The tangled tale of Haight Street | KALW

The tangled tale of Haight Street

Dec 17, 2015

Many people still think of San Francisco’s most famous intersection -- Haight-Ashbury -- as the epicenter of the hippie movement of the mid-1960s. Plenty of the businesses along Haight Street ensure that era is not forgotten.

What is forgotten is why that particular corner became the namesake of Flower Power. About 20 other streets intersect Haight Street, so why choose Ashbury? Greg Pabst of San Francisco City Guides says it has to do with its location along the Panhandle section of Golden Gate Park.

“The Panhandle goes from Stanyan to Baker,” he says. “And if you start counting the streets, the one that’s in the exact middle is Ashbury.”

In fact, nearly all of the streets crossing Haight were named for members of the “1870 Park Commission,” the group that planned Golden Gate Park. A few examples are Ashbury, Cole and Stanyan. But Haight Street was already there, and figuring out the namesake of that street is more complicated. There were several members of the Haight family in early San Francisco, some with the same name.

Samuel Haight seems to have been the first member of the Haight family to live in San Francisco, settling here after fighting in the Mexican American War. Later he was joined by his brother (Fletcher), his half-brother (Henry), and Henry’s uncle (also Henry), all from New York.

Any one of these Haights could be the one the street was named for – well, except for Fletcher. The street was already on maps by the time he came to town in the 1850s.

Samuel Haight was a delegate to the California Constitutional Convention, in addition to his war service. One of the Henrys was elected Governor, and the other was on the City Board of Supervisors.

Those are credentials that could make them likely candidates for a street namesake but there is nothing definitively linking them in local history books.

And now neighborhood historian Angus MacFarlane, who grew up a couple of blocks from the famous intersection, adds another possibility.

This Haight wasn’t a father, brother, half-brother, uncle or son to anyone.

Her name was Weltha Haight, wife of Supervisor Henry Haight.

“She put in 51 years involved with the welfare of children,” MacFarlane says, through her involvement with the Protestant Orphan Asylum. She served on the asylum building committee and was a member of the Board of Managers most of the rest of her life.

Protestant Orphanage after the 1906 earthquake.

MacFarlane’s proof comes from Mrs. Haight herself. Her husband donated the land for the complex. She recalls in “Some Reminiscences of the San Francisco Orphan Asylum,” printed in 1900, that “[i]t was difficult to reach the newly acquired property, as the only road was a narrow track partly overgrown with chaparral.” But being a Supervisor’s wife, she could get things done.

The property, in what is now known as “the lower Haight,” was soon surveyed, with street improvements. Those streets needed names, of course. The one on the south side of the orphanage was named for Mrs. Elizabeth Waller, also a manager of the facility. The one on the north side became Haight Street, in honor of Weltha.

The History Room at the San Francisco Public Library confirms the difficulty of tracing these names back to their origins. The many fires in this city’s history have destroyed records, and people simply forget.

You’re welcome to think of the Flower Children of the 1960s when you think of Haight/Ashbury. But also save a thought for Weltha Haight’s half century of service to the city’s orphans, a century earlier.

 

This story originally aired in April of 2015.