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Rising Water in and Around Glen Park is Nothing New: A Look Back

This article was originally published in the Glen Park News, January 9, 2023, a publication of the Glen Park Association.

The torrent of rain delivered by the Category 4 atmospheric river that careened into San Francisco on December 31, 2022, was nothing short of biblical. The 5.5 inches of rain recorded in those 24 hours (half of the expected total for all of December) exceeded any amount recorded for that date since record-keeping began in 1849. It also placed second for the single highest volume measured on any date over those 173 years, falling short of the 1994 record by less than 0.1 inches. Throughout San Francisco and the Bay Area, flooding, mudslides, tumbling boulders, downed trees, power outages, and closed highways were reported, including in the Glen Park district (see Glen Park News, January 1, 2023, and water cascading down Chenery Street toward Diamond Street in this KTVU video). And at the time of this writing, more rain and high winds are predicted to continue into the third week of 2023.

Like many neighborhoods over the years, Glen Park has not been spared from having to deal with rising water due to a combination of ground saturation, physical barriers to drainage in the form of structures, asphalt and concrete, and catch basins overwhelmed by run-off and backflow. During the historic storm of November 1982, manhole covers in the lower-lying areas of Glen Park were lifted up by the overflow; in December 2014, residents on Lippard Avenue organized a bucket brigade to manage the deluge.

The fact is, we live in a historically riparian district. With elevation ranging from about 175 feet to over 600 feet above sea level, Glen Park is in a very hilly, undulating part of San Francisco. The north branch of the city’s largest creek, Islais Creek (see Glen Park News, Spring 2020, page 8), once ran south through Glen Canyon before turning eastward to its confluence with the main branch running from San Bruno Mountain to San Francisco Bay. Several small rivulets flowed into Islais Creek along its course, including one into the north branch that followed the general downhill path of today’s Diamond Street north of Chenery Street.

As seen in one of the earliest known images (1891) of Islais Creek that looks eastward from the approximate area of today’s Elk, Congo, and Bosworth Street intersection, the north branch of Islais Creek was a gully that bisected the Glen Park district. A Sanborn Fire Insurance Map for 1913-1915 (see image) shows much of the same area in the photograph, highlighted with subsequent development appearing in later centuries, including the widening of Bosworth Street and development of the Glen Park Greenway. In the second half of the 19th century, Islais Creek was reported to be as much as 8 feet deep and fishable with steelhead trout. During the early 1860s, it temporarily served as the primary source of water for thirsty San Franciscans, providing an estimated 400,000 gallons of water daily.

This earliest known image of Islais Creek, captured by Dr. Alexander Thomas Leonard in 1891, looks eastward towards the Gum Tree Grove that gave Glen Park its nickname. The structure is the Blaine Pump House, constructed between today’s Bosworth Street and the parking area of St. John Catholic School, by Alfred “Nobby” Clarke of Clarke’s Water Works. The white fence in the upper left is the future Chenery Street. Image courtesy of the California Historical Society.

This Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of 1913-1915 shows the route of Islais Creek through the same area as the preceding 1891 photograph, highlighted with development in later centuries. The approximate location of the Blaine Pump House would be just below the notch encroaching the parking area of St. John Catholic School. Map courtesy of the San Francisco Planning Department.

We also sit atop a lot of groundwater, captured in natural underground basins called aquifers. The Glen Park district lies above the 45-square-mile Westside Basin that extends from Golden Gate Park southward to San Bruno in San Mateo County (see map). Early residents appeared to have been aware of these natural cisterns. By 1878, there were at least 90 known artesian wells throughout the city, with an estimated 1,500 wells having been bored by that time. While today our water supply comes directly from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park via Crystal Springs Reservoir, San Francisco Water, Power, and Sewer sometimes blends our groundwater with mountain water to help make our supply more sustainable.

Today, due to development in the region, Islais Creek is a trickle of its former self. Only a small portion of the north branch continues to flow above ground in Glen Canyon before being diverted underground just north of the Glen Canyon Recreation Center into what was once a state-of-the-art combined water-sewer system. Throughout the city over a century ago, these underground culverts were designed to follow the natural route of the city’s creeks. Islais Creek now flows below Glen Park through pipes 6 feet in diameter. Beyond the confluence of the main and north branches of Islais Creek in the area of Cayuga Avenue, Lyell Street, and Alemany Boulevard, the creek runs through pipes 6 to 8 feet in diameter. Then at the mouth of Islais Creek under Interstate 280 west of 3rd Street, water runs through three rectangular pipes (8.5 feet by 10.5 feet each) before converging to release water in the bay about 300 yards offshore.

Regardless of the level of urban development, flooding has been and continues to be an actuality for the Glen Park district. Despite its calm, meandering appearance in the 1891 image, Islais Creek could become treacherous. In mid-January 1862, Michael Donovon attempted to ford what must have been a surging Islais Creek on horseback at the Old San Jose Road (today the general area of Diamond, Chenery and Bosworth Streets), but was swept off his horse and drowned.

This tragedy occurred in the same year as the Great Flood in California. Following a prolonged period of drought, the deluge is believed to have been the result of a series of atmospheric rivers that collided with the state between December 1861 and January 1862. San Francisco reportedly received over 28 inches of rain in just 30 days. A pooling of water comparable in size to Lake Superior filled much of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys that took 6 months to recede. Flooding was so bad in Sacramento that Governor-elect Leland Stanford (who, for a brief time 30 years later, would own most of Glen Canyon) had to row a boat from his home to his inauguration. An estimated 4,000 people were killed during that climatic siege, with one-third of all property in the state destroyed and hundreds of thousands of livestock lost. The State of California was driven into bankruptcy for 18 months. A Scientific American article published in 2013 reminds us that such a mega-flood could happen again.

On December 22, 1866, Islais Creek at the San Bruno Road about a mile east of the Old San Jose Road was surging again. A man on horseback entrusted a milkman to pilot him across the rushing creek. Before the equestrian knew it, "...he was soon in almost up to the pommel of the saddle. Just then he looked up and noticed that the milk wagon and horse had disappeared, and the milkman himself was swimming for dear life down the stream." The equestrian returned to the bank of the creek and found a different route into the city.

Of course, in the 1860s the population of the future Glen Park district was quite sparse, consisting mainly of milch (dairy) ranches and vegetable and fruit farms on large parcels of land. The first dynamite factory in America, personally licensed by inventor Alfred Nobel, was built in the district because of its remote location. In the 1890s (and perhaps earlier), the intersection of today’s Diamond and Chenery Streets adjacent to Islais Creek was a stop for respite and a good stiff drink on journeys to and from San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties. Sensing opportunity, Walter Haack built a saloon, residence, and community hall at the location in 1895 (today’s Glen Park Cleaners building). Within 10 years, a total of three saloons graced the intersection (in addition to Haack, August Straub, and Anton Dissmeyer).

By the 1890s, the district was just beginning to develop. In 1895, residents along the Old San Jose Road were urging that a large main sewer was needed to help "…drain the territory sloping towards Islais Creek." While sewers had been laid, they had no proper outlet and "both sewerage and drainage going down the grades to the bed of the creek … could no longer be tolerated." In January the following year, the bridge over Islais Creek was washed out by rushing water, along with the loss of many vegetable gardens, chickens, and pigs that were carried downstream.

After the 1906 earthquake, thousands of displaced San Franciscans migrated to the growing Glen Park. Members of the Glen Park Improvement Association and Glen Park Outdoor Art League were soon attending meetings of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors well into the 1910s to urge construction of a main sewer, water supply, and other basic infrastructure. In 1908, after the city had failed to respond to repeated requests, the women of the Glen Park Outdoor Art League, led by President Ada Parker Stillings, "organized a corps of men" to do work to improve Lippard Avenue that was "almost impassable...during winter months." The women bolstered the men with a luncheon and engaged a band to provide hearty inspiration. Additional grading on Lippard south of Bosworth was conducted by the city in 1915.

Women of the Glen Park Outdoor Art League rally the neighborhood to improve Lippard Avenue in 1908, enticing up to 300 men to help with a homemade luncheon. Image from the San Francisco Examiner, May 4, 1908, page 2, courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.

In February 1915, the Bay Area suffered yet another massive storm. According to the San Francisco Call, "Lashed by a fifty-mile gale, accompanied by scuttlesful of rain, San Francisco has been shaken for many hours by the worst storm that has swept the coast of California from the southwest in a dozen years." Portions of the Great Highway from San Francisco to San Bruno washed away, and "the face of the beach itself ... entirely changed."

In Glen Park, a flood had "raged through the hollow" between Glen Park and the Mission District, "driving families from their water soaked [sic] homes." In the collage included in the Call article, the flooding engulfed the home of Carlo diStefano, noted to be located at Diamond and Chenery (the 1915 city directory places him on Chenery closer to Lippard and Chilton Avenues), devastating his wine cellar.

The home of Carlo diStefano, a resident of Chenery Street near Lippard and Chilton Avenues, surrounded by flood water following a massive winter storm that destroyed his wine cellar. Image from the San Francisco Call, February 2, 1915, courtesy of the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

Flooding in Glen Park in 1925 was again significant enough to be featured in local media. In the collage, members of the Winn family of the “vicinity” of Chenery Street (listed in the 1925 city directory as living on Bosworth Street near Elk Street) are digging a ditch to redirect water flow. In the oval inset, Chilton Avenue resident Mrs. Caroline Evers, the first president of the Glen Park Outdoor Art League and owner of Glen Park’s nickelodeon theater, is preventing her two German Shepherds from launching off the stairs for a dip in the flood.

Yet another deluge struck Glen Park in 1925. In this collage (upper left), members of the Winn family of Bosworth Street near Elk Street are digging a ditch to redirect the route of the flood. In the oval inset, Mrs. Caroline Evers is blocking her dogs from taking a dip in the water surrounding her home. The images in the lower left and upper right show flooding of the Fleishacker Playground at the site today’s San Francisco Zoo. Image from the San Francisco Chronicle, February 13, 1925, page 3, courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.

So, we have many examples over the decades of flooding in the Glen Park district. Regardless of the level of development, local flooding after heavy and persistent rain is simply due to Islais Creek wanting to flow naturally along its course. Yet, with an outdated combined water-sewer system carrying a larger volume than a single-flow water system, flow rates after a heavy, persistent rain sometimes exceed the limited capacity of our aging pipes. In short, there is much work to be done to modernize our 120-year-old system (see what San Francisco Power Water Sewer already has underway). You can learn more about how our combined sewer and water system works in upbeat videos (Part 1 and Part 2) produced in 2009 by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and the history of our system by urban watershed planner Rosey Jencks.

In the meantime, just like the women of the Glen Park Outdoor Art League in 1908, we can help by creating our own storm and flood resilience. Adopt a storm drain and commit to keeping it clear of organic refuse during major storms. Become a San Francisco Rain Guardian by developing green infrastructure to help keep stormwater from overwhelming the sewer system. There may also be a possibility of reactivating the Glen Park Neighborhood Emergency Reaction Team (NERT). And, carry forward the tradition of Glen Park activism (and here) by standing up and speaking out to our local government officials to bring attention, awareness, and action to our district’s needs and concerns.

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