Golden Gate Park’s Stow Lake, built in 1893, is a popular site where people stroll on a mile-long path that snakes around the lake. Tourists rent boats to paddle around with the ducks. Two short bridges lead over the water to an island called Strawberry Hill that features a waterfall.
But the lake’s serenity is spoiled by its namesake: William W. Stow was the most openly anti-Semitic politician in California history, according to a local Jewish historian, who argued for a tax on Jews to purge them from the state.
Steve Miller, a Jewish San Francisco resident, is aiming to correct history by convincing local lawmakers to change the lake’s name. He argues that Stow’s views are incompatible with the city’s history of inclusivity and tolerance.
“It will send a message to everyone that we take anti-Semitism seriously,” Miller said.
Stow’s clash with California’s Jews dates back to 1855. As speaker of the state Assembly and an ally of the Know Nothing movement, known for its xenophobia, Stow tried to pass a Sunday “closing law” for businesses in Santa Clara and Santa Cruz (which he represented). But Jewish tradesman Louis Schwartz pushed back against the proposed legislation.
In response, Stow declared in the Assembly, “I have no sympathy with the Jews and would it were in my power to enforce a regulation that would eliminate them from not only our county but from the entire state! 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.”
Luckily, Stow’s views were roundly rejected by most Californians. “Pioneer San Francisco was probably the least anti-Semitic place on the planet,” said Fred Rosenbaum, author of many books on California Jewish history. “[Stow’s] ideas got no traction,” and in the end the tax was not imposed.
Prominent Jewish lawyers in the state at the time wrote scathing responses to Stow’s diatribe. While the closing laws would eventually pass (and later be repealed) without the anti-Semitic language, scholars say Stow’s anti-Jewish stance lost him his run at the governor’s seat. He would leave politics shortly after and work as an attorney for Southern Pacific Railroad. Stow died in 1895 after a three-year stint as San Francisco’s park commissioner.
Newspapers printed glowing obituaries of Stow, with zero mention of his proposed anti-Jewish tax. “By the death of W.W. Stow, California has lost one of the most remarkable public men this State has ever developed,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle. The Sacramento Union wrote, “W.W. Stow came of revolutionary stock.”
While it’s unclear who made the decision to name the lake after Stow, it was common during Golden Gate Park’s early days for landmarks to be named after park commissioners, according to the park department’s historian-in-residence Christopher Pollock.
Miller became aware of the issue while reading Simon Schama’s “The Story of the Jews.” He was appalled. “What does it say about our city?” Miller said.
Miller has lived in the Richmond District near the park for almost 40 years and is active at Congregation Beth Sholom. He retired in 2016 after 42 years at Chevron, and said he has devoted much of his time to reading history he never learned growing up.
In early 2018, Miller contacted District 1 Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer — whose jurisdiction includes Golden Gate Park — about his concerns with the lake’s name. He has since exchanged multiple emails with Fewer’s office but said the issue hasn’t gone anywhere.
“I am a little mystified that nothing has happened,” Miller said.
In an email statement to J., Fewer said, “I am open to engaging with our neighbors, community members, and parks stakeholders in a robust process in considering a renaming. It is important to understand and reflect upon the history behind designated names of our parks — this influences how we identify and associate with our treasured open spaces.”
In a follow-up email, an aide from Fewer’s office said they were in contact with the parks department after Miller’s inquiry. “We recognize that renaming proposals are often significant efforts that need to have strong community outreach and appropriate forums for community feedback,” the email read. “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.”
Rosenbaum, for one, would like to see Stow Lake’s name changed. “This is not a situation of a guy that did popular things and just happened to have this anti-Semitic streak,” he said. “Anti-Semitism really defined his political life. He is known for this bigotry.
“I don’t know why anything should be named after him,” Rosenbaum added.
Stow’s name does not appear on the official San Francisco Recreation and Park page for the lake. Spokesperson Madison Sink said this is because the written history documenting over 220 sites in the park is an ongoing project.
Some of Stow’s relatives still live in California, according to Amanda De Lucia, director of the Goleta Valley Historical Society, an organization near Santa Barbara that oversees landmarks associated with the Stow family. One of Stow’s distant cousins and a board member of the society, David W. Van Horne, declined an interview with J.
Two historical advisers for the society, Fermina Murray and Ronald Nye, also declined an interview request, responding in an email that “[we] do not concern ourselves with any personal, private, or political topics concerning the Stow family.”
This isn’t the first time the namesake of a San Francisco landmark has been scrutinized.
In 2018, a coalition of Chinese American groups and city supervisors called for Julius Kahn Playground in Presidio Heights to be renamed, a decision supported by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.
Kahn was a Jewish congressman from San Francisco who supported the Chinese Exclusion Act and once said the Chinese were “morally, the most debased people on the face of the earth.”
In September, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Commission renamed it Presidio Wall Playground. To rename a landmark like Stow Lake, the seven-member commission would need the backing of community groups and the district’s supervisor. And there would have to be “extraordinary circumstances of City or National interest,” according to the park’s bylaws.
“The obvious question,” said Miller, “is whether San Francisco regards anti-Semitism on the same level as bigotry against other minority groups. We’ll get the answer to that question when we see what action our city leaders take on Stow Lake.”
Miller said that he would like to see the lake named after someone “who represents the tolerance and opportunity that made our city a beacon for immigrants.” He admits that the name is a small matter, but believes that changing it could have a meaningful impact.
“Let’s face it, it’s not a major thing,” Miller said. “But if you don’t take the little things seriously, it’ll be harder to correct the bigger things.”