New Water Map Washes Away S.F. Urban Legend

Oct 29, 2011

Two creek geologists — people who study underground waterways — recently found themselves in the basement of a porn studio in San Francisco. Janet Sowers and Christopher Richard steered clear of the actors who were filming for, an online fetish pornography studio that happened to have a stream running through its basement.

Sowers and Richard are water detectives and mapmakers. They look for clues of the old creeks and marshes that once ran across the city and were long ago paved over. A new map they made of the city's underground waterways includes a change to what could be San Francisco's oldest urban legend.

The story is represented by a bronze plaque, marked June 29, 1776, in the heart of the city's Mission District. It is the setting of a mystery that has nagged Richard for years.

Sorting Through The Facts

According to legend, Spanish settlers set up camp on the shores of a lake, called Laguna Dolores, where Ohlone Indians fished and canoed.

That, Richard says, is impossible. He says back in the 18th century, the site overlooked a creek bed, a canyon.

"What just really nobody can explain is how you would have had a 40-foot deep canyon here," he says, with a lagoon above it.

This is gravitationally impossible. How can there be a lagoon on a ridge above a creek?

"It would have immediately drained away," Richard says.

This fact ate at Richard, a curator at the Oakland Museum, so he started looking into it, combing through historical records. He says the story of the lagoon can be traced back to a single paragraph, written by the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza in March 1776.

Richard says de Anza is actually talking about three separate bodies of water, not one. But when historians read this, they got confused. Where de Anza described a creek, they thought he was talking about a lake.

"It's all just a big misunderstanding," he says, "but it has become legend."

Richard's work has ignited a controversy. One local resident, who helped get the plaque put up, said he was too angry to even be interviewed. He and others spent years researching the lagoon and its history. Now they're facing someone who's telling them they were wrong.

Marking The Truth

Local resident Tom Schmidt, a software engineer, is not a fan of the plaque.

"I wish they'd take it down. I don't like the sign. I'm sorry if that sounds awful," he says.

Schmidt says the tour groups are noisy and leave trash on the sidewalk.

"I guess I don't understand these things. It would be one thing if there were still historical buildings here, but there [are] just apartment buildings here now," he says.

To, mapmakers Sowers and Richard, that is the whole point. It is impossible see anymore what the city looked like 250 years ago, so people have to use their imaginations.

"Imagine it as grassland. Imagine it with cattle grazing on it," Sowers says, "and imagine being able to look over there and see that distance without these buildings in the way."

Richard says they are following the tradition of science.

"Our lives are dedicated to figuring out what is from what isn't," he says.

Richard and Sowers would like to see the plaque taken down, or at least revised. They say there's nothing really wrong with a creation myth, but they'd prefer the truth.

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