San Francisco History

Early Resorts

Where the “Old Town” Frolicked

Early San Francisco Believed in Out-of-Doors Entertainment and Spent Many Happy Hours at Famous Gardens, Notably Woodward’s, the Establishment of Which Was Practically Forced on a Pioneer Boniface—May Day Festivals.

By F. L. McKenney

When the world was younger and some at least of us twentieth century ancients had not yet arrived on the scene to begin the strenuous pursuit of pleasure that distinguishes the present age, San Francisco passed through its period of simplicity.

Our beloved old town was something more than a village in the fifties and sixties, but it hardly had taken on its heterogenous, complex character of later days, and nearly every one knew every one else, and business, social life and amusements were conducted on a sort of family plan. When school kept, all was earnestness, and then when the great play time came, care was thrown aside and joy reigned in a simple, sweet way.

Graybeards tell with unction of the grand reunions and fun-making indulged in by young and old alike at the various out-of-door pleasure resorts that dotted the district, later known as “south of the slot,” and were scattered here and there to other parts of the city. The happiest moments—and many they numbered—of hundreds of men now prominent in all departments of San Francisco’s down to date life, were spent in those famous “gardens,” as most of the resorts were called.


With no desire to stir up an acrimonious squabble among the “oldest inhabitants” as to which was “really and truly” the first established of the gardens, the fame of which went around the world, it is timorously set down that the Russ Gardens should be given the honor. The gardens were pleasantly situated near the present Columbia park, or at about Harrison and Sixth streets. They were all that their name implied, with wide spreading trees, flowering shrubs, mossy banks—and best of all, when the sun was beating down with some intensity, they had cool little arbors where the lunch baskets could be emptied and famished appetites somewhat appeased. Just about all of the picnics of the early fifties had Russ Gardens as their objective.


Rivaling Russ Gardens a little later were Hayes park, at Hayes and Laguna streets; Happy Valley, at about Hayes and Market; the Willows, Mission and Eighteenth streets, and the greatest of them all and the most noted of its kind on the globe, the never-to-be-forgotten Woodward’s Gardens.

His mammoth amusement enterprise was practically forced on Woodward—R. B. Woodward, proprietor of the famous What Cheer House, at Sacramento and Leidesdorff streets. Woodward was host to thousands of skippers and sailor men form the Seven seas, and more than that, he was their friend. To show how much they thought of him, every trip from New York, around the horn; from the west coast of South America, from the hardly known Antipodes, or from the Far North, they brought curios and presented them to the boniface. Walrus tusks, whalebone, wampum, corals and all sorts of large, medium-sized and small knicknacks came in such quantity that many cases were filled to overflowing. Business was brisk at the hotel and the curio cases got to be very much in the way.

As his good friends, the sailors, had given him a start, it struck Woodward as the proper thing to do to remove the cases to a convenient place where the public could view them to its estitetic and historical improvement. The idea took deep root in his mind, and soon, he had mapped out a comprehensive pleasure rendezvous to keep company with the building in which the curious were to be housed.


That the children and grown-ups of the city were intensely interested in, it may be said were possessed of a craze for a close scrutiny of subjects of natural history, had been shown by immense Sunday pilgrimages to Meiggs wharf. Mariners had picked up monkeys, parrots, cockatoos and other amusing animals in various ports of call, and on arriving here had for the most part, deposited them at the head of the wharf. A liquid resort keeper thought a menagerie would be a good drawing card for his business, and he invariably took charge of over-seas arrivals and kept them on exhibition. To make the show a little more instructive he secured some grizzly bears, which he chained in front of his place.

Taking a double cue from the success of the Meiggs wharf menagerie man and from the various gardens, Woodward opened his place. That was in the early sixties. The gardens were interruptedly the headquarters of King Fun until early in the nineties, when, following the founder’s death, they fell upon bad days and were finally closed by Woodward’s heirs.

How large a place Woodward’s, which occupied the great area from Thirteenth to Fifteenth, and from Valencia to Mission, occupied in the old life of the city is graphically shown in many accounts of picnics and celebrations held there. May day, Fourth of July, the Fourteenth of July, and, in fact, all big holidays, the reception to General Grant in 1879, and other notables, were all staged at the gardens.

Every May day  the school children of the city were the guests of Mr. Woodward, and from early in the morning until late in the evening their little hearts were thrilled by a thousand and one wonders. A typical story of one of the grand merry-makings is found in the “Chronicle” of Sunday, May 1, 1870, as follows:


Never was an invitation more cordially accepted than that which Mr. Woodward gave to the young ladies and misses of the public schools to hold a May day festival at his beautiful gardens yesterday. Ten thousand included themselves in it, or resolved to accompany those who did, and Mr. Woodward, in consequence, had the double satisfaction of doing a generous action and reaping a considerable benefit, the number of persons paying for admission being very large.

From 8 o’clock to 10 in the morning Mission street cars loaded to the extent generally of thirty or forty inside and twenty on each platform, and in three hours succeeded in transporting to the grounds nearly 1000 girls and boys, with their respective guardians.

Arrived there, the guests found the gardens beautifully adorned for their reception. The gateway outside was festooned with leaves and flowers surrounding the words “May Day Festival,” which was traced in leaves, and a triumphal arch bearing in letters of gold the cheerful legend “Welcome” spanned the pathway inside the gate.

Pouring through this the crowd dispersed from all parts of the garden come to investigate the wonders and beauties of the museum, with its birds and beasts, shells and coins; others of gentler sensibilities, or because, perhaps, they had seen the museum before, wandered into the conservatory and miniature tropical regions, and exercised the virtue of self-denial by refraining from plucking the tempting flowers. The devotees of the fauna, however, were far more numerous than those of the flora, and dreadful must have been the tantalian tortures of lions and tigers to have seen those hundreds of choice tidbits of humanity just beyond the reach of their willing paws, and to have been obliged to condescend to fight with parasols, when they could, without those bars, have given such an exhibition of their powers.


The sitting in an immovable, circular boat and rowing with impracticable oars seemed for many to have charms which were inappreciable to the duller organism of adult spectators, who were past the happy time when even to splash a stick in three feet of water was bliss unspeakable. Of course the swings were not allowed to rest and the preliminary stages of seasickness were, as usual, by virtue of time and place, transformed into a portion of the day’s enjoyment.

Before long the tunnel was discovered and then, after a short purgatory of dust and darkness, new rounds of bliss opened upon the expanding pupils eyes.

There was the amphitheater—three cornered, by the way—and there were round the arena, en regle, the dens; not, however, filled with anti-Christian lions and heterodox tigers, but with bears to whom a cracker was a consideration; and with mastiffs, to whom dorsal titillation was also satisfactory. There disported the kangaroo, provoked to abnormal activity by alternate prods on either side of his restricted enclosure; in another cage slept two juvenile leopards, carefully labeled to prevent mistakes, “Young Bengal Tigers”; while ragged camels and seedy-looking elks gazed in misanthropic astonishment at the swarms of well-dressed fairies who had intruded so suddenly upon their privacy. The mammoth ox, a perfect Monsieur Josephs among cattle, appeared to be too big to be anything but good-natured, and took all his caresses with a matter-of-fact complacency that made us regret the possible catastrophe of beef. Conspicuous in the center of the arena around which all these specimens of nature’s mistakes and experiments were ranged, was the band platform.


Two intersected triumphal arches of green branches and brilliant flowers formed a total loop; baskets of roses, rich and real, imbedded in soft-looking moss, hung down from the centers of the arches from the apex of the dome: blue streamers, fastened to the supporting poles, either fluttered in the breeze or were interlaced with the foliage, and over all fluttered flags of every shape and hue.

To complete the beauty and costliness of the affair immense bouquets, or rather heaps of flowers, had been placed at the sides of the platform, and provoked many exclamations of wonder and delight among the children, who, toward 11 o’clock, began to fill the arena. Raised planks had been arranged as seats for the children, who were to take part in a concert intended to be the feature of the day, and every seat was filled by 11:30. Professor Knowlton working hard to get into line his youthful army demobilized, as it was, by freedom and by prospective enjoyment. When the task had at least been completed the scene was a beautiful one.

The band platform in the center, with its foliage and flowers and streaming flags upon it; the band of the Second Artillery, with its bright instruments, and all round a vast circle of children gay with every color of the rainbow—-a perfect halo of youth, beauty, innocence and straw hats. For the latter there was considerable need. The sun, which had struggled with clouds during the early part of the morning, was now shining down hotly and brightly, and the little shelter afforded round the area was eagerly taken advantage of.


The children sang “Full and Harmonious,” “America,” “Home, Sweet Home” and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the article continues, and then wildly dispersed to taste all the delights that were awaiting them.

Woodward was often called the “Barnum of the West” and proved his right to the title many times. One of his most daring and popular undertakings was the bringing to the Gardens of the tribe of Warm Springs Indians shortly after the Modoc war of 1872. The redskins had assisted the troops in the conflict with their savage brothers and after some prolong dickering with Uncle Sam they were allowed to become part of the big show.

The children never tired of gazing from a respectable distance at the wild looking aborigines in their war paint and feathers and were held by the fascination of terror when the Indians started up one of their tribal dances to the accompaniment of their weird music.

Some of the first of the Japanese acrobats ever seen in a foreign country were part of the show in the sixties. The various gymnastic stunts, tumbling, trapeze work and so on, was from a stage in the center of the immense pavilion, with the audience in gallery tiers round the building. At the conclusion of the show everyone that desired roller skating to him or her heart’s content or until his or her legs cried “nuf.” Every Saturday afternoon and on Sundays there were exhibitions in the pavilion by acrobats, clowns and trained animals.

Balloon ascensions were an unfailing feature of the Sunday doings at the Gardens. Aeronaut Buisley, a member of the well-known Buisley family, and who lost his life in one of his daring flights, was probably the most famous of the many aeronauts engaged by the amusement park impresario. The Moresco brothers, afterward noted theatrical promoters, were stars in the aeronautic field.


To complete the gamut of the emotions Woodward provided for his patrons a creepy feeling or two. These were produced by the uncanny outline of a woman’s head that could be seen distinctly in a pane of the glass on the north side of the museum, known as the “ghost window.”

It was the tradition in North Beach that a female householder there had spent most of her last years at a window gazing at the passersby. On her death the outline of the head, it was said, began to be seen by the superstitious and it was explained on the assumption that the deceased had come to earth in spirit. Woodward purchased the window for $500 and had it placed where everyone had a chance to see the head for himself.

In getting the heart strings attuned to the atmosphere of the old Gardens in a slight attempt to convey some notion of its simple, wholesome mode of pleasure, the feeling of attachment grows imperceptibly but surely, and it is with sincere regret that one wakes up to the truth that the romance of the place is altogether in the past, never to bloom again.

Woodward's Gardens, looking northwest on Valencia at Fourteenth 1880

(text) San Francisco Chronicle. 9 November 1913. 25.
(picture) Morgan, Roland. San Francisco Then and Now. 1978:  Bodima Books, Canada.

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