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Golden Gate Park’s Speed Road

by Susan Saperstein

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Do you know what San Francisco road this once was?

Speedway Meadow in Golden Gate Park is the former location of Speed Road, a track built in 1888 for recreational horse racing.

The Speed Road began where the eastern edge of the meadow is now at Lloyd Lake, continuing southwest to what is now the southern seating area of the Polo Field, making a northward curve at the Bercut Equitation Field, and ending where John F. Kennedy Drive is now at the 42nd Avenue grid line.

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In the 1870s and 1880s, a number of commercial horse tracks existed in the western part of the city. During this period, a group of wealthy men were pushing to build a track in Golden Gate Park for recreational use. The intent was to build it as an exclusive racing road, not for the people of San Francisco like the rest of the park features. William Hammond Hall, the first park superintendent, wanted the park to be bucolic and was against this road. A battle ensued as those for and against the track lobbied politicians and newspaper editors. At the time, the speed in the park for horses and buggies was strictly enforced at 10 miles per hour. Park Commissioners finally relented, but required the horsemen to raise $35,000, the estimated cost, and to take responsibility for maintaining the track.

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Map of a section of Golden Gate Park, 1896. The Speed Road is in the center of the map. Courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection ©Cartography Associates.

Horse owners—including Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, James Donahue, Adolph Sutro, and Adolph Spreckels—raised the funds, and work began in 1888. A year later, the money was used up. The men wanted to donate the unfinished track to the City, but the Park Commissioners did not want to pay for the remainder of the construction or assume responsibility for the unfinished track. The rains of that winter left the road in terrible condition, and Park Commissioners insisted that the cost of repair and completing the track was the responsibility of the horse people. At some point in 1889, however, Speed Road was accepted as part of Golden Gate Park.

The road was completed in 1894. It was 1¼ miles long, 100 feet wide, and graded and paved with clay. A divider ran down the middle to facilitate racing in both directions.

The Speed Road’s entire existence proved to be a problem for the park: a few wealthy people considered it their race track but shirked the upkeep responsibility, and it was costly to maintain. It was also difficult to patrol with horse owners, bicycle riders, and wandering pedestrians bicker-ing with each other over the right to use it.

The first bicycle came to San Francisco from Paris in 1876. By the 1880s bicycles had become so fashionable that they were ubiquitous in the park, and Speed Road quickly became popular with bicyclists who wanted to race. Around the time the road was built, bicyclists were banned on many of the roads around popular attractions such as the Conservatory and the Music Stand. The bikers complained and politicked to use all park roads. The park gave in; by 1894 they were permitted to ride around most of the park. To appease the horsemen on Speed Road, a bicycle path was built at what is now John F. Kennedy Drive in order to separate the horse and bike riders.

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Speed Road in 1898. Imagine this track while picnicking today in Speedway Meadow

By 1900, the track was too dilapidated and neglected to use. A few years later a petition from a group requesting an athletic field in the park was presented to the Park Commissioners. They approved a circular track stadium that was to become the present day Polo Field, deciding on the area that would obliterate the western third of the Speed Road. However, construction was delayed by the 1906 Earthquake and Fire.

Because much of the City’s housing had been destroyed, the eastern area of the Speed Road became a refuge for earthquake victims—Camp Six, or Camp Speedway.

Camp Speedway was closed in October 1906; the Speed Road was removed the next year and transformed into the grassy Speedway Meadow. If you walk the flat meadow today, you can imagine the mile-and–a-quarter-long road that was once there.

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Speedway Meadow, then as Camp Speedway in 1906, and now. One thousand earthquake victims lived in Camp Speedway.

Sources: http://www.outsidelands.org/speed-road.php

The Making of Golden Gate Park, The Early Years 1865 -1906, Raymond H. Clary

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, A Thousand and 17 Acres of Stories, Christopher Pollock

• Photos of Speedway Meadow today, courtesy of Susan Saperstein.

• Map of Golden Gate Park, Publisher Geo. W. Blum of San Francisco, courtesy of David Rumsey Map Collection. Image ID: 170034, www.davidrumsey.com.

• All other photos courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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