The Duel at The Boathouse At Lake Merced!

In the 1850’s Lake Merced was a popular dueling ground because of its remoteness from the rest of the City. Indeed it was the site of one of the best known duels in the Old West. The duel between U.S. Senator David Broderick and Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court David Terry capped a bitter personal feud between the two powerful politicians and ended in the Senator’s death. Today, another feud is ongoing, only this time it’s between the City’s ruling intelligentsia and the citizens they are supposed to represent.

Today the Boathouse crumbles above the active and crucial operations that students depend on to obtain scholarships to the best colleges and universities. It also provides essential recreation and exercise for adults and seniors.

When I first ran for office in 2000, I made a campaign promise that I would restore the water levels at Lake Merced in order to set the stage for what could eventually lead to one of the finest urban recreational areas of any City in the country.

Foremost in my mind was that one day the Lake Merced recreational area would again play host to urban dwellers with the wonderful advantages that nature could provide in the form of fishing, boating, hiking, bicycling, skeet shooting, picnicking, camping, and wildlife viewing. Up to this time, evolving conditions of areas around the lake had taken their toll on this once popular social hub and urban sanctuary.

Coach Bob Maclean of Pacific Rowing Club explains the precarious position of his community-based operation. While renovations are of paramount importance, keeping the rowing clubs operative while they occur is vital.


Historical water levels of the lake depended upon recharging of the underground Westside Aquifer by rainwater that was now being diverted into the ocean because of pavement-happy development. Extensive pumping of the Aquifer by golf courses, cemeteries and municipalities to satisfy irrigation and drinking water needs in the post war years lowered the water level to 14 feet, thereby threatening sea-water intrusion and the destruction of this historical source of the City’s back-up and emergency fresh water supply. We were able to raise the water level to 27 feet by getting the above mentioned users to utilize secondary and tertiary sources of water for their irrigation needs, and re-channel storm water run off and excess Hetch-Hetchy water back into the lake. The negotiations to accomplish this were prolonged, complicated, and tedious. With the help of CalTrout, the Lake Merced Task Force, and the Friends of Lake Merced, we were persistent and successful and today the future for this colorful lake on the edge of San Francisco is looking much brighter.

Coach Maclean admonishes his charges to keep their heads up, eyes front—watching for the smallest detail that could cost the team a valuable second in a competition


There is a piece of this marvelous puzzle still missing and that is what the ongoing “Duel” of today is all about. This duel is over the future of the Lake Merced Boathouse. It’s a classic battle between the incompetent, indifferent and apathetic bureaucracy versus the patient, believing and optimistic residents of the community.

The Boathouse was built and paid for about 55 years ago when the community approved a special bond issue for the purpose of supporting recreational and community activities at the lake. For years it served as an actual boathouse offering anglers fishing supplies and renting rowboats and storing boats for rowers. The building was spruced up by the people who leased it and eventually it also provided restaurant and bar service at this very unique location. In 2003 the lease was not renewed by the Recreation and Park Department because “the operators were not able to maintain the business according to the Department’s liking” according to a spokesperson for Rec and Park. Bear in mind that this was the very same excuse that Rec and Park used to justify the closing of the much revered and historical Golden Gate Park stables!

Today, eight years later, the Boathouse stands empty and deserted at the entrance to the world class Harding Park, which was the flagship of my redevelopment efforts at Lake Merced, and the stables no longer exist in Golden Gate Park. The abandoned boathouse is a disgrace to the Lake Merced area and a lost opportunity for the community.

The “Bridge” is scheduled for replacement “next year” according to Rec and Park.


In 2003, I was assured that the money was set aside for the rehabilitations and that both facilities would be in operation within a year. Unfortunately I left the Board in 2004 after being coaxed to work on a much bigger and potentially profitable development for the City, that being Treasure Island. Ironically that also stands undeveloped and in ruin today.

While the City is supposedly “studying” these issues, and I suspect that they will continue to keep on studying until just the right development (aka politically connected) partner comes along, the community will continue to lose. In the case of the Boathouse, I know for a fact that there were bona fide restaurant operators available in 2003 that would have made the necessary repairs at their expense so that the facility could serve as both a community center and a full service restaurant in exchange for a standard lease from the City. If the City was not going to spend the money to rehabilitate the facility to its original purpose of a community center, then why let it sit empty and dilapidate for the next 7 to 8 years?

It’s ironic that the Recreation and Park Department was able to find $2 million to repair a rarely used pier nestled in the tules of the Lake, only 20% of which was funded by state grants. Whether the boathouse should be rehabilitated by private funds or returned to its original purpose is a matter to be decided by community priorities, but the sin here is doing nothing for almost 9 years! Apparently the current District 7 supervisor hasn’t got the stomach for such mundane and insignificant projects and the part-time aide that he has assigned to represent him regarding the Boathouse isn’t from the City and wouldn’t know the difference between a boathouse a horse-drawn caravan.

Administering the swaying and slippery “bridge” while hoisting heavy “shells” above their heads is excellent teamwork practice and good exercise, but should be safer.


Thankfully there are still some San Franciscans around who know how to get things done that benefit the residents and especially the hundreds of young boys and girls that use the docks at the boathouse to launch their shells for their early morning workouts and competitions. Under the expert leadership of Tom O’Connell, Head Crew Coach of world championship rowing teams from St. Ignatius High School, and Joe Meets of the Pacific Rowing Club, the docks at the boathouse have been replaced at the cost of some $60,000 being raised from private donations on a loan fronted by St. Ignatius High School. Young San Franciscans from the Dolphin Boat Club, the South End Rowing Club, and the San Francisco Rowing Club as well as scores of independents and seniors also use the launching docks.

At 77, Mary Allen keeps fit doing her favorite thing, boating.


I don’t criticize without offering a solution. In this case there is no easy fix unless we insist that our elected representatives address the tasks at hand. If they lack the positive and effective leadership necessary to make things happen, then the ball is in our court.

More Photos from Lake Merced:

Now comes the tricky part—as the boat is rotated into the water—this requires careful coordination and teamwork or the whole team could end up in the drink.


Tony Hall talks about the Boathouse with Coach Alex Simon of St. Ignatious Crew

The men’s team from Pacific Rowing wait for their launch turn on the new $60,000 aluminum and plastic pier provided by a loan from St. Ingatious High School.

Then it’s back up the “bridge” to stow the boats away. 250 boaters make this trip twice daily.


Rowing at Lake Merced

2 Comments

Filed under Notes from Tony, SF News

2 responses to “The Duel at The Boathouse At Lake Merced!

  1. Sorry to see the Boat House in such shape. I live out of town but had dinner there way back in the late 80’s. I went back a year or so ago and couldn’t believe that it was just shuttered and decaying.

    I took a lot of pictures and went out onto that dilapidating boat bridge.

    Sad…

  2. Richard Church

    I am a native San Franciscan, and have fished extensively and also berthed a sailboat at Lake Merced in the 60’s and 70’s. It is pathetic to see what our so-called City fathers have allowed to happen to the lake. They are totally to blame for the ugly decline of the lake and its facilities. The Rec and Park department, which I worked for briefly, is simply incompetent…it’s time to let real business folks take over and run the lake concessions…dumb city bureaucrats could not even run a freaking lemonade stand, let alone a major urban fishing and recreation area. Bring back Lake Merced to what it once was…a fabulous place to go fishing at 4:00 a.m. with your father and brother, and maybe catch a few trout.
    Please get the incompetent, hapless, totally unqualified city employees out of the decision-making process. Bureaucrats have no idea how to run anything…let alone a business operation.

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