San Francisco Tour Tales

The Missing Lake

by Susan Saperstein

Well…..we are all embarrassed about this. The Mission Dolores Neighborhood and Mission guides held a special workshop with Christopher Richard. He is the Associate Curator of Aquatic Biology at the Oakland Museum of California, and has researched what he thinks is the story of the San Francisco mission founded on the shores of a “now-vanished” lake. Guides have all been telling our walkers about this lake on the Mission tours. He thinks it is a misconception.

In his research, Christopher has come to the conclusions that there was no lake where Mission Dolores was founded. He has arrived at the position that:

  • Missionaries may have romanticized descriptions of the geography to get more people to this remote land the Spanish settled on the other side of their world.
  • Early historians may have misinterpreted Spanish documents describing the landscape and waterways.

When Juan Bautista de Anza led the scouting party to determine mission locations, he was looking for fresh water and arable land to grow food to supply the new posts. The party camped at Mountain Lake, the area that later became their Presidio.

They then checked out other bodies of fresh water. Lake Merced was not in the competition. The Sunset district was totally surrounded by sand dunes sweeping over from the ocean—so there was not any land for acceptable farming.

They visited a fresh water lagoon, later named Washerwoman’s Lagoon, by the present Laguna and Lombard Streets. De Anza described the land around this “laguna de manantial,” or spring-fed pond, good for irrigation. However the tides of bay could overflow the lowlands, and it was marshy.

Next, a party was dispatched to the area where the San Francisco Bay has an inland channel from the long gone Mission Bay.

On this trip the soldiers, priests, and cartographers did not note in their writing of a large in-land lake existing at the future location of Mission Dolores, but did describe two springs.

One was a subterranean spring that surfaced near Duboce and Sanchez Streets, ran down Church and 15th streets, and emptied into marshlands towards Mission Bay. You can still see a remnant of this spring in the old San Francisco Armory on Valencia and 14th Streets, now the home of

The other spring flowed down what is now 18th Street, an ojo de agua that the Padres named Ojo de Agua de los Dolores (Dolores Spring). The Spanish realized that there good soil for planting in this area, now today’s Mission District. The mission was built between these springs.

Christoper’s presentation led us through various missionaries and explorers maps from Father Pedro Font, a member of the de Anza Expedition in 1776 and 1777—up through two centuries. Then he showed us the 1912 map many of us use on tours. It was printed in Zoeth Skinner Eldredge’s book, The Beginnings of San Francisco. It showed a lagoon labeled Laguna de Manantial—the same words de Anza used to describe Washerwoman’s Lagoon. Christopher feels Eldredge made a mistake in his writing and the published work was passed down for years.


You can read more about Christopher Richard’s by clicking here.

Editors note: This article originally appeared in the August, 2012 issue of Guidelines, a publication of SF City Guides.