These fascinating historical sites will take you back in time.
If you’re a history lover living in the Bay Area, you’ll know that it’s full of amazing stories that have fallen through the cracks over time. Although many historic sites have been built over or otherwise erased from the city’s landscape, some of these gems are still around, and you can visit them today!
All of these exciting SF spots are outdoors and free to visit.
1. Fort Miley Military Reservation
This military reservation in Point Lobos was established in 1893, and construction of the batteries and fort began in 1899. The U.S. Army used it as part of its seacoast defense of the SF Harbor during World War II. Battery Chester, consisting of two 12-inch rifled guns, covered the south, main and north channels of approach to the Golden Gate. These guns aided in covering submarine minefields over 70 years ago, and the empty batteries are now a popular skateboarding site for SF locals.
2. Portals of the Past
Most SF residents are familiar with the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire, which destroyed over 80% of the city. Few remnants remain, but these small columned “portals of the past” managed to survive and were later restored in 2008 by the San Francisco Arts Commission. They were once part of the entrance to a 1891 Nob Hill mansion owned by railroad tycoon Alban Towne. This small memorial now lives on the edge of Lloyd Lake in Golden Gate Park.
3. Lotta’s Fountain
Another remnant of the San Francisco before the 1906 earthquake, Lotta’s Fountain is one of the city’s oldest-surviving and best-known landmarks. The 24-foot-tall bronze sculpture features intricate detailing and ornaments, including lion’s heads and griffins. Singer and dancer Charlotte Mignon (Lotta) Crabtree once danced in saloons for gold nuggets during the Gold Rush, and she donated the fountain to the city in 1875. After the earthquake, it served as a meeting point for survivors to reunite with loved ones. It was cleaned, restored and refurbished in 1998.
4. Sutro Baths
The Sutro Baths are one of San Francisco’s largest historical relics. Take a trip out to Lands End and you’ll find the remnants of an enormous public bathhouse that accommodated up to 10,000 people back in the late 1890s. The glass enclosure had 7 swimming pools at different temperatures, as well as diving boards, trapezes, springboards and a high dive. The baths didn’t survive the Great Depression and the city’s updated health codes, but you can still find this run-down foundation via the Lands End Trail or the Golden Gate Promenade.
5. Battery Chamberlin
This is another war-time artifact, built in 1904 and used in both WWI and WWII to protect the San Francisco coast. It holds the last 6-inch “disappearing gun” of its type on the west coast and is named after Civil War veteran Lowell A. Chamberlin. Although this is not the same gun that was originally held in the battery (the original ones were removed for service in France in 1917) the National Park Service installed one of the same type in 1977 for public viewing.
6. Mountain Lake
This is one of San Francisco’s last surviving natural lakes. It served as a central watering hole for thousands of years, serving the Ohlone tribes, Spanish explorers, and more. Mountain Lake has survived a highway reducing its size, locals releasing their pets into it (including turtles, goldfish, and even an alligator), pesticides from the local golf course, and more. It’s since been revived by park staff, volunteers, and scientists. The Juan Bautista De Anza National Historic Trail will take you to its shores.
7. Buena Vista Park headstones
Did you know that Buena Vista Park was the first park in San Francisco? It was first established as “Hill Park” in 1867. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this park is the fact that its trails and drainage system are lined with old headstones from demolished cemeteries. From 1914 through the 1940s, San Francisco removed all cemeteries in the City except for the SF National Cemetery and Mission Dolores Cemetery. The City relocated most headstones to Colma in San Mateo, but their accompanying remains didn’t always make the journey with them. Unclaimed headstones were repurposed for various parts of City infrastructure, including Buena Vista Park, landfills, sea walls, and even the Wave Organ in the harbor.
8. John McLaren statue
[Image Source: Daderot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
Golden Gate Park once honored its anti-statue superintendent with a statue of himself! John McLaren was a Scottish horticulturist who served as Golden Gate Park’s superintendent for 53 years. He was quite particular about giving the park a natural look, and strongly disliked statues, which he called “stookies.” On McLaren’s 65th birthday, a friend presented him with a life-sized statue of himself, perhaps as a snide joke. Highly displeased, he hid it away under blankets in the park’s stables. The statue wasn’t discovered until after his death in 1943, at which point it was placed in the John McLaren Memorial Rhododendron Dell.
9. SF cable car carpentry shop
Woods Division Carpentry Shop is always buzzing with the responsibility of restoring San Francisco’s fleet of iconic cable cars. You can actually watch the expert carpenters carry out their craft in a bus yard at 1040 Minnesota Street in the Dogpatch district. Take a peek through the windows or wire fencing sometime before 2:30pm to see these historic cars being restored right before your eyes. All cars are constructed from white oak, and the ceilings are made from Alaskan cedar. The first cable car was installed in 1873, and carpenters follow historic blueprints that haven’t changed much since then – their last update simply added structural reinforcement in the late 1970s.
10. Bison paddock at Golden Gate Park
Many a tourist in San Francisco is surprised to discover a herd of American Bison grazing in the middle of Golden Gate Park. Park Superintendent John McLaren introduced the first bison to the park in 1891 in an effort to preserve the species, which at the time was facing extinction.
According to SF Rec & Parks, The herd originally grazed around where the Music Concourse now stands, before being moved to its current position in the western half of the park in 1899. The herd has fluctuated in numbers from 5 to as many as 30 in 1918, and the 5 older members are descendants of a pair that then-mayor Dianne Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum, gifted to her on her birthday. Feinstein and Blum continue to support the herd, having donated $50,000 to secure the 5 new young bison from a NorCal ranch.
[Featured Image: @c.powers.pham via Instagram]