Stow Lake is dead. Long live Blue Heron Lake! (Wikimedia/Brocken Inaglory)
Stow Lake is dead. Long live Blue Heron Lake! (Wikimedia/Brocken Inaglory)

Golden Gate Park lake named for antisemitic politician bestowed with new one

Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park no longer honors an antisemite.

On Thursday, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission voted 4-3 to strike the name from the artificial water feature, bestowing it with the new name Blue Heron Lake.

Completed in 1893, the lake was named after William Stow, a public servant in the 19th century. He served as speaker of the state Assembly and park commissioner and was responsible for much of the development of Golden Gate Park. Openly antisemitic, he once said, “I have no sympathy with the Jews and would, were it in my power, enforce a regulation that would eliminate them from not only our county but from the entire state!”

Getting to the new name required many steps going back five years. In October 2022, District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar and two of her colleagues brought a resolution to the Board of Supervisors that urged the commission to change the name. Melgar’s office then organized a series of community meetings where constituents could suggest and debate renaming options.

The most suggested name was Blue Heron Lake. The blue herons nest in springtime on Strawberry Hill, an island within the lake, and represent resilience, progress and evolution for the Indigenous community, according to a press release from the Rec and Park Commission.

“I am so grateful that the Recreation and Park Commission took this important step to strike Stow’s hateful legacy from the lake,” said Melgar, who is Jewish. “Antisemitism and hate have no place in our city nor in Golden Gate Park, and now we are one step closer to rectifying the pain that Assemblymember Stow caused to the Jewish and other communities across California.”

Blue Heron Lake, for the great blue herons who nest seasonally at the lake, is one of the frontrunners. (Photo/Wikimedia-Alpinekid CC BY-SA 4.0)
The great blue herons who nest seasonally at the lake are its new namesake. (Photo/Wikimedia-Alpinekid CC BY-SA 4.0)

The name change went into effect immediately. The commissioners also voted to rename the road around the lake and the historic boathouse as Blue Heron Lake Drive and Blue Heron Lake Boathouse.

The new name topped a list of contenders that included Turtle Lake and Strawberry Lake. Some community members suggested taking the opportunity to honor influential Jews, including Ret. Judge Quentin Kopp and philanthropist Cissie Swig, and non-Jews including the late S.F. Chronicle columnist Herb Caen.

Located in the eastern half of the park, the lake is bordered by a walking path, and row boats and pedal boats can be rented by the hour. Dozens of bird species, such as the Hooded Merganser and Black Phoebe, are regularly spotted at the lake.

Jewish San Francisco resident Steve Miller was largely responsible for publicizing the origin of Stow Lake’s name. In 2018, after learning of Stow’s antisemitic rhetoric while reading Simon Schama’s “The Story of the Jews,” he lobbied then-Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer about changing the name. He also tried to get his synagogue and a local nonprofit involved, although he said there was no sign of progress there, either. He then contacted J., and when J. reached out to Melgar she immediately pledged to take up the issue.

There was precedent for the renaming of Stow Lake. In 2019, Rec and Park voted to rename Julius Kahn Playground to Presidio Wall Playground. Kahn was a member of Congress who supported the racist Chinese Exclusion Act.

Miller was pleased to see how the name changing process ended.

“Many thanks to Myrna Melgar and her staff for pushing this along,” he told J. “I’m looking forward now to the day when the last trace of Stow’s name is gone and forgotten.”

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.