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The Ghosts of Golden Gate Park

Tales of ghostly phenomena are far from being confined to remote, isolated places in the dark old houses and crumbling buildings of the world. Indeed, there are alleged ghosts and specters that don’t seem to mind at all a little company, or even a lot, for some of the more famous eerie stories of hauntings come to us from locations that attract droves of people, changing our image of just where we can expect to experience these spooky phenomena. One such place can be found sprawled out within the city of San Francisco, California, in the United States. Here in one of the most visited parks in America there allegedly lurk more than one mysterious phantom, which roam the shadows among its many visitors.

Lying within the city of San Francisco, California is the sprawling expanse of green known as Golden Gate Park. Measuring over three miles (4.8 km) long and about half a mile (0.8 km) wide and covering a total of around 1,017 acres (412 ha) of public land, it is 20% larger than New York’s Central Park and the fifth most visited park in the United States. Golden Gate Park is home to trails, recreation and picnic areas, flower gardens, quaint parkland, meadows, lawns, bike paths, museums, tennis courts, soccer fields, botanical gardens, a Japanese tea garden, and The California Academy of Sciences, which delight over 13 million visitors a year. The park is typically packed with people of all ages and walks of life engaging in a wide variety of leisure and outdoor activities. With all of the activity and laughter going on here, there would seem to be nothing spooky at all about this charming park in the heart of San Francisco, but in addition to all of the recreational activities on offer, Golden Gate Park also has a darker side, and has long been rumored to be a haunted place.

Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park

Perhaps the most famous ghost of the park can be found at one of the park’s lakes. Scattered throughout Golden Gate Park one can find several small lakes, the largest of which is Stow Lake. Created in 1893 as a boating pond, irrigation for the park, and as a promenade for horse-drawn carriages, the 12-acre Stow Lake surrounds a wooded hill called Strawberry Hill Island, and is typically filled with people leisurely row boating or pedal boating around, as well as picnicking along its shores. The origin of one of the most well-known ghost tales in the San Francisco Bay Area can be found in the story of a woman who was taking a walk through Golden Gate Park one day in the early 1900s, along with her baby in a stroller, when she decided to take a rest and sit down next to Stow Lake. As the mother sat there staring over the placid surface and enjoying the peaceful seclusion of the park, the story goes that another woman came to sit beside her and engage her in conversation. The two chatted for a while and no one noticed that the stroller with the baby in it was rolling away towards the water. Still unnoticed by the two conversing women, the stroller is then said to have fallen into the lake, where the baby tragically drowned.

When the two women were done talking, the mother is then said to have looked around for the stroller and noticed it to be gone. Not knowing that it had rolled into the lake, the concerned mother began looking all over the park for her lost baby, becoming more and more frantic as time passed. She looked everywhere and asked anyone she saw if they had seen her baby, but it was all in vain. No one had seen the stroller or the baby, and there was no sign of where they could possibly be. The distraught mother is said to have spent the entire day and night desperately searching up and down the park, while the whole time her dead child floated at the bottom of Stow Lake unbeknownst to her. After meticulously scouring the park to no avail, the mother then returned to the lake, perhaps realizing that it was the only place she hadn’t checked, and proceeded to dive in right before the eyes of terrified bystanders. The story says that she never surfaced, and although the body of the dead baby was eventually found, the mother had simply vanished. At least in her physical form.

Stone bridge over Stow Lake

Stone bridge over Stow Lake

Since this tragic event, it is said that the ghost of the mourning mother has never really gone away. Perhaps the earliest report of the ghost of Stow Lake, also known as the “White Lady,” is an account published in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 6, 1908. It was reported that police had stopped a speeding car and found the driver to be in a panicked, agitated state. When asked what had happened to frighten him so much, the man told the police that a glowing spectral woman in white had appeared in front of his car and had seemed to exude a thick cloud of dread, provoking a profound sense of fear in him that had almost caused him to crash, after which he had sped away filled with terror.

This report would mark the beginning of a history of people spotting the White Lady which would last up until the present day. The most commonly reported appearances of the ghost revolve around some permutation of the experience of coming across a frantic looking barefoot woman dressed in white somewhere in the park, who will ask “Have you seen my baby?” before vanishing. Even somewhat creepier are tales that tell of the woman drifting up out of the water of Stow Lake in order to plead to visitors to help her find her baby. Other strange phenomena rumored to occur around the vicinity of the lake are cars stalling in unison for no apparent reason, sudden chills, the profound feeling of being watched, and inexplicable bouts of a repressive, almost unbearable feeling of panic and doom. The alleged haunting has also spawned the urban legend that the lady can actually be summoned if you stand beside the water’s edge and chant “White lady, white lady, I have your baby” three times. When the phantom slithers up out of the dark water, she is then said to ask if you have seen her baby. Unfortunately, in this scenario there seems to be no correct way to answer that question, as she’ll forever haunt you if you say “yes,” and worse, kill you right there if you say “no.” So probably not a good idea to conjure her up in this way, it seems.

The Pioneer Mother

The Pioneer Mother

Another bizarre phenomenon reported from the area revolves around a statue that lies at the entrance of Stow Lake, called the Pioneer Mother. Created in 1914 to honor the pioneer women of the Old West and placed in Golden Gate Park in 1940, the statue depicts a woman with outstretched arms welcoming two children, with the pose suggesting there is room for a third whom they are waiting for. There are numerous weird phenomena rumored about this somewhat spooky statue. It is said that from time to time it can be observed to move, typically moving its head from side to side as if looking for something, maybe the missing child, or gazing over its domain. It is also reported that it will change its facial expression and sometimes even distort its features into a hideous, twisted visage. There are also the stories of people seeing the phantom shape of a third, much smaller child situated within the sculpture, which will vanish if approached, and that the sounds of disembodied children’s laughter can be heard near the statue on occasion. Before the statue was restored in 1999, it had been badly weather damaged and discolored, with strange white splotches on the face and mysterious scars upon its bronzed surface, and it was rumored that the splotches were somehow caused by the otherworldly presence within wanting to look more human and the scars the result of its habit of twisting metal to move around. Although the Pioneer Mother is not meant to be a representation of the grieving mother who lost her baby to Stow Lake all of those years ago, there are those who believe that it is possibly this spirit which has made the statue its home.

Whether the two phenomena are linked or not, The White Lady and haunted statue supposedly share Golden Gate Park with yet another, even more bizarre specter; a ghost cop. The story goes that there was an unnamed cop who lost his life in the line of duty within Golden Gate Park years ago and nevertheless is still on duty. The ghost cop will allegedly roam around the park and approach people who have committed traffic violations, such as driving with a headlight out, illegally parking, and especially speeding, which particularly seems to draw its attention. The phantom police officer will then warn the guilty party and issue a ticket, but when the recipient goes to pay it there will be no record of a ticket being issued. The best way to avoid any hassle from this spectral long arm of the law, besides just following the rules of the road, is to hastily exit the park if he is on your tail as he purportedly is unable to leave the confines of Golden Gate Park and tethered there for some unknown reason. The tale of the ghost cop certainly has the ring of being purely an urban legend, yet the stories persist and it is enough to perhaps make one want to slow down a bit when driving through the park at night. Just in case.

Are these ghosts real or just eery urban legends that have been passed down over the years? Whatever the answer to that is, these stories have become well-known to the point that there are many people who come here solely for the purpose of ghost hunting and trying to get a glimpse of these phantoms for themselves. The ghostly entities of Golden Gate Park show that ghosts are not merely the realm of decrepit old houses, nor do they always inhabit the feral places of the world which no one goes to. Legend or reality, either way these stories have become firmly intertwined with the history and lore of this vast park in San Francisco, and are just spooky enough to keep one’s eyes flicking to the shadows when visiting.

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  • Dave Handerson

    I’m a native San franciscan, and I have never heard any of these stories…

  • LOOMfreek

    Same here. Born and raised in SF literally 2 blocks away from GG park. Rode the horse trials on my MTB a lot before they banned MTBs and nothing spooky ever happened nor any mention of these stories. I would take the whole Stow Lake story with a grain of salt. That lake is more like a man made pond. You can jump in and stand up as its maybe 4 feet deep tops. There’s no way someone drowns and the body disappears let alone a mother not noticing a stroller rolling in by accident and not checking the lake first.

    Fun to read these myths though.

  • Brent Swancer

    I’m happy I was able to illuminate these stories for the who had never heard of them before, despite living there. Just goes to show you don’t always realize what lies right under your nose.

    I actually lived most of my life in the San Francisco Bay Area myself. Although I am not from San Francisco proper, but rather a bit outside from place called Concord, even so I’ve still heard of these stories, although I suppose I did run with a rather strange crowd.

    It may seem that this is a rather obscure phenomena, but it is actually talked about a bit in the Fortean community of the Bay Area and is even mentioned in a lot of tourist literature on Stow Lake as well as on even the Golden Gate Park’s own official site. Here:

    You never do know the kinds of weirdness that may be kicking about your own town, I suppose!