The lake that gave Mission Dolores its name and location, and how it came back to life in the 1906 earthquake

thumbnail of old map

The City of San Francisco was named after the Catholic mission there, which was in turn named after St. Francis of Assisi. But the Mission there is almost universally referred to as the Mission Dolores. Apparently, it was named informally after a small lake (or a lagoon within the lake) upon whose shores it was built. Early Spanish explorers gave the lake the name Lago de las Dolores because they saw Indians weeping on its bank, or because it happened to be raining that day. The mission was built there because it seemed to be a good place to obtain fresh water and grow crops. The lake no longer exists; it has been largely filled in and almost forgotten.

The best way to understand the lake is to go to the southwest corner of 17th and Mission, and look up and down both streets. You will notice that you are actually in the center of a basin that has been somewhat filled in but is still about 20 feet deep, that extends several blocks in every direction.

The spot at the southwest corner of 17th and Mission is very near what was the deepest part of the lake. The lake extended about two blocks in all directions. If you look west on 17th street, you can see that the Mission Dolores is three blocks away, at Dolores between 16th and 17th.

Now walk west on 17th a block and a half to Albion, which marks roughly the western shore of the lake; look north up Albion a half block to Camp, where the fathers built their first crude shelter, June 29, 1776.

Now walk a few feet farther west on 17th and turn south down Dearborn, still the shore of the old lake, to 18th. You have now reached the creek which fed the lake. Look to your right, west, up the creek, on 18th, past the BiRite Market, past the edge of Dolores Park, toward the heights of Twin Peaks.

Looking west on 18th, from Dearborn

Looking west on 18th, from Dearborn

This was a ravine, called Arroyo de las Dolores, containing the creek coming down from Twin Peaks. The Mission Dolores was built one city block north from the edge of the ravine and about the same distance west from the shore of the lake, and dedicated in 1791. Water exited the lake at about what is now 16th and Howard, going east down 16th, and then draining generally east to the Mission Bay tidal wetlands and then to the San Francisco Bay.

Bayard Taylor who saw the Mission valley in 1849 says: “Three miles from San Francisco is the old mission of Dolores situated in a sheltered valley which is watered by a perpetual stream fed from the tall peaks towards the sea. * * * Several former miners in anticipation of a great influx of emigrants in the spring, pitched their tents on the best spots along Mission creek and began preparing the ground for gardens. The valley was surveyed and staked into lots almost to the summit of the mountains” (Eldorado pp. 64, 298-9).

As is implied in the passage above, eventually the lake was drained and filled in with dirt, and built over. In 1906, the loose fill dirt created havoc during the earthquake).

According to a recent geologic paper:

The ground deformation on Valencia Street between 18 and 19th streets was arguably the single most devastating event of the 1906 earthquake.

One eyewitness describes a famous scene on Valencia:


Along Valencia Street from 21st to 17th, there was a hole big enough to bury at least 50 people, not to mention horses. The old Valencia Street Hotel, where I had played sliding over the banister, was lying flat on the ground and all the people in it had lost their lives, was the report.

Valencia Street was an old creekbed, [actually the creek ran through there, but it was perpendicular to Valencia, more or less under 18th Street; but whether it was the lake site or the creek site that collapsed is of little importance.] which had been filled in and then built on. The severe jolts of the quake caused the soft-packed fill to settle suddenly, leaving gaping holes in the street. The buildings on top of the fill reeled with the force of this settling, and houses for several blocks leaped off their foundations. The four-story Valencia Hotel [718 Valencia, almost at 18th Street] collapsed like a tower of cards. Its top floor landed intact in the middle of the street with the bottom three floors flattened underneath, crushing at least 15 people. [Here is my favorite image looking north at the Valencia Hotel and surroundings, and here is another image, from the other side of the hotel, looking south.]

This scene found its way into the 1936 movie San Francisco. As Clark Gable searches desperately through the city’s rubble for Jeannette MacDonald, he comes upon the collapsed hotel. A policeman tells him, “Those on the top floor stepped right out their windows to the street. The others were out of luck.”

That this was literally true can be seen in this photo.
Another eyewitness recalled:

I was curious to see the nearest fire at the corner of 22nd and Mission St. Our house was located at 931 Dolores Street in the block between the 22nd and 23rd Streets. As I ran across Valencia St. going to the Mission St. fire, I noticed on my left down Valencia St. a small old three-story hotel. (Evidently it had been built over a subterranean faultline.) The first story had partly sank in the earth while the second and third had fallen out into the street. That was the first structural destruction I had witnessed.
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Another image of the Valencia Hotel can be seen here

Here is another image looking north along Valencia toward 18th. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that the ground is trying to collapse down to the right or east, down the old watercourse that was covered over by 18th St, with some help from broken water mains.

The total devastation of Valencia in the area of 19th and farther north can be seen here, in the aftermath of the fire that swept through a few days later, burning most everything north of 20th Street. Partly because the Mission Dolores was built west of the lake on solid ground, and thus not in the later fill, it was undamaged in the 1906 quake.

Much of the Mission District was in ruins but, unlike many other areas of the city, it did not burn in the first two days. The shifting soil apparently ruptured the water mains between Valencia and Mission, but the fire department was able to keep the Mission District from burning by using the Twin Peaks water coming out of the hydrants on Valencia.

At the fire which destroyed the building at the northwest corner of Mission and 22nd streets immediately after the earthquake, there was no water to be had east of Valencia Street, but the double hydrant at the northwest corner of 22nd and Valencia and the southwest corner of Valencia and 21st St. furnished an abundant supply, which, with the aid of the cistern at 22nd and Shotwell St., extinguished the fire.

Some of the damage along Valencia, in fact, was probably caused by the burst water mains:

Botzbach was a bookkeeper at the Valencia Hotel, where it is believed at least 80 people were initially trapped by the quake, and later killed by the firestorm that swept through the city. Some are also believed to have drowned by burst water mains which flooded the collapsed hotel.

A geologic investigation in the aftermath of the earthquake provides more interesting details of the upheavals along Valencia.


Filed under religion, San Francisco, travel

13 responses to “The lake that gave Mission Dolores its name and location, and how it came back to life in the 1906 earthquake

  1. Milton Walsh

    One correction: the Spanish did not name the body “Dolores” because they saw Indians weeping there; they gave it that name because they camped there on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows (Nuestra Senora de los Dolores). It was a common practice for the explorers to name sites after saints on the calendar.

  2. Pingback: Mission History as Revealed By Creeks, Streams, Lakes and Lagoons « Burrito Justice

  3. Pingback: 18th St Gulch, The Willows, Valencia St Hotel « Burrito Justice

  4. Pingback: Painting Ships and Oceans: Hey Kids 7.1 – 7.7 – Mission Loc@l -- San Francisco Mission District's News, Food, Art and Events

  5. Pingback: Good Morning Mission! – Mission Loc@l -- San Francisco Mission District's News, Food, Art and Events

  6. Carolee Padgett

    What was the source of the person named Botzbach in the article about the 1906 earthquake and the Valentia Hotel?

  7. I got what you mean ,bookmarked , very good internet website .

  8. Pingback: Mission History as Revealed By Creeks, Streams, Lakes and Lagoons « Burrito Justice | ExploreSF

  9. I was fooled by this map, too. Then I realized it was entirely fabricated in 1912 with no evidence. I’ve seen the original publication. It is a conjecture only.

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    Je dirai.trop j’ai trouve toutes les derniers episodes en telechargement direct, top ce site!!

  11. roger

    The map has real justification, found in the US survey in 1852-3 that shows the entire North Mission being an alluvial plain. The run off from the Blue Mt. slowly filled up the N. Mission, eventually leaving smaller lagoons like Dolores that was lost due to a large Spanish cattle operation and a massive drought cycle between 1775-1840. Probably the best example of the fresh water lagoon comes from a map done by Spanish military officers done in the 1770’s. This map was published in 1911 in the book CALIFORNIA UNDER SPAIN AND MEXICO 1535-1847 by Irving Richman that shows the Dolores lagoon exactly where Father Palou stated it to be. And of course I’m not talking about the Mission Creek Embarcadero on 16th and Harrison. Other maps by Canizares, Camacho and Camacho all show it as well. While Noe’s 1840 map petition for land showed a much smaller version of the Lagoon on the corner of 16th and Mission.

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