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John McLaren: The Man Who Planted Two Million Trees

John McLaren's statue stands in Golden Gate Park, not the other San Francisco park named after himself.
John McLaren's statue stands in Golden Gate Park, not the San Francisco park named after him.

Just about everyone knows that the largest park in San Francisco is Golden Gate Park. But can you name the second largest one? (The Presidio doesn’t count; that’s federal.) 

Named for John McLaren, San Francisco’s first Superintendent of Parks, McLaren Park is just over 300 acres, about a third the size of its larger and better-known sibling.  

Located in the formerly industrial southeastern section of the city, the area was difficult to access in the late 1920s, when it was first proposed as open space. It’s still off the beaten path for most people today. This fact may help protect what Phil Ginsburg, current superintendent of the city's Department of Recreation and Parks, calls “an incredible habitat.” 

That habitat, Ginsburg says, provided the Ohlone Indians — who lived in the area prior to the Gold Rush — with water and a healthy mix of plants and animals. Golden Gate Park, by contrast, had to be created out of shifting sand dunes.

Originally, there were various attempts to convert the land to housing tracts, but they all failed because of the very hilly terrain and lack of services. So the City worked to convert it to park space.  

And they had the right man in place to make it work.

John McLaren was a Scottish gardener, who Ginsburg says was responsible, along with William Hammond Hall, for “the creation of our entire park system.”  

Hall, along with Frederick Olmstead, gets credit for planning Golden Gate Park, but it was McLaren and his army of gardeners who had the “boots on the ground” to make it work. 

“He was known to be a very tough disciplinarian,” Ginsburg says. “He was, frankly, a pretty cantankerous and cranky guy, who loved park stewardship.”

Indeed: McLaren is credited with planting over two million trees in the city’s parks. 

The Board of Supervisors must have loved McLaren’s work as much as he loved doing it, because the Lodge near the entrance to Golden Gate Park was built as his residence; that’s a job benefit not even offered to the mayor. (The building is now park headquarters.) McLaren was also given lifetime tenure. 

A statue of McLaren was made during his lifetime, but he wouldn’t allow it to be installed: He hated statues in parks, so much that visitors to Golden Gate Park today will notice that he planted bushes in front of some of the statues, to hide them. 

But he wasn’t all work and no play. McLaren was known for standing outside his lodge on Sundays and giving candy to children as they came into the park. 

John McLaren was Park Superintendent for over half a century, until his death in 1943, at the age of 96.

Ginsburg says the park named for his predecessor is “not just a neighborhood park. I think of it more as a regional asset.”

Gruff old Mr. McLaren would no doubt be pleased.

This story originally aired in 2012.