Stow Lake is named for William W. Stow, speaker of the Assembly in 1855 who railed against the state’s Jews. (Photos/Wikimedia Commons, Souvenir Evening Post; Collage/Gabriel Greschler)
Stow Lake is named for William W. Stow, speaker of the Assembly in 1855 who railed against the state’s Jews. (Photos/Wikimedia Commons, Souvenir Evening Post; Collage/Gabriel Greschler)

Will antisemite’s name finally be stripped from Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park?

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Visitors to Golden Gate Park’s Stow Lake can enjoy seeing ducks, turtles, a waterfall and paddle boats in a bucolic setting. But unknown to most people is that the lake’s name honors William W. Stow, a 19th-century magnate and politician who wanted to purge Jews from California.

In recent years, efforts to rename the lake have gone nowhere. But in a new interview with J., San Francisco Supervisor Myrna Melgar pledged to take the issue up herself.

“I’m going to do it,” Melgar said. “It’s not a difficult thing. It’ll involve some technical work, but we’ll do it.”

Melgar, who has Jewish heritage, said she believes in inclusivity, which the lake’s name does not represent. “I think it’s terrible,” she said.

Myrna Melgar is the newly elected San Francisco District 7 supervisor. (Photo/Courtesy Melgar)
Myrna Melgar is the San Francisco District 7 supervisor. (Photo/Courtesy Melgar)

In naming monuments, memorials and place names, Melgar said, “We have celebrated all kinds of things: antisemitism, anti-Chinese sentiment, misogyny, colonization. It goes on and on, and little by little, we’re going through the process of having our new, modern values reflected in our public spaces.”

Stow, a wealthy Bay Area resident whose 1895 obituary credited him with being responsible for much of the development of Golden Gate Park in the late 1800s, was elected to the state Assembly in 1853 and served as its speaker for six months in 1855. His obituary said he was once park commissioner in San Francisco in addition to being a railroad lawyer, gold miner and land speculator.

According to “Jewish Voices of the California Gold Rush,” in an argument on the Assembly floor with a Jewish tradesman, Stow said: “I have no sympathy with the Jews and would, it were in my power, enforce a regulation that would eliminate them from not only our county but from the entire state!”

While arguing in support of a law to keep businesses closed on Sundays, he also stated: “I am for a Jew-tax that is so high that [Jews] would not be able to operate any more shops. They are a class of people here only to make money and who leave the country as soon as they make money.”

Melgar’s chief of staff, Jen Low, has experience renaming controversial city landmarks. In 2019, Low was working for Supervisor Norman Yee when he successfully backed a resolution advocating for a name change of Julius Kahn Playground because of Kahn’s anti-Chinese rhetoric and support for the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Shortly after Melgar learned about Stow Lake’s namesake, she asked Low to revisit her work on the Kahn issue. Low immediately pulled up the old resolution and started working on a new one, Melgar said.

Stow Lake today in Golden Gate Park. (Wikimedia/Brocken Inaglory)
Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park. (Photo/Wikimedia-Brocken Inaglory)

Melgar said she is confident the Board of Supervisors would pass an “urging resolution” advocating to change the name of Stow Lake, just like it did in 2019 with Julius Kahn Playground. After that resolution passed, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission voted unanimously to change the name to Presidio Wall Playground. An “urging resolution” requires only a simple majority of the Board of Supervisors for approval.

“It’s rare for the rest of the board to not be deferential to the district supervisor about something that’s going on in their district,” said Melgar.

Before the city’s district lines were redrawn in April, Stow Lake was in District 1, represented by Connie Chan. Now it is part of District 7, which Melgar represents.

The controversy surrounding the lake’s name wasn’t on Melgar’s radar until this reporter informed her of J.’s past coverage of the issue.

Steve Miller
Steve Miller

For San Francisco resident Steve Miller, the lake’s name change can’t come soon enough.

Miller has been outspoken about Stow’s antisemitic rhetoric since learning of it in 2018 while reading Simon Schama’s “The Story of the Jews.”

Seeking to get the name changed, Miller contacted then-Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, whose staff notified J. by email: “Supervisor Fewer is currently reaching out to the broader Jewish community in the Richmond District in order to make sure there is community buy-in for this process.”

Miller said he also presented the issue to his synagogue and a local Jewish nonprofit, but he didn’t see any progress, so he halted his efforts.

Melgar’s pledge appears to be turning the tide.

“I’m tremendously grateful to Myrna Melgar for her effort to finally get Stow’s name removed,” Miller wrote via email. “If successful, we can then celebrate one small victory in our continuing battle against antisemitism in our community.”

Gabe Fisher
Gabe Fisher

Gabe Fisher is a freelance journalist who served as interim editorial assistant at J. in 2022. Follow him on Twitter @ItsGabeFisher.