1848-1881 Washerwoman’s' Lagoon and Cow Hollow West to Presidio

For eons before San Francisco east of Presidio was populated by Europeans, springs and streams flowed both north and west from Russian Hill and Pacific Heights ridges. Huge sandbanks ran from Aquatic Park to about Pierce Street today, culminating where land began to rise to Pacific Heights and cut off flow of water into the Bay to the north. Sand blockage formed Washerwoman's and smaller lagoons. This is pictured in early west and northwest views from Russian Hill and illustrated in the early San Francisco area maps below:


Washerwoman's Lagoon in 1856 from West Slope Russian Hill looking West 1960's NW from Russian Hill over Sand Banks and Black Point

The Anza expedition, to determine location for Presidio in 1776, was first Europeans to camp alongside the lagoon. This encampment had been previously identified as near site of Mission Dolores. Instead, it is below heights a couple blocks south and west from Black Point along the old path which became first road west from Portsmouth Square to Presidio in late 1840's. The lagoon bordered Lombard, Laguna, Filbert and Franklin, a few blocks west of our Lombard Ridge and north of our Octavia home on Pacific Heights ridge. The great sand hills that cut it from Bay are now a long vanished Marina District geological feature that rose abruptly from Lombard 20 to 40 feet, before tapering down to the Bay shoreline to north.

The cliff line in Fort Mason still traces the old shoreline west to what today we refer to as gashouse cove. The intersection of Laguna and Bay was solid ground, well above the high-water line of the bay. The intersection of Fillmore and Bay was in the water and remained so even after the Fillmore pier was constructed in 1863. West of Fillmore and Bay tidal sloughs and mudflats alternated with small sand hillocks, some stabilized by vegetation. Mudflats actually crossed the line of Lombard near Divisadero. Some of the old shoreline can be found today out near the St. Francis yacht club. The little Marina Green to east of Crissy Field once held the hot and cold salt water baths of Rudolph Herman's Harbor View Resort.


The sand hills were graded down over a period of years, first in the 1870's from Webster to Laguna and Bay to Chestnut, in what was then Lobos Square, now Moscone Park. Then, in the mid 1890s, in conjunction with plans for a north seawall, the hills were graded flat. Much of the sand filled in the tidal sloughs and mudflats. Perhaps the intention was to fill all the area behind the seawall, but that effort fell far short. 76 acres remained unfilled until 1912, perhaps since Black Point Cove to the east was used as the north dump site for 1906 earthquake and fire debris, rather than Marina. It was only when Marina was selected as site for the 1915 Fair, that it was completely filled.

From the first days of the Gold Rush, Washerwoman's Lagoon became a San Francisco laundry. With nearly everyone dashing to mines on arrival, it was difficult to find anybody to do washing. If you could afford it, the charge would have been more than the value of the clothes, so laundry was often sent to Hawaii to be washed, sometimes even to China. Even though Lombard Street runs along the southern edge of Washerwoman's lagoon as the main way west to the Presidio today, in the 1850's the Portsmouth to Presidio road continued north along eastern and northern shore of lagoon until near Filbert and Union where it turned west to Presidio.

Although almost three miles from Portsmouth Square, where nearly everyone lived even further away to the south, several enterprising Chinese finally decided to establish a laundry beside the lagoon. Then a man named Pratt started a big laundry at lagoon that eventually became the Occidental Laundry. And thrifty San Francisco housewives began to go to the lagoon to wash their clothes by hand. They would make it a Sunday outing, taking their families and picnic lunches and, in wheelbarrows and dump carts, their washing. After scrubbing and rinsing it down by the shore, they would hang it on the chaparral to dry, and then take it home for ironing.

The oldest house still standing in this area dates to the early 1850s, and rivals of the Abner Phelps house for the title of oldest dwelling in San Francisco. It still exists as two-story Black cottage. This modest frame house with a cantilevered balcony stands at the end of a little cul-de-sac known as Blackstone Court, opening on the west side of Franklin Street, just half a block south of Lombard. The house once stood on the bank of Washerwoman's Lagoon. Early records concerning land disputes in this area show a man named Black as the owner of the property before 1852. It probably was moved from a rancho further west. As 9-11 Blackstone Court today, it has Gothic Revival veranda. It is first documented on its site in 1893, possibly moved to clear a street right-of-way designated by the Laguna Survey of 1889-91. Before 1899 it was raised a story by the Favilla family from North Beach, very early Italian-American residents in what became the Marina District.

1850, 1893 Black Cottage 1849-1881 Blackstone Court, Washerwoman's Lagoon 1880 Fort Mason beyond Sand Bank Looking North

Abraham House at 30 Blackstone Court, was constructed in 1885 by Charles Abraham, and enlarged by him in 1905. Abraham was the horticulturally significant founder of Western Nursery, which operated on most of this block from 1885 to 1947. It may have been Abraham who employed the Italian gardeners on our 1200 block of Lombard, who about the same time set pattern of mid lot open space and alternating lot residences in either front or rear of lots. Western Nursery lasted until 1947 as last survivor of Cow Hollow/Marina District agricultural enterprises. An Australian peppermint tree and a Monterey Cypress appear to date from the nursery. All of these remnants combine to present a unique physical expression of the pre-1906 settlement patterns of this section of the City: the pre-Gold Rush trail, the lot lines perpendicular to it, the nursery, the modest old houses and early, pre-1900 Italian-American investment in the Marina District. And all of these helped spur the residential growth both on nearby Lombard and Pacific Heights ridges.

The streams flowing north and west into three lagoons that all coalesced into the largest Washerwoman's and gave rise to the major economic activity of the lands from Russian Hill west to the Presidio from 1850's to 1890's. The marshy and moist lands indicated around Washerwoman's lagoon indicated in the thatched areas of 1857 map below stretched west to Presidio and gave rise to the dairies and small vegetable farms that provided milk, diary products, meat and vegetables to rapidly growing San Francisco beyond the hills to the east.

1857 Map of Washerwoman Lagoon Environs Pre 1906 Map with Original Creeks and Streams 1869 Map with Lagoons South of Sand Banks


Washerwoman’s Lagoon became the watering hole that dairy cattle would use to supplement streams or any water that might have been tapped from the Lobos Creek as it flowed east to Black Point pumping station for San Francisco water supply via Russian Hill reservoirs. In 1853 George Hatman and his wife arrived in San Francisco and George worked in a brick yard. Seeing high prices of vegetables, he leased land in 1861 at intersection of Green and Gough and started a small vegetable farm. Shortly afterward he bought block bounded by Union, Filbert, Franklin and Gough and started one of first dairies.


1873 Pacific-Octavia N to Gardens, Lagoon, Sand Bank 1897 Broadway NE Lagoon, Sand Bank Gone 1900 Broadway Divisidero NE, few Gardens

With about 60 cows, Hatman's dairy was average size of the 30 some that were established west to Presidio, giving Cow Hollow its neighborhood name. Larger dairies had upward of 200 cows. During that era the wholesale price of milk was 20 cents a gallon. Retail price of a quart delivered to your doorstep each day was $2.50-$3.00 per month. In the 1860s, Pacific Heights' northern slopes were a network of nurseries, small vegetable farms and open fields called Golden Gate Valley. By 1890, there were roughly 800 cows roaming the area. Many Chinese kept large vegetable gardens among the dairies and grazing lands of Cow Hollow and sell the vegetables on the street or to local cooks. A distillery on Pierce and Lombard was next to farms along Steiner. By the late 1800's tanneries, slaughterhouses, and sausage factories had moved into the area, generating sewage.

The conditions at the dairies deteriorated, and a series of articles in local papers about sick cows and contaminated milk resulted in 1891 Board of Health banishment of the cows. Some of the vegetable and nursery operations continued, but the area had become more fashionable, and wealthier San Franciscans built ornate Victorian homes. Once the dairies and the gardens left, the area became entirely residential, but Cow Hollow name for area bordered mostly by Larkin, Lombard, Pacific and Presidio still exists.

1870 Polk and Filbert SW to Pacific Heights Ridge 1890's Greenwich Imperial Center of Lagoon 1880's Gough/Green gardens S Pacific Heights

1900 Van Ness Vallejo Gardens W to Presidio 1880's Gardens looking west to 1868 Casebolt House

Above photos indicate some of gardens through area around Washerwoman's Lagoon and west to Presidio. Many others are represented on Sanborn maps from our Lombard ridge west. The dairies are harder to detect as Sanborn maps identify buildings, and much of dairy business was in open grazing lands or paths to watering holes like Washerwoman's lagoon or streams flowing down toward Bay from Pacific Heights ridge. There are even less photos of cows in Cow Hollow during their 1861-1880's era. As a result rather than old photos, this Cow Hollow section will conclude with two of original dairy homes, sketch of dairy operation and a couple Holsteins still welcome at 2415 Octavia's rear Broadway entrance.

1860 Dyer Farmhouse 1757 Union 1861 Hatman Dairy Sketch 2460 Octavia Dairy Farm House 2415 Octavia Broadway rear entry


After Washerwoman's Lagoon was filled in by 1881, were banished a decade later, but many of the gardens lasted for decades. Not until 1947 was Western Nursery closed and paved over for dental offices facing Franklin and a motel fronting on Lombard. In between the two to this day runs Blackstone Court, angling down to what would have been Washerwoman's Lagoon eastern shore. It is only non grid street, since it preceded 1855 original Western Addition street and block layout. From my first years on Lombard ridge and continuing through early years on Pacific Height Ridge, I made many, and some very painful visits to Dr. Witter's dental office on Blackstone Court. I never heard of Washerwoman's Lagoon in those times. Perhaps if I had and could think back to what it must have been like long ago along a calm shoreline, those visits may even have been less dreaded.


1895 Pacific Heights Looking Northeast to Fort Mason 1899 Chestnut Above Polk Looking West over Sievers Nursery to Cow Hollow

The 1895 and 1899 photos above indicate that great sand bank and Washerwoman's Lagoon were gone, but open gardens and nurseries still existed in Cow Hollow. A century later all was filled in with residential and some commercial buildings along Union, Lombard and Chestnut from Polk to Presidio, as well as along a few segments of north south streets like Van Ness and Fillmore. The greenery of gardens, grazing fields and nurseries is now mostly confined to midblock back yards and street trees as can be seen in Cameron's Above San Francisco of Cow Hollow from 1980's. If I look closely I can still pick out my first 1968 San Francisco home near end of Green St, as well as Pacific Heights ridge home where we have lived since 1983.

1980's Cow Hollow Looking East from Presidio 1980's Cow Hollow/ Pacific Heights North from Filbert at Washerwoman Lagoon