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San Francisco’s Mount Davidson

Centered in the crossroads of Portola Drive, O’Shaughnessy Boulevard, and Monterey Boulevard, Mount Davidson is near the geographic center of the city. You can walk up to the trailhead on Juanita Street. The walk winds up the hill, through overhangs of pine and eucalyptus trees, to the top of the mountain, at 938 feet it is the highest peak in San Francisco. As you wind around the hill towards the west, you come upon solemn and lonely trees.

Once known as Blue Mountain thanks to its profusion of colorful wildflowers, the peak was part of Don Jose de Jesus Noe’s 4,443-acre San Miguel Rancho granted in 1845 by Mexican governor Pio Pico. After California gained statehood, French naval captain Jose Yves Limatour tried to claim prior ownership of the mountain, but George Davidson, surveyor for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, disproved Limatour’s claim with his survey of 1852. The mountain was renamed in Davidson’s honor in 1911, the year of his death.

The peak was bought and sold several times before becoming part of the vast 12,000-acre holdings of Adolph Sutro, who at one time owned some ten percent of the land in San Francisco. Interestingly, Sutro had made his fortune mining silver at Nevada’s Mount Davidson, also named after the surveyor. It was the tree-loving Sutro who planted the eucalyptus and pine trees that thickly cover the west side of the mountain today.

At Sutro’s death, his heirs sold Mount Davidson to A.S. Baldwin, who had hiking trails constructed so the public could enjoy the climb to the top of the peak. In 1920, George Decatur was so inspired by the peace of the mountain’s woods that he raised $1,100 for the Easter Sunrise Committee to build a forty-foot-high wooden cross at the summit. The first Mount Davidson Easter sunrise service, attended by 5,000 people, was held on April 1, 1923.

A grassroots efforts supported by Mayor Rolph led the city to purchase the first 20 acres of today’s 38-acre city park in 1927. After a succession of wooden crosses at the peak had burned, in 1932, by-then Governor Rolph dedicated the cornerstone of today’s 103-foot-tall cross of cast concrete and steel. The cross’s designer was George W. Kelham, Chief of Architecture for the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in 1915 whose distinguished San Francisco buildings include the old Main Library (today’s Asian Art Museum) and the art deco Shell Oil Building. President Roosevelt pressed a switch in Washington, D.C., that lit the cross at its dedication in 1934. The cross was lit year-round from the 1950s until the energy crisis of 1976.

In the late 1980s a long battle about public ownership of such a prominent religious landmark twice made Mount Davidson the center of lawsuits that reached the California Supreme Court. In 1997, the required separation of church and state was achieved when the Council of Armenian American Organizations of Northern California purchased .38 acre at the peak containing the cross, with deed restrictions ensuring public access in perpetuity. Today portable lighting illuminates the cross at Easter, and hundreds continue to climb the mountain in the early morning hours to catch Easter sunrise on Mount Davidson.

Photos courtesy of Eric Bennion

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Trailhead of Mount Davidson at Juanita Street.

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The solemn and lonely trees on one side of Mount Davidson.

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The trail going up Mount Davidson.

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