The Ghost of Stow Lake

- Urban Legends

- January 6, 1908, the San Francisco Chronicle reported a rather strange encounter that had taken place in Golden Gate Park. Police had pulled over a man for ‘speeding’ and the reason they were given for his fast driving was that he had just had a terrifying encounter.

The man said he was trying to leave the park when a figure blocked his way. He described the figure as being that of a woman who had a 'shine’, was dressed in white, barefooted and put a terror in him.

This encounter, as far as I know, is the earliest recorded sighting of the Ghost of Stow Lake.

In 1999, the Pioneer Mother (also referred to as Pioneer Woman and Children) statue in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, was restored and given a well need 'makeover’. Sculpted and cast in bronze in 1914 as a tribute to the women of the pioneering west, the Pioneer Mother found its permanent home in Golden Gate Park, next to the pioneer cabin in 1940.

Out of all the statues in Golden Gate Park this is the only one to feature a woman, and the neglect it had received, being exposed to the elements over the decades, had given her quite a scary visage. The green browns of the bronze had taken on several other colours, including half her face turning white leaving the mother to look more like the Phantom of the Opera.

Many people believed the white colouring was not part of any natural process, and although those with a scientific mind concluded it may have come about after a chemical, possibly acid, had been thrown at her, there are more than a few who believe the colouring may have something to do with the supernatural stories linked to this monument.

There is a legend that states the Pioneer Mother is haunted, possibly cursed, and has the ability to move, and it’s this twisting of the metal that has caused some of the 'scarring’ that has been found on the statue. Scarier still is that the lightening of the bronze colour could be due to the resident energy wanting to be represented by something much more lifelike.

Why is this statue considered to be haunted?

To answer that it’s best to look into the urban legend that surrounds the statue and the nearby Stow Lake.

For over a century a story has persisted that Stow Lake is haunted, and that people venturing near there in the dead of night have come across a woman looking for her child.

As with all urban legends the tellings are different depending on where you hear it, so this is just one of many different versions. However, in saying that, most of the different versions contain the same core.

Sometime aroundthe turn of the 1900s a woman was taking her children for a walk around Stow Lake, when she got tired and decided to take a rest on one of the many public benches that overlooked the water. As she sat there she was joined by another woman and the two soon fell into deep conversation.

During this time her children played, and when the woman looked away from her chatting partner, her attention would be focussed on them rather than the pram/baby carriage sitting at her side – after all a baby in a pram could not get up to any mischief… right?

Unfortunately, and due to her lack of attention, the pram began to roll off, and before long the baby had fallen into the lake, where it perished.

At the end of the conversation the woman looked around for her children… her baby was gone. For hours she frantically searched the area, asking passersby if they had seen her child, but she came up empty handed.

The last she was seen was heading towards the lake where her two remaining children watched her enter the water in despair. She was never seen again. (note that the water in the lake is quite shallow so if she did enter it with the intent of taking her own life then she utilised a lot of willpower to keep herself submerged).

Although the missing baby did eventually emerge to the lakes surface, the woman’s body was never found.

Is there proof of this tragedy… no… however if there was and it was on record there is a good chance it was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1906.

Since that time, and for the years since, stories persist of people venturing near the lake at night to be confronted by a barefooted woman in white looking for her lost baby. She frantically pleads with the strangers and then disappears upon the realisation they are unable to help her.

Other versions of the story have it that she killed her child by drowning it in the lake, or that the child was abducted and later found dead in the lake… however, asides from the method of the child going missing, the story remains pretty much unchanged.

Another element to the legend concerns the statue. If you approach the statue at night, and the elements are just right you may get a glimpse of the statues head moving, as if scanning the area for something. Being as the statue is of a mother with two children (the pose suggests there may have been a third child or there is room for a third child) people believe the energy of that desperate woman has taken refuge within the bronze itself.

Reading reports of paranormal encounters in this area of the park suggests a link between that statue and the legend of the deaths of mother and child. At night people have noted that from a distance the statue seems to have three children, the extra addition being much smaller than the other two children.

Some take this to mean that on some night’s mother and child are finally reunited, their energies joining once again in celebration at the statue that is said to be this ghosts home.

This story is far from being the only one that takes place in Golden Gate Park, and I shall look at a few of the others in the future.

Ashley Hall 2014

Main: Stow Lake.
Upper: 'Pioneer Mother’ before restoration.
Lower: Rendition of the ghost mother.

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Two flavors/eras of Impossible Project films, both shot at sunset directly at the sun.

Top: Stow Lake Pagoda Lens Flare, taken with Impossible PX70 Cool film (bought Spring 2012), shielded from light and developed in a box, exposure dial at neutral, temp. low 50s F.

Bottom: Stow Lake Trees Lens Flare, taken with new Impossible PX680 Color Protection film with ND filter, not shielded but developed in a box, exposure dial at neutral, temp. low 50s F.

Both photos by Heather Polley