Golden Gate Park

Stow Lake May Be Renamed, Racism Charged

By Thomas K. Pendergast

Another change for Golden Gate Park has been launched with an effort to rename Stow Lake, and the boathouse that serves it, after revelations that its namesake, the 19th-Century politician William W. Stow, was virulently anti-Semitic.

Paddleboats are a popular attraction at Stow Lake. The names of the lake, boathouse and drive around the lake may be changed due to accusations that William W. Stow was actively racist. Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast.

A resolution urging the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission to remove the name Stow from the lake, the boathouse and the drive around the lake has been submitted to the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and is now on the usual 30-day hold waiting to be scheduled at an upcoming committee meeting.

Completed in 1893, the lake was named after Stow, yet it remains uncertain exactly why he got the honor in the first place.

The resolution to remove Stow’s name states that Stow was elected to the California State Assembly in 1854 (although his 1895 obituary states he was elected to the Legislature in 1853) representing Santa Cruz County and he became the Speaker of the California Assembly in 1855.

While serving in the assembly he “made headlines for his anti-Semitism, speaking against Jewish people directly from the Assembly floor,” the resolution states.

Stow attempted, unsuccessfully, to pass a Sunday “closing law” for businesses in Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties, both of which he represented at the time, but got pushback from one of his constituents, a Jewish tradesman named Louis Schwartz.

During one of the assembly sessions Stow went on record to openly declare, “I have no sympathy with the Jews and would it were in my power to enforce a regulation that would eliminate them from not only our county but from the entire state. I am for a Jew tax that is so high that (Jews) would not be able to operate any more shops. They are a class of people here only to make money and who leave the country as soon as they make money.”

The resolution also states that he did in fact propose such a tax, claiming it would “act as a prohibition to their residence amongst us.”

Furthermore, there is evidence that his intolerance was probably not limited to Jewish people.

In the 19th Century, an organization called the Know-Nothing Party appeared, purportedly coming from a secret society known as the Order of the Star Spangled Banner that was “notorious for its xenophobia, whose members sworn to secrecy, when asked anything by outsiders would respond with ‘I know nothing.’”

According to the resolution, the Know-Nothing Party supported the deportation of “foreign beggars” and “criminals”; a 21-year naturalization period for immigrants; mandatory Bible reading in schools; and the elimination of all Catholics from public office.

In 1856, Stow ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor of California on the Know-Nothing Party ticket.

He moved to San Francisco and, in 1889, he was appointed to the San Francisco Park Commission. What records remain from that time show he significantly led and fundraised for the development of the lake and the waterfall there.

While there are no surviving records giving a definitive answer about naming the lake after Stow, a park historian, Christopher Pollock, has this to say about how things were done back then:

“Between 1870 and 1899 the State was heavily involved with the administration of Golden Gate Park. All Park Commissioners during this period were selected by the governor, not the mayor.

“Only in 1900 did the City and County completely take over. Up until about the 1960s it was common for the commission to name important elements after themselves, even while in office, although sometimes afterward. Some other named places in Golden Gate Park bear this out such as Alvord Lake, Lindley Meadow, Metson Lake, Lloyd Lake, and Spreckels Lake. These were all park commissioners,” Pollock said.

“Sutter Playground, Herz Playground and Coffman Pool are other examples in McLaren Park. It was just the way it was done in those days,” he said.

Pollock continued to list examples of the powerful and connected leaders who have their names associated with other park features.

”Also, consider the names of other elements in the park that are from non-commission, high-profile men, such as de Young Museum, Murphy Windmill or McLaren Lodge. And there are donor-based elements such as Brayton Gate, Clarke Gate and Brown Gate lined up along Fulton Street. The bottom line is that it did not take much, in my estimation, to get something named for a person.”

According to his obituary, published in a San Francisco newspaper named The Morning Call, Stow “died wholly unexpectedly” in his office on Feb. 11, 1895.

“He was never in better health than at noon, but by the middle of the afternoon he was dead” the obituary states. An exact cause of death was not given, although it was speculated that he died of either “apoplexy” (defined as either a cerebral hemorrhage or a stroke) or possibly heart disease.

The obituary further states that Stow was born in Binghamton, Broome County, New York on Sept. 13, 1824. He graduated from Hamilton College and was admitted to the Supreme Court of New York where he practiced law.

He left that state in 1849 and by 1852 had settled in Santa Cruz County as a farmer, renting places near Watsonville in the Pajaro Valley.

The resolution to strip his name from the lake, boathouse and drive is sponsored by District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar, with District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan and District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin as co-sponsors.

“Naming of our public spaces should recognize and honor San Francisco values of equality and inclusiveness – not amplify the racist and classist views of past bigots,” Chan said.

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