At first glance, it seems like a pretty esoteric controversy: Did a famous, now-vanished lake ever exist in the first place?

But the Dolores Lagoon isn’t just any old lake. It’s San Francisco’s Plymouth Rock, the place where the modern city was supposedly founded. Questioning its existence is a little like suggesting that Plymouth Rock wasn’t in Massachusetts at all, or the Gold Rush didn’t begin at Sutter’s Mill. For Christopher Richard, a curator at the Oakland Museum, it’s become an obsession. For others, it’s sacrilege.

This 1912 map includes the Laguna Dolores

This month, Richard, along with his collaborator, geologist Janet Sowers, are getting something like a final word on the matter: A new revised version of San Francisco’s Creek and Watershed Map is being released by the Oakland Museum. For the first time, it excludes the old Dolores Lagoon that was once said to engulf Mission and Valencia streets between 15th and 18th streets. I called Richard to ask for an explanation.

We met in a porn studio.

Though you wouldn’t know it from their wide range of video offerings online, is one of the best places in San Francisco to see the ways fresh water still moves underneath the Mission district, despite the efforts of a century of city planners to excise San Francisco’s erstwhile creeks and marshes from the urban landscape.

Kink’s basement is below the neighborhood’s water table, which means water is constantly seeping in through cracks in the walls. In the rainy season, sump pumps suck thousands of gallons of fresh water out of this basement each day.'s underground creek is not something you want to throw a line into.

Chris Gaw, who directs arts and facilities for kink, and unit production manager Duke Cole, were kind enough to give us a tour. Chris says once, not long after bought the historic building, they held a mud-wrestling match in one of the ponds that form on the floor of the basement. That was before they took the water in for testing. Lab results showed e.coli. Now they steer clear of it.

What has Sowers and Richard tromping through adult film sets is a longstanding interest in water. Not just any water, but the streams and marshes that are now invisible, because they have been filled and paved over, channeled into pipes and sewers under our city streets.

In that way, Richard and Sowers function as water detectives, looking for clues of the city’s long-lost aquatic past. Recently, they believe, they solved a mystery that had nagged them for years.

Where a modern multicultural city began

After we leave, Richard, Sowers, and I walk a few blocks south, to Albion Street, a narrow lane between Valencia and Guerrero, and bordered by 16th and 17th streets. We stop at a bronze plaque. Richard reads the first sentence aloud:

“Site of the original Mission Dolores Chapel and Dolores Lagoon. On June 29th, 1776, Father Francisco Palou, a member of the Anza expedition, had a brushwood shelter built here, on the edge of a now-vanished lake, Lago de los Dolores (Lake of the Sorrows), and offered the first mass.”

The settlers had walked north from Monterey, up to San Francisco. But what they found was sand. There was nowhere to graze the cattle. So they set up camp in the city’s south east corner, on the shores of a lagoon, called Laguna Dolores, where Ohlone Indians fished and paddled canoes.

“At that moment, two cultures encountered each other, tried to deal with each other,” says Andy Galvan, an Ohlone and curator at Mission Dolores. “And today we are a very multicultural city, and that’s something to be very proud of.”

Decoding the myth

The problem with this long-told story, as recounted on the plaque on Albion street, says Christopher Richard, is that a lagoon couldn’t have existed here.

He pulls out a topographical map, and points to the place we’re standing. He says back in the 18th century, it overlooked a creek bed, a canyon.

“You can’t have a lake on a highland,” he says. “You can’t have a lake in a bathtub when you’ve pulled the plug. The water would have immediately drained away.”

When Richard and Sowers produced the 2007 version of the map, they left the lake on it. “We couldn’t come up with a strong enough argument to not put it on,” says Sowers.

On the updated, 2011 Watershed Map, the historic Dolores Lagoon is gone.

But the mystery of the Laguna nagged at Richard, so he started looking into historical records, many of which had only recently become available online.

Today, he says the myth of the lagoon can be traced back to a single paragraph, written by the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza in March, 1776.

“After continuing to the southeast a league and a half along the coast of the estero, I found a good site for planting crops with irrigation by taking the water from an ojo de agua o fuente…” the passage begins.

What’s confusing about this passage, according to Richard, is that de Anza is actually talking about three separate bodies of water: A creek, here in the Mission, and two different lakes: one in the Presidio, one in Cow Hollow.

But a hundred years later, historians got confused. They thought deAnza had described a lake in the Mission District. San Francisco, they said, was founded on the banks of a lake. Generations of map-makers then followed suit.

What difference does it make?

Richard’s and Sowers’ 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. They feel confident there was a lake here. Now someone’s telling them they were wrong?

While Richard, Sowers and I were studying the plaque, a car pulled into the driveway of the adjacent apartment building. Tom Schmidt, a software engineer got out. I asked him what he thinks of the plaque.

“Honestly it’s the bane of my existence, that sign,” said Schmidt.

He told us the sign attracts tour buses, groups of school kids, drunk teenagers. It’s a nuisance. But even beyond that, he’s just not really sure what the point is.

“It would be one thing if there were some historical buildings to look at here,” he said. “But there are just apartment buildings now, bars and homeless people. There’s nothing here.”

To, Janet Sowers, that is the point. We can’t see anymore what this city looked like 250 years ago. So you have to you use your imagination.

“Imagine it as grassland,” she says. “Imagine it with cattle grazing on it. And imagine being able to see the Mission Dolores over that distance, without any of these buildings in the way.”

But to do this, it helps to have a few clues. Richard says his job is making sure they’re good ones. “Our lives are dedicated to finding out what is from what isn’t,” he says. “That’s what a scientist does.”

Richard and Sowers would like to see the plaque taken down, or at least revised, but that idea is bound to be controversial in the neighborhood. The final decision belongs to California’s Office of Historic Preservation. That process could take years.

The Lost Lagoon 18 December,2015Amy Standen


Amy Standen

Amy Standen (@amystanden) is co-host of #TheLeapPodcast (subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher!) and host of KQED and PBSDigital Studios' science video series, Deep Look.  Her science radio stories appear on KQED and NPR.

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