Lone Mountain

Today the site of the University of San Francisco, in 1892 Lone Mountain was a scrubby cross-crowned hill.

Lone Mountain
A long look at a great 1892 photo.
Looming up, Lone Mountain lifts
Its cone against the sky,
And softly through the broken rifts
The sunlight for a moment sifts
And gilds the Cross on high.
  — General Lucius Harwood Foote

Sometime in 1892, Isaiah West Taber lugged his large camera and tripod to the southern fence line of Laurel Hill Cemetery and took this story-filled shot of Lone Mountain.

View to San Francisco's Lone Mountain by Isaiah West Taber, taken in 1892. (Courtesy of a private collector.)

I saw it for the first time last month, surprised and stunned. Taber was San Francisco’s premier commercial photographer in the 1880s and 1890s. His prints, photo books, and souvenir cabinet card images are valued gems in the collections of local libraries and archives. How did such an amazing view somehow escape me over 25 years of research?

Let’s get everyone oriented. You know that tall storage-unit building on the corner of Masonic Avenue and Geary Boulevard? It is next to the Trader Joe’s store and looms over the abandoned and graffiti-covered Lucky Penny coffee shop. Taber’s photo was taken a block to the west of that building. From the top of Wood Street, he pointed his camera south over what was then Point Lobos Road, now Geary Boulevard.

Taber took his 1892 photo about a block west of this local "landmark"—the public storage building on Geary Boulevard off Masonic Avenue. 

Today Lone Mountain appears as a wall of building windows, eucalyptus trees, and a square tower with a pyramid topper. The Lone Mountain campus of the University of San Francisco subsumes and engulfs most of the formally scrubby, sandy hill:

View to mountain
View to Lone Mountain from Wood Street in 2023. Trust me, the sandy hill is somewhere under all that.

In the 1892 photo the natural environment of the area is as prominent as the infrastructure work underway. Sand and scrub are everywhere and you half-expect a tumbleweed to roll across the scene. The various small paths up Lone Mountain brought walkers and riders up to what journalist Frank Soulé described as “one of the finest and most extensive views of land and water.”

Detail of 1892 view and cross atop Lone Mountain. Also, a horse or cow on the slope at left? Mount Sutro is in the background, with what looks like the streets of Parnassus Heights already laid out next to its eucalyptus forest.

Less fun, the view and cross made it a popular place for suicides. Oh well.

Lone Mountain is the star of Taber’s shot and the photo caption reflects that, but the end of his printed description seems more about marketing a souvenir. The “New Golden Gate Park” (not so new in 1892) is not seen at all, unless you count the speck of trees in the distance at the very right edge of the photograph.

Is Taber saying the hill would be the new Golden Gate Park?

The activity on Point Lobos Road (Geary) is what nails down the year of this image. Men are laying new tracks for the Geary Street Park and Ocean Railroad (GSPO). For years, GSPO riders to Golden Gate Park had to transfer from cable cars to little steam engine trains at Presidio Avenue and Geary Street. From January to August 1892, the company finally extended the cable line to 5th Avenue. There the tracks took a left and terminated at Fulton Street and the park.

Men laying the rails for a cable car line on the 2900 block of today's Geary Boulevard. Note the "Wood and Coal, Hay and Grain" supply store at left.

At the time of this photograph the Richmond District was in the middle of its first real building boom. Sewer work had started to combat cesspools which frequently formed in the dunes between Cook Street and Arguello Boulevard. Eight 40-foot-high street lights—“electric masts”—had been installed along the stretch in 1888 and we can see a couple in the photo.

I wish we had a slightly broader view, because the edge of the corner building now housing the Pig and Whistle pub at Wood Street and Geary Boulevard is just visible at the far left:

Section of Point Lobos Road, today the 2800 block of Geary Boulevard. Small corral at center right edge of image.
The Pig and Whistle's gated doorway on the right can be seen at the far left edge of Taber's 1892 photograph.

Like the Pig and Whistle building, many of the structures in the photo are newly built. The prominent two-story building in the foreground has one of its two flats advertised for rent with signs in the window and on the fence:

57-59 Wood Street shortly after construction in 1892.

Most of its handsome details are gone, including that great entry portico, but the building still stands at 57-59 Wood Street.

57-59 Wood Street, built circa 1891. It got a garage, but lost just about everything else.

In the early 1890s, a 25 x 100- foot lot around Lone Mountain would set you back about $600—$20,000 in 2023 dollars—although some aggressive real estate firms tried for twice that amount. Contracting someone to erect a cottage or set of flats on your new property would cost you somewhere between $1,500 and $2,500, which is $50k-83k in today’s money…not so bad...

Cross-Crowned Hill

A 1920s map of the big four cemeteries around Lone Mountain (at center) with proposed new avenues, playground, and school on cemetery land.

While no cemeteries were established on Lone Mountain itself, four big burial grounds nearby gave the cross-topped hill an identity connected with death, endless sleep, and the afterlife. To be described as “at Lone Mountain” in a conversation, an article, or a poem, meant you had passed from this earthly realm.

The often-foggy hilltop, surrounded by the land of the dead, inspired a good number of moody poems. One by Louis Alexander Robertson starts:

“Thou cross-crowned hill, to which I often turn,
Although no dead of mine lie slumbering there,
I watch the western skies behind thee burn,
And my pale lips are parted with a prayer”

Other than a small bit of Laurel Hill cemetery fence in the foreground, in the photograph the only evidence of the boneyards is visible between the tree branch leaves at upper right. If you squint you can see the water tank of the Odd Fellows Cemetery and an obelisk honoring Samuel H. Parker, a grand master of that fraternal order. Both were near the summit of today’s Parker Avenue.

mountain slope
View southwest to the edge of Lone Mountain noting some of the cottages still standing today. The Parker monument crumbled in the 1906 earthquake. The small house at lower right was part of a mini-dairy.

The cross at the top of Lone Mountain was one of several built on the 468-foot prominence. The first was constructed in May 1862 by James Doyle at the behest of the Catholic archbishop. That original was burned by vandals in 1872. Replacements blew over in storms in 1887, 1900, and 1916.

Another Taber view of Lone Mountain, this one from the west, looking across the Odd Fellows Cemetery. This land is now mostly housing and Rossi Pool and Playground. Circa 1890.

The last freestanding cross came down along with the conical summit in 1931 when 75 feet of Lone Mountain was shaved off for the San Francisco College for Women. When architect H. F. Minton announced his plans for the 23-acre campus in 1929, there were some promises that the hill’s cross would be salvaged and placed atop the school’s central tower.

Any examination of the ornamental metal cross that surmounts the Spanish Gothic Revival building quickly scouts this idea. The women’s college closed in the late 1970s and the neighboring University of San Francisco took over the campus in an expansion.

That's a little metal cross on top of the Lone Mountain College tower. (OpenSFHistory/wnp25.4544)

The end of Mr. Roberston’s poem:

“When I shall rest beneath thee evermore,
And cold, gray fogs drift o’er me from the deep,
Perchance—who knows?—the voices of the sea,
Rolling in deep-toned music from the shore,
May not be all unheard in that last sleep,
Murmuring a long-low slumber-song to me.”

Mr. Robertson does not rest evermore in the shadow of Lone Mountain. All the Lone Mountain cemeteries were condemned and built over by the middle of the 20th century.

Do you hope to hear the sea’s slumber song after your death? The best you can do is have your ashes deposited in the old Odd Fellows Columbarium at 1 Lorraine Court, now run as a private concern. That’s my plan.

Woody Beer and Coffee Fund

Woody and Paul
My friend Paul Madonna has a new book out!

I have done great work spending down the corpus of the Woody Beer and Coffee Fund on lattes, lagers, and conversation with friends old and new. It has meant that I am peeing more than usual, but if that is the price I need to pay to be sociable...

Keep me hydrated and let me buy you a beverage before I take off to Mexico City in mid-September.