Golden Gate Park

GG Park’s Hidden History Treasure Quietly Turns 125

By Kinen Carvala

The Prayerbook Cross in Golden Gate Park is quietly celebrating its 125th birthday this year. The mostly hidden concrete cross is located in the heart of the park surrounded by trees, above Rainbow Falls alongside John F. Kennedy Drive, just east of the Crossover Drive overpass.

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Prayerbook Cross. Photos by Michael Durand.

Presented in 1894 in San Francisco, the monument commemorates explorer Sir Francis Drake reaching California and holding the first prayer service in 1579 in what would become Marin County’s Drakes Bay using the Book of Common Prayer, the standard prayer book used by the Church of England. 

Drake’s legacy in California includes claiming the area as “Nova Albion” for Queen Elizabeth I.  His namesake bay wouldn’t be given that name until 1792, when George Vancouver, another English explorer, honored Drake’s voyage. The “Albion” in “Nova Albion” comes from the Latin name for Britain.

The front and back inscriptions on the 57-foot-tall granite cross read: “Presented to Golden Gate Park at the opening of the Midwinter Fair, January 1, A.D. 1894, as a memorial of the service held on the shore of Drake’s Bay about Saint John the Baptist’s Day, June 24, Anno Domini 1579, by Francis Fletcher, priest of the Church of England, chaplain of Sir Francis Drake, chronicler of the service. Gift of George W. Childs, Esquire, of Philadelphia. First Christian service in the English tongue on our coast. First use of the Book of Common Prayer in our country. One of the first recorded missionary prayers on our continent. Soli Deo sit semper Gloria (God alone be the glory forever).”

William Ford Nichols was an Episcopal bishop who served in Philadelphia before moving to San Francisco. Nichols convinced George Washington Childs to provide $10,000 for the cross. A Philadelphian philanthropist, Childs had funded a variety of projects.

Contemporary newspaper articles claimed that the cross was the largest in the world. Frank Leslie’s Weekly, published in February, 1894, said the cross was 57 feet tall, on a seven-foot-tall pedestal.

The cross was not originally designated for Golden Gate Park. The actual location of the 1579 prayer service in Point Reyes was planned to be the site for the cross. Organizers realized that few people would make the trek to desolate Point Reyes, so instead the cross was built not just in San Francisco proper, but on a barren hill so that the cross would be visible from miles away. An 1894 photo of the cross can be seen on the Western Neighborhoods Project website. 

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Just off the sidewalk along JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park is a sign that points the way to the historic monument.

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The path to the Prayerbook Cross.

The Midwinter Exposition, mentioned in the cross’ inscription, was to be San Francisco’s coming-out party as an up-and-coming city with its mild winters on the West Coast. Construction for California’s first world’s fair exposition would also create jobs during the economic downturn at the time. The cross was unveiled as part of the Midwinter Exposition running from January to July, 1894. Another photo on the Western Neighborhoods Project website features the spotlight from the exposition’s Tower of Electricity (the latest technology) illuminating the landmark cross at night.

Today, trees keep the cross mostly hidden, so it barely gets the attention of the millions of visitors to Golden Gate Park and drivers traveling on nearby California Route 1. Just east of Rainbow Falls, a small sign next to the sidewalk points the way to the path that winds up the hill to the monument.

As a religious symbol commemorating a religious event on public land, the cross at first glance may seem to violate the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. San Francisco used to have another prominent cross on public land – the Mount Davidson Cross (built in 1934) – until First Amendment issues arose. Today, that cross is still there, but the constitutional problem was resolved in 1997 when a private organization (Council of Armenian Organizations of Northern California) gained ownership of the cross and the immediate surrounding land. Also, this year (2019) the Supreme Court ruled on the Bladensburg Cross in Maryland, allowing that cross to remain. Though it is a war memorial in the shape of a cross, it’s not a cross explicitly commemorating a religious occasion.

The Prayerbook Cross still holds religious significance for some local Christians. The Episcopal Church, an American descendant of the Church of England, has held hikes to the cross for communion. 

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Rainbow Falls in Golden Gate Park, just below the Prayerbook Cross.

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