A Look Back in History: Lake Merced

Lake Merced is a fresh water lake in southwestern San Francisco that supplied water starting in the 1860’s. It is now surrounded by a large park (established in the 1950s) and serves as a popular recreational area in The City. It is also a significant stop -over location for migratory birds on the “Pacific Flyway.” The land is owned by SFPUC and managed by the City’s Recreation and Parks Department. 

Spring Valley Water Company (SVWC), the predecessor to the SFPUC, had acquired its first water rights on the Lake Merced Rancho in 1868. Outright acquisition of the lake and watershed lands began in 1877. The company began to sell off its landholdings around Lake Merced beginning in the 1890s. 

Shoreline of Lake Merced. View Northwest from Shooting Tower.
Lake Merced Pumps. General view. Two men fishing.

The Merced Rancho was the first land grant in San Francisco. It was granted in 1835 to Jose Antonio Galinda by then-California Governor Jose Jesus Castro. The grant encompassed the area around Lake Merced and the present-day Daly City neighborhoods of Westlake and Serramonte. Galindo sold the land (~2000 acres) less than two years later. His remuneration was 100 cows along with goods valued at $25. 

Lake Merced had originally been christened Laguna de Nuestra Señora de la Merced by Captain Don Bruno de Heceta in 1775. Heceta was leading an expedition on its return from the northern pacific coast, including what would become Alaska and Washington states. (He is credited with being the first European to sight the mouth of the Columbia River.) 

While the expedition was heading back to the Pacific port of San Blas in the Viceroyalty of New Spain (present day México), the Captain had had his frigate Santiago moor at [what we now call] San Francisco. His intention was to catch up with another explorer, Don Juan Manuel de Ayala. Encamped near Lake Merced on the feast day of Our Lady of Mercy, expedition Padres, Palou and Campa piously named the Lake after the saint. 

Lake Merced Reservoir in 2016.

The first inhabitant of the region was the Ramaytush Ohlone tribe. Evidence of their inhabitation around the lake has been found. Lake Merced would have been an excellent source of tule reeds, used to build homes and boats. And of course, the lake provided fish, which would have been a draw for other hunt-able wildlife. 

Because of its remoteness from the rest of the city, Lake Merced was a popular dueling ground in the 1850s. The most famous of these was the “the last notable American duel.” On September 13, 1859, ex-Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Judge David S. Terry, and U.S. Senator David C. Broderick met to settle their differences. The two men had been friends and political allies at one time. But the relationship had gone sour – very sour. And when it finally came to “blows” it wasn’t fisticuffs they took to – it was pistols. Senator Broderick was struck but not immediately killed. He lingered for three days before succumbing to his wounds. Judge Terry was tried for the duel and death. He was acquitted. See depiction of the duel on the following page.