Mission Creek

Mission Creek Waters Still Flow Under the Mission District

As amazing as this now seems, San Francisco was almost treeless scrub, sand dunes and marshlands when the first white visitors arrived in the 18th century. No small portion of Mission District was wetlands, creeks, year around and seasonal marshes forming Mission Creek and its tidelands that ebbed and flowed into the shallow Mission Bay. In fact Mission Dolores was located originally on this waterway, then navigable all the way to the Bay. In 1850 attempts to build the Mission Plank Road over some of these areas, road builders found forty-foot piles just disappeared into these hidden lakes. Flowing remnants of this creek are visible today in the basement of the Armory Building on 14th and Mission Streets. Disruptions of the 1906 and 1989 Earthquakes have resulted in surfacing of creek waters in parts of the Mission and South of Market testifying to their continued underground existence.

One portion of this creek and marshes extended across 18th Street from about Folsom to Harrison and wandered south and east to about Florida and 20th streets, likely responsible for the jog in the course of 18th Street at Harrison. With the hordes of new settlers pouring into San Francisco in the 1850’s on (the population grew from 479 in 1847 to 78,000 in 1857), the need was desperate for flat solid land for commerce and residences. Marshes were just filled in with sand and rock from inconvenient dunes and hills. There was little concern for the creeks and marshes alive with ducks, egrets, herons, deer, elk, rabbit, fox and bear. The creeks became filthy sewers to be filled in and the drained marshes became truck farms run by Chinese farmers until they too were turned into residential city streets.

The Mission Dolores area became a vacation area during the 1850’s sporting beer, gambling and dancing resorts. There was also the Pioneer Race Track approximately along Harrison Street between 19th and 24th Streets, famous for its springy turf. The phenomenally industrious and rapid development of San Francisco in the 19th century, while dramatically altering the original landscape, has never quite succeeded in eradicating the original watersheds that flow underneath the houses and streets of the Mission and South of Market.

An interesting look into the history of the original Mission Creek and Mission Bay is available in Nancy Olmsted’s recently reissued “Vanished Waters” with historical photos and a map of the present San Francisco overlaid with the historical Mission Creek and its marshes. (Available through the Mission Creek Conservancy or Amazon.com.)

—Ginny Stearns
Mission Creek Conservancy

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