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The Mysterious Origins of Glen Park's Mizpah Street

A truncated version of this article appeared in (Hi)Stories of Our Neighborhoods in the Glen Park News, Winter 2018.

Only one block long and traversing a steep slope, Mizpah Street runs southerly from Sussex Street to a few feet west of the flatiron-like intersection of Surrey and Chenery Streets. Many have wondered about the meaning of Mizpah, and a few recent rediscoveries may have finally led us to an answer.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, “mizpah” or “mizpeh” is a Hebrew word for “watchtower” or “lookout point.” It appears several times in the Bible, initially in Genesis 31:49. As the biblical story goes, Jacob and Laban have a disagreement. Laban proposes they settle by making a covenant. Jacob then constructs a pile of stones, and Laban declares it to be known as “… Mizpah; for he said, The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another." In other words, the cairn served both as a boundary of their domains and as a symbolic “watchtower” to monitor adherence to their agreement, with God keeping an omnipresent eye over both. 

By the Victorian era, the exchange of mizpah jewelry was an acceptable symbol of affection under the strict social mores of the time. Initially designed as two hearts side-by-side, a mizpah was considered an amulet of protection and remembrance. Later, it was redesigned as a single heart split in two, with each paramour keeping one-half during periods of separation. 

Around the turn of the 20th century, there were many entities in San Francisco named “Mizpah”: a 70-foot schooner named Mizpah sailed along the Pacific coast; there were various fraternal associations and social lodges, such as the Mizpah Tribe (part of a coed society called the Tribe of Ben Hur), plus a Mizpah Lodge, Mizpah Socials, Mizpah Charity Club, Mizpah Circle, and the Mizpah Presbyterian Church on Harrison Street. The Mizpah Band of Hope, a temperance society, organized young boys into drill corps as an aid for instilling teetotalism. A consultation with the Rev. Mme. Mizpah, “an ordained dead trance medium,” could be had for 50 cents a session. And in Nevada in 1901, the Mizpah Mine in Tonopah was the “greatest-producing property in the world.” Recently, USA Today dubbed Tonopah’s Mizpah Hotel, constructed in 1907, America’s Number One Haunted Hotel. In short, “mizpah” was used and understood to a much greater degree near the turn of the 20th century than it is today. 

In the old Rancho San Miguel before 1906, land available for the sale of home lots was plentiful. Its smattering of residents were primarily occupied in dairy (“milch”) ranches, vegetable farms, fruit orchards, and blue-collar trades. Real estate agent Archibald S. Baldwin was busy buying up land in our district, while also managing the large holdings of the Crocker Estate. He understood that few would want to move to this remote, rural enclave five miles from downtown without some sort of enticement. 

In 1890 under McAfee, Baldwin, & Hammond (by 1896 Baldwin & Howell), Baldwin had successfully established a block of residences adjacent to the main attractions in Golden Gate Park, including the casino, conservatory, children’s playground, and deer park. By 1896, Baldwin seems to have reasoned that home lots in this new district would sell best if they had similar opportunities for outdoor recreation. With rail transit to the district already in place (the San Francisco-San Mateo Electric Railway and the Southern Pacific), Baldwin planned and opened in 1898 a new pleasuring ground – Glen Park and the Mission Zoo – to attract home buyers to his new Glen Park Terrace. Auctions were slated to begin in 1899. Hopping off the San Francisco-San Mateo Electric Railway at today’s Diamond and Chenery, park visitors would be walking right by his new home lots to reach the entrance to the main pleasuring grounds, just a few steps beyond the Surrey Street flatiron tip.


Glen Park Terrace appears to be Baldwin's early concept of a residence park. Based on his experiences in Glen Park, he would advance his concepts in later years, developing several park-like residential areas including Presidio Terrace, Balboa Terrace, Westwood Park, St. Francis Wood, and others, while restricting property ownership to white San Franciscans of higher income.

Mizpah Street may be one of the tangible artifacts of Baldwin’s sprawling, 145-acre pleasuring ground. A survey he commissioned in September 1898 shows paths and promenades that are hardly recognizable today. Yet, one route on Baldwin’s 1898 survey map remains unchanged: the flatiron intersection of Surrey Street and Glen Avenue (the latter today’s Chenery Street). 

Using this intersection as a landmark, we can pinpoint the location of a downsized replica of Havana, Cuba’s Morro Castle near today’s intersection of Swiss and Sussex Streets, noted in newspapers to house an aviary and children’s playground. A small path immediately west of the Surrey Street flatiron tip indirectly snakes its way up the hill to Morro Castle. 

By the time Glen Park opened in late 1898, America had just won the Spanish-American War. American involvement had begun in February of that year when the battleship USS Maine mysteriously exploded in Havana Harbor, just offshore from Morro Castle. To “Remember the Maine” and the 266 souls lost had become an American battle cry. Like other examples throughout the United States, Baldwin may have ordered the construction of Glen Park’s Morro Castle as a remembrance to the fallen sailors of the battleship.

Today, the Western Neighborhoods Project (WNP) is diligently working to upload 100,000 vintage images of San Francisco provided by an anonymous donor (see Sunnyside historian and Assistant Director of the Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project (GPNHP), Amy O’Hair, has been helping the WNP identify locations of images that appear to be from our district. Earlier this year, they came upon some images of Glen Park and the Mission Zoo, ca. 1898-1905.

One image shows a man and woman standing next to the small-sized replica of Morro Castle. Another shows the same woman standing next to a pile of rocks at the end of a sidewalk in an otherwise vacant landscape. To the east over her shoulder is the Gum Tree Grove (eucalyptus) that had been planted near today’s Diamond and Chenery in the late 1850s, extending to about Lippard Avenue. The end of the concrete sidewalk likely marked the end of Glen Avenue at Surrey, where the main pleasuring grounds were accessed. The path angling up to the right from the left side of the cairn may be today’s Surrey Street in its earliest form. The elongated structure in the upper left is likely Morro Castle.

After sharing the image of the rockpile on a recent GPNHP history walk and describing its presumed location near today’s Surrey, Chenery, and Mizpah intersection, Mizpah resident Lois Haggerty called out that “mizpah” referred to a rockpile. While up to that point our research had revealed the watchtower definition, that mizpah also described a cairn had not yet been realized. It was an exciting moment!

Was the miniature Morro Castle constructed as a watchtower to the lives lost on the USS Maine in Havana Harbor? Could Mizpah Street have been named for the serpentine path that meandered to up to the castle? Did the rockpile in the image – a mizpah – mark the beginning of the path to the castle and the boundary of the pleasuring grounds? Did it also stand as a symbol of our nation’s shared covenant to “Never Forget” the sailors of the USS Maine, other members of our military, and in these unsettling times, our first responders as well?

We may never know with certainty the true origins of Mizpah Street. Yet, if the above is correct, this rediscovery seems particularly fitting: Mizpah resident George Sylvester Dunn, Seaman 2nd Class, USS West Virginia, was killed in action during the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. 

Mizpah: it is our duty to never forget.

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