top of page
Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California_ 03_23_2018 - T

The Lake's Story


Stow Lake, the largest of the man made lakes in Golden Gate Park, surrounds the prominent Strawberry Hill, now an island with an electrically pumped waterfall. Completed in 1893, Stow Lake is considered a landscaping masterpiece.

It was named after Gold Rush-era lawyer William Walter Stow, who was a lobbyist for Southern Pacific back when railroad people had a lot of power.

William W. Stow (1824-1895) was a native of Binghamton, New York, where he was raised on a farm. He graduated from Hamilton College and moved to California when he was 28-years-old. He settled in Santa Cruz County and grew lemons. Two years later he ran for the California Assembly and served two terms. In 1855, he became the Speaker of the California Assembly. A year later, he ran an unsuccessful campaign for Governor on the Know-Nothing ticket. Stow made headlines as Assembly Speaker when he railed against Jews from the floor and even proposed a tax on Jews that ''would act as a prohibition to their residence amongst us.'' Stow’s outburst was a reaction against Louis Schwartz, a resident of Santa Cruz, who had opened businesses. Stow’s goal was to discourage Jews from moving to California.

From 1878-1893, Stow made a name for himself as the political “strong arm” and attorney for Collis P. Huntington and the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad. Stow was primarily responsible for the Southern Pacific’s ability to build the railways through his ability to raise massive amounts of financing and gain political favors.

In 1889, he was appointed to the San Francisco Park Commission and immediately began complaining about the lack of funds for Golden Gate Park. Ironically, when he was Assembly Speaker, he had cut funding for the park in half. In 1893, a lake at Golden Gate Park was named after Stow, who then convinced Huntington to pay $25,000 for a waterfall that still pours into the lake and is named after the railroad baron. That same year, he retired from the railroad to focus his attention on his duties as a park commissioner.(4)

Stow Lake was supposed to be just a reservoir to provide water for the rest of the park, and the bridges and landscaping and boathouse were added as a secondary thing. The waterfall was donated by Collis P. Huntington, another railroad tycoon. (3)

Created out of sand dunes by imaginative park superintendant John McLaren, it is the largest of Golden Gate Park’s lakes. Massive holes were dug out of the sand, carloads of clay were wheeled in and windmills were built to draft water from natural wells.

Strawberry Hill, the highest point in the park, became a central focus as an island in the middle of the lake.
The Rustic Bridge and the Roman Bridge, both completed in 1893 and still standing, connect the lakeshore with the island, allowing visitors panoramic views from the crest of the hill and access to walking paths as well as to the stone staircase that parallels dramatic Huntington Falls.

Three smaller islands add interest to the setting and provide wildlife habitation. It is no wonder that this jewel in the middle of Golden Gate Park was a featured attraction during the 1894 Midwinter Fair.(2)

Stow Lake 1.jpeg
Stow Lake 37_edited.jpg

Rowboats and pedalboats can be rented at the boathouse. Much of the western portion of San Francisco can be seen from the top of this hill, which at its top contains one of the reservoirs that supply a network of high-pressure water mains that exclusively supply specialized fire hydrants throughout the city.

The famous ghost story and legend of Stow Lake has been circulating for nearly 100 years, and it goes something like this: Once upon a time at Stow Lake, in Golden Gate Park, there was a lady who was walking her baby in a stroller. After a while, this lady got tired and rested on the bench next to the lake, with the stroller right next to her. While she was sitting, another lady came to sit down next to her and they started talking. While they were conversing, the stroller rolled away unnoticed. The stroller with the baby fell in the lake. After the two women finished talking, the lady noticed her baby was gone and panicked right away. She then walked around Stow Lake and asked people, “Have you seen my baby?” She spent all day and all night asking everyone. When the night was over, the last place she checked was the lake. She went into the lake looking for her baby and ever since, she hasn’t been seen again.

It is rumored that if someone goes to Stow Lake at night, weird occurrences take place. Stories have been told that the lady comes up from the lake, or the statue in her honor comes to life, or she will come up to you and ask, “Have you seen my baby?(1)

Jerry & Daniel Garcia
Stowe Lake in Golden Gate Park
San Francisco
Late 1950s

1.)^Stow Lake Ghost,
3.)^Hartlaub, Peter, A century of Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park,2012-09-22,
4.)^Colbruno, Michael, Lives of the Dead: Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland,
5.)^Jackson, Blair, Garcia:An American Life, pg 24

Stow Lake 34.jpeg

During his final year at the park, Prichard drew the plans for a huge irrigation reservoir on the east side of Strawberry Hill. Not only would the reservoir be used for irrigation, but it would also serve as a lake for boating and other forms of healthful exercise. Since no funds were available for construction, the plans were deferred. In the 1890s, after W. W. Stow had been appointed to the Park Board, the plans were revived with adequate funding, and Prichard’s reservoir was named Stow Lake.

The making of Golden Gate Park--the early years, 1865-1906 by Clary, Raymond H, Publication date 1980

bottom of page