How San Francisco's Alamo Square Got Its Name

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How San Francisco's Alamo Square Got Its Name
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The famous "Painted Ladies" of Alamo Square, with San Francisco skyline in the background. (Photo courtesy …

Alamo Square is home to what are arguably the most photographed private homes in the world, yet a surprising number of San Franciscans have trouble pinpointing the neighborhood's location. Far fewer people, including neighborhood residents, know how it got its name.

No, Alamo Square wasn't named after the famous fort in San Antonio, Texas, where William Travis, Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and company fought a gallant but doomed battle against a far larger Mexican force in 1836. "Alamo" means poplar tree, or cottonwood, in Spanish, and in the early 1800s, a cottonwood stood atop the hill that is now the center of the park called Alamo Square.

According to the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association, that single poplar tree marked a watering hole along the horse trail that connected Mission Dolores, site of the city's founding by Spanish missionaries in 1776, with the Presidio, a Spanish fort tasked with supporting Mission Dolores, mainly by controlling local Native American workers. Unbeknownst to most residents, the springs that watered the crest of Alamo Hill exist to this very day, despite the city's best efforts to cap them.

In 1821, Spain lost possession of the area when Mexico won its independence, ushering in a short-lived era that gave way to American ownership by 1848. In 1856, Mayor James Van Ness designated 12.7 acres of Alamo Hill as a public park, naming it Alamo Square. The following year, the state legislature confirmed the park's status.

By 1860, Thomas Hayes, a county clerk, ran the Market Street Railway up the hill along the square's southern boundary, creating the street that still bears his name. A Gold Rush character by the name of Charles P. "Dutch Charley" Duane, a wild-tempered outlaw with a reputation for brutal violence, made traveling up to Alamo Square a dangerous undertaking until city authorities forced him out in 1868. By the 1890s, stately mansions housing diplomats and the wealthy and other ornate Victorian homes populated by the city's professional class filled in the blocks surrounding the park. Among these were the "Painted Ladies" on Steiner Street, which are instantly recognizable San Francisco icons (even if you've never seen the intro to "Full House") and perhaps the most photographed private homes in the world.

The April 1906 earthquake and fire that devastated most of San Francisco largely spared Alamo Square, and the park became a refugee camp for hundreds left homeless by the unprecedented disaster. By the 1950s, the park, along with much of the neighborhood, had begun to deteriorate, but by the 1980s, things were once again looking up. Alamo Square was designated a Historic District in 1984. Almost two centuries earlier, that history began along a Spanish horse trail atop a windswept hilltop marked by a single lonely poplar tree.

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