looking back

Looking Back: GG Park’s Polo Field

When was the last time you heard about polo being played in Golden Gate Park’s Polo Field?

Early polo clubs in the Bay Area were based in Burlingame. One of the goals of San Francisco in the run up to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) was to show the City’s revitalization after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Even though the Polo Field was at first considered for part of the PPIE grounds, the PPIE site was later chosen to be in the Marina District.

Patches of wildflowers in this Feb. 21 photo makes it look like snow on the grass at the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park. A multi-use area, the facilities welcome soccer players, bicyclists, runners and even some geese enjoying a grassy meal. Photo by Michael Durand.

After the PPIE, routine and incidental uses of the Polo Field included: horse polo; bicycle racing; concerts; airplane take-offs; and field sports like tennis, croquet and bowling. In recent years, the central field has primarily been used for youth soccer matches.

A 1913 San Francisco Examiner description of the Polo Field states the area as 30 acres with an outermost 60-foot wide track for trotting. Sloping towards the center of field is a grassy terrace 10-feet high and 50-feet wide, bordering a 12-foot-wide foot path at the bottom, and a 25-foot-wide bicycle path further in. 

Hellman Hollow (known to most long-time residents as Speedway Meadow) east of the Polo Field is a remnant of an earlier attempt to have a designated area for horse racing in Golden Gate Park. In the 1880s, horsemen who started building a “Speedway Road” as a gift for the park as a place showcasing speedy horses conflicted with park administrators, who had their own ideas for a discrete road, according to the Western Neighborhoods Project. 

An early name for the Polo Field was the “Stadium.” This is not Kezar Stadium, which was separately built later a few miles away ian Golden Gate Park’s southeast corner. “Stadium” is still used on signage for the Polo Field today. A 1947 map of Golden Gate Park shows a cinder (lava rock) track surrounding a football field in the western part of the Polo Field within the bicycle track. This map calls the Polo Field “Golden Gate Park Stadium.”

The sign at the JFK Drive entrance to the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park as seen in February, 2021. The first polo match was played on the field in 1898. While the facility is virtually never referred to as the “stadium,” that name is still on the sign and can be found on park maps from the 1940s. Photo by Michael Durand.

The first polo match at the Polo Field was on Nov. 11, 1898 (reported the next day by the San Francisco Call). Horsemen from the Burlingame Club played for two hours, with an intermission, in front of thousands of spectators. The Red team scored seven points, beating the White team which only managed two points.

On Sept. 12, 1911, a pilot took off from the Polo Field as part of his long-distance voyage, before Charles Lindberg or Amelia Earhart. The aviator Robert Fowler’s morning test flight went well, considering this was his first flight after leaving flight training school. Fowler’s later flight that day from the Polo Field was the start of an attempt to be first to fly from coast to coast (with nightly breaks on the ground). James Rolph Jr., who would become mayor of San Francisco a few months later, christened the plane “Cole Flyer.” (The name “Cole” came from the car company that produced the engine for the airplane.) Along with various military personnel, Frank L. Brown, chairman of the publicity committee of the Panama-Pacific Exposition Company, introduced people in the crowd to the aviator. 

Ten thousand people saw Fowler take off toward the west (possibly to catch onshore winds) before gracefully arcing to the east to fly to Sacramento at 30 m.p.h. After many starts and stops due to bad weather, Fowler reached the Atlantic Ocean on Feb. 8, 1912 at Jacksonville, Florida. When Fowler registered for the draft during World War I, he did so at a Richmond District police station.

The Polo Field has also hosted gatherings and concerts like the Human Be-In on Jan. 15, 1967, a prelude to the Summer of Love and Woodstock. Evie Johnson’s article for FoundSF reminds us that, while it’s easier to remember the musical performances by bands like Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, for massive crowds of people it was just “being together” in the moment that was the main event. The Be-In was part of a larger movement in the 1960s using music to organize political activism on issues like the Vietnam War and environmentalism. Some of the speakers and musicians listed on the event poster were Allen Ginsburg, Timothy Leary, and Santana.

A free memorial concert for the legendary rock promoter Bill Graham (for whom the Civic Auditorium is named) drew a crowd estimated at more than 300,000 music fans to the Polo Field on Nov. 3, 1991. After Graham died in a helicopter crash, some of rock’s top acts performed to honor his memory. The list of entertainers included Carlos Santana, Jackson Browne, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and The Grateful Dead. Robin Williams was the emcee. 

More recently, the Polo Field has been used as the main staging area for the Outside Lands concert which draws more than 200,000 paying fans over a three-day weekend of music and events.

The Polo Field is south of Spreckels Lake and east of the Chain of Lakes. Where JFK Drive approaches the south edge of Spreckels Lake is a sign for the Polo Field’s northern entrance. Its southern entrance is accessible from Middle West Drive, several hundred feet east of Middle West Drive’s intersection with MLK Drive.

Link to archine of Looking Back columns HERE.

1 reply »

  1. So when DID polo stop at the Polo Field? What happened there between 1912 and 1967? As a kid we’d watch games, cars would line up on the inner track,honking for applause. They’s give us the damaged unusable balls. Amazing spectacle; all the more so as it was the end of an era. Model planes on long wires, SH football practice, rugby games, Rosary Crusade, very busy place.

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