as “truck gardens” (more on this below). It was one of the many sites in the fertile lowlands in the south-east part of the city then farmed by Italian immigrants. (Read more about that here.)
The annual report of the Public Utilities Commission in 1932-33 indicates that the PUC was at that time leasing some portion of the reservoir site to a private entrepreneur as a practice golf course. That year they reduced the rent from $125 a month to $50, perhaps because of the economic pressures of the Depression.
Engineer O’Shaughnessy comes to Town
The wild town that saw itself burned to the ground in 1906 never returned to the debauched ways of those pre-Quake days; thereafter it aspired to international stature. It needed a water system to match.
In 1912 Michael Maurice O’Shaughnessy became City Engineer, and he was a man who had big plans. His efforts over twenty years drove the City steadily toward its destiny: the Hetch-Hetchy water system.
Although Spring Valley Water Co had said the site NW of Ocean and Phelan was for a planned reservoir, they never took any actions toward building it. The company was during these years in a state of perpetual waiting, grooming itself for a City takeover, in which they would cash in on all the water-supply potential they’d been sitting on for decades.
O’Shaughnessy got serious about SF’s water system, as Mayor Sunny Jim Rolph surely knew he would when he hired him. From the 1910s to the 1930s, O’Shaughnessy doggedly pursued his plans for the Hetch-Hetchy scheme to establish a sufficient water supply for the City, with the Balboa Reservoir as a critical component to provide for its needs in case of emergency. In 1913 he inventoried all the sites, including the Balboa Reservoir, owned by Spring Valley, and in 1914 he threatened to condemn them, preparatory to the City buying them out. Finally, with bonds approved by voters in 1928, the City purchased the Spring Valley Water Co holdings in March 1930, including this reservoir site.
Grand visions in hard times
The Balboa Reservoir was the centerpiece of O’Shaughnessy’s plan for city storage, a massive site with a huge potential capacity. It was at this time still the full 42 acres, with a 280 million gallon capacity. Here is a rendering of the site as a reservoir, from the 1931 report on the Hetch-Hetchy system.
When there was push to fund the project in 1930, the Chronicle ran an editorial, supporting the reservoir plan. But unfortunately it was a victim of tight times, and the half million dollars ($9m now) needed to construct it was cut from the City’s budget for 1930-31. The Chronicle ran another editorial with cartoon.
In 1932 O’Shaughnessy lost control of his Hetch-Hetchy project when the Public Utilities Commission was formed, taking over the management of the city water system. Water bonds were put forth in the 1932 election, but the Balboa Reservoir project—its price by then put at $1.8m ($33m now)—was not included in the plans.
These were just two of the City’s many false starts on constructing the Balboa Reservoir for water storage.
Vague plans and more vegetables
In December 1932, San Francisco Teacher’s College (which would later become San Francisco State University) considered the reservoir for their new campus, having grown out of their site at Buchanan and Webster. (In the 1950s SFSU would relocate to its much larger current site at 19th Ave and Holloway.)
During the 1930s, given the failure of the reservoir to get built, local resident and merchant groups urged that it be sold off for development. In 1932 a group of residents led by one Murray Norton of nearby Faxon Ave, proposed that the city sell the site and use a cheaper location for a reservoir. The City could get a quarter million dollars for it, he said, a big boon in depressed times.
In April 1933, the PUC actually did put some of the reservoir land up for sale – the most northerly 300 feet. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of SF would buy the most northerly 400 feet in 1947, which I will get to in part two of this history.
Leasing the land for the cultivation of vegetables continued, with farmer V.V. Castagnetto getting one year’s lease in January 1933 on the middle 29 acres, for about $100/month.
Making work for the needy many
Then in the depths of the Depression, the SF Civil Works Administration (CWA) decided that digging the reservoir would be one of the projects to set unemployed men onto, in a scheme devised in November 1933. The PUC paid off their farming tenant Castagnetto with $3000, to dissolve the lease, promising to remove his redwood irrigation pipes and tanks, and a little structure known as the Ranch House, without damaging them. The plan was ultimately to put 2000 men to work digging the reservoir largely by hand.
Only those in need were accepted. The first payday was noted in the paper.
One of the Supervisors, Adolph Uhl, balked at the cost of the project, and he called E.G. Cahill, manager of the Public Utilities, to task in February 1934 while the project was still in progress. Cahill defended his reservoir project. The Board of Supervisors pushed back, saying that Ocean Avenue merchants were objecting to disruptions caused by the work. Cahill said the Board was interfering with the work of another city agency, in violation of the City Charter.
The digging at the reservoir site stopped by May 1934. Not much was accomplished, besides a redistribution of federal funds to families in need. Here are photos from the project during those few months of work.
The PUC report in July 1934 states that 1400 men worked in two 5-hour shifts and the work was done with hand labor: picks, shovels, wheelbarrows, with a donkey engine on a 24-inch railroad track to move soil. Tracks are clearly visible.
“Comparatively small progress was made on actual construction of the reservoir. The surface soil stripped and wasted from the area (about 30 acres) of the reservoir site; the division wall embankment and the earth embankment on two sides were well started, when the work was discontinued.”
The 42-acre albatross
In the PUC annual report for 1936-37, the Balboa Reservoir site is noted as one of the properties that “cannot be leased at the present time, [having been] cut up by work done in 1931-32 [sic].”
Thus by that point, not only wasn’t it a reservoir, it wasn’t a substantial source of revenue for the SFPUC. In 1938 the Ingleside Boosters Improvement Club called on the city to “release the Balboa reservoir land … for business and home sites.”
The 1938 aerial photo shows the site shortly after this, naturally crisscrossed with paths coming from the four residential streets that dead-end onto it, Wildwood Way, San Ramon Way, Colon Ave, and Hazelwood Ave. The slight banking on the southwest corner from the CWA work can be seen.
I’ll go out on a limb here, but I’d wager that even by this point, the reservoir site was the place where many teenagers learned to drive—a community use of the open land which continues even today. My back-of-the-envelope calculation puts the number of unique drivers who learned there over the years since paving in 1958 at something like 100,000.
More golf and vegetables
At least by 1942, green dreams of a golf course continued in the form of a modest practice driving range, set up on the southern portion by some enterprising person. The sign is shown in this photo, behind the streetcar.
“25¢ GOLF 25¢” With lighting installed for night-time fun (visible at top of sign above car).
Although I found just one record to confirm it, it seems likely the PUC continued to lease a portion of the reservoir site for vegetable cultivation by those enterprising Italian gardeners. The last mention of such a lease is in the PUC minutes of 1944: local Mission Terrace nurseryman Angelo John Stagnaro Sr. paid $420 for a year’s lease on 6.426 acres, this apparently being what was left of easily tillable land after the cutting up of the site during the CWA boondoggle of 1933-34.
After WWII, things heated up on the Balboa Reservoir. Read the next post: WAVEs, West Campus, and Waterless Basins: the History of the Balboa Reservoir 1945-1984
- “SF Urban Design Study Preliminary Report #4”, SF Planning Dept, Jan 1970. https://archive.org/stream/4sanfranciscourba19691970#page/n133/mode/2up/ ↑
- Robert E. Stewart and Mary Frances Stewart, Adolph Sutro, a Biography, Berkeley: Howell North, 1962, p174. ↑
- “A New Reservoir,” SF Call, 14 Feb 1894, p9. ↑
- “A History of the Municipal Water Department and the Hetch-Hetchy System,” San Francisco Water and Power, 1994, p21. https://archive.org/stream/sanfranciscowate1994hans#page/20/mode/2up ↑
- “New Coursing Park,” SF Call, 4 Mar 1896, p7. ↑
- More about the racetrack: https://outsidelands.org/ingleside-racetrack.php ↑
- “New Coursing Park,” SF Call, 4 Mar 1896, p7. ↑
- “Fail to Close Coursing Park,” SF Chronicle, 22 Nov 1904, p8. ↑
- “Aged Man Burned to Death in Bed,” 16 Dec 1912, SF Call, p11. ↑
- San Francisco and the Hetch-Hetchy Reservoir. Hearing held before the Committee on the Public Lands of the House of Representatives, December 16, 1908,” p262. https://archive.org/stream/sanfranciscohetc1908unit#page/n291/mode/2up/ ↑
- “Transform Site into New Park,” SF Chronicle, 12 Aug 1909, p9. ↑
- “Plan to Develop New Playground,” San Francisco Municipal Record, 29 Sept 1921, p313. ↑
- “New Reservoir will replace Truck Gardens,” SF Chronicle, 3 Dec 1933, p59. ↑
- “Report of the SF Public Utilities Commission, 1931-32 & 1932-33,” SFPUC, Dec 1933, p100. https://archive.org/stream/reportofsanfranc1931sanf#page/100/mode/2up/ ↑
- M.M. O’Shaughnessy, “The Hetch-Hetchy Water Supply of San Francisco,” Mar 1916, p39 https://archive.org/stream/hetchhetchywater1916osha#page/38/mode/2up ; M.M. O’Shaughnessy, “The Hetch-Hetchy Water Supply,” Bureau of Engineering of the Dept of Public Works, Oct 1925, p39 https://archive.org/stream/hetchhetchywater00osha#page/n1/mode/2up ; M.M. O’Shaughnessy, “The Hetch-Hetchy Water Supply and Power Project of San Francisco,” Nov 1931, p47 https://archive.org/stream/hetchhetchywater00osha_0#page/46/mode/2up . ↑
- “Files Inventory of Unused Lands,” SF Chronicle, 14 Feb 1913, p10; “City to Condemn Watershed Lands,” SF Chronicle, 2 Jan 1914, p18. ↑
- M.M. O’Shaughnessy, “The Hetch-Hetchy Water Supply and Power Project of San Francisco,” Nov 1931, p8 https://archive.org/stream/hetchhetchywater00osha_0#page/8/mode/2up/ ↑
- “No Room for Argument about Policy on Balboa Reservoir,” editorial, SF Chronicle, 4 Apr 1930, p28. ↑
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_O%27Shaughnessy ↑
- “Millions Bond Issue for City Water Faced,” SF Chronicle, 31 Jan 1931, p53. ↑
- “New Grounds for Institution Sought,” SF Chronicle, 17 Dec 1932, p15. ↑
- “Notice of Sale of Land,” SF Chronicle, 18 Apr 1933, p22. ↑
- SFPUC minutes, 9 Jan 1933. https://archive.org/stream/sfpucresolutionm1933sfpu#page/n17/mode/2up/ . ↑
- “4000 Jobs Provided in First Project,” SF Chronicle, 21 Nov 1933, p3. ↑
- SFPUC minutes, 11 Dec 1933. https://archive.org/stream/sfpucresolutionm1933sfpu#page/n399/mode/2up/ ; “10,000 in SF CWA Jobs by Next Week-End,” SF Chronicle, 25 Nov 1933, p4. ↑
- “Uhl Revises Act on Auto Joy Riding,” SF Chronicle, 5 Feb 1934, p17. ↑
- “Cahill Upholds Site of Balboa Reservoir,” SF Chronicle, 6 Feb 1934, p6. ↑
- “Utilities Body Protest CWA Work Cessation – Bad Faith Charged in Balboa Reservoir Order,” SF Chronicle, 22 Feb 1934, p3; “Uhl’s Outburst Stirs Squabble at Board Meet,” SF Chronicle, 10 Apr 1934, p17. ↑
- The Report of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission 1933-34,” p34. https://archive.org/stream/reportofsanfranc1933sanf#page/34/mode/2up/ ↑
- “The Report of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission 1936-37,” p44. https://archive.org/stream/reportofsanfranc1936sanf#page/44/mode/2up/ ↑
- “Haight Ashbury Club Seeks Playground for District,” SF Chronicle, 30 Mar 1938, p9. ↑
- Two different ways to do some Feynmanesque figuring: 60 years of asphalt paving on BR => 100 weekend days to practice x ~6 hours in each day = 36,000 weekend hours available. Learner-drivers and parents go out for ½ hour sessions (who can stand more than that?), giving 72,000 sessions. Each session has 4 drivers jerking around on site, giving 280,000 driver-sessions. Each unique driver goes out for, let’s say, an average of 2.8 times before imperiling other road users on city streets, giving 100,000 unique learner-drivers on BR over that period. OR: In each of 60 years there have been about 100,000 under-18s in SF, and of those, 10% are teen learner-drivers (10,000), and of these, let’s say 20% used the BR to practice (2000) x 60 years = 120,000 unique learner-drivers. Actually, you see more grown immigrant men teaching their grown immigrant wives to drive in recent years. ↑
- SFPUC annual report 1937-38 states that 35 acres of the reservoir site are not being leased then, against the general practice of this agency to extract maximum value from land it owned. https://archive.org/stream/reportofsanfranc1937sanf#page/56/mode/2up/ ; SFPUC minutes, 1944, p3861. https://archive.org/stream/sfpucresolutions1944sfpu#page/n81/mode/2up/ ↑