Outdoor gardens were very popular in San Francisco in the mid-1800's. There were a handful of others already in the city, but none would ever be as elaborate or popular as Woodward’s. The motto of his gardens was “Education, Recreation and Amusement.” Woodward said many times that he just wanted to provide ordinary folks with education and entertainment.

The property was two large city blocks in size, bordered by Mission, Valencia, 13th and 15th streets. In order to make things more convenient for the visitors, Woodward built a tunnel under 14th Street, allowing people to walk from one block to the other without having to cross an outside street. Admission was 25-cents for adults and 10-cents for children.

The animals were one of the primary draws to the location. It was the largest and most comprehensive zoo on the West Coast. There were animals everywhere… walking free in the gardens (ostriches, deer, flamingos and other domestic animals) and ones kept in large cages and pens (monkeys, wolves, bears, lions, camels, and many others). People could visit the Eagle Aviary or watch the dancing kangaroos and bears. They could see frightening alligators or an interesting Japanese rooster with 25-foot tail feathers. There were multiple seal pits where people could participate in the daily feedings. Woodward’s goal was to keep the animals in as natural of a setting as possible, and he made a lot of effort to keep the bars and confining small cages to a minimum. There were also hundreds of stuffed taxidermy animals on display at the various indoor buildings, as well as a selection of animal “curiosities” – including a five-legged dog and a calf with two heads.

The gardens also housed four museums and an art gallery. There were hundreds of paintings on display, including replicas of many master works. The sculpture collection was displayed both inside and outside, adding even more interest to the look of the gardens. There were also extensive geological samples (crystals, precious stones, petrified fossils) and insect displays showing thousands of specimens.

One of the more spectacular attractions at the gardens was the aquarium. Opened in 1873, it was one of the first aquariums in the world, and was the first aquarium ever in America’s West. The building was 110’ long and 40’ wide, and housed 16 tanks with 1”-thick glass fronts. Observers stood in a spacious dark passageway in the aquarium’s hall (dramatically decorated with stalactites hanging from the ceiling) and looked eye-level at enormous tanks filled with a vast assortment of both fresh and saltwater fish. People didn’t go scuba-diving back then or have televisions at home for watching Jacques Cousteau – so to see these fascinating fish up close must have been quite amazing for them.

There were also many attractions for the younger crowd. There was the West Coast’s largest rollerskating rink. There were Sunday hot-air balloon rides. And then there was the ever-popular “Rotary Boat” – a circular boat with multiple billowing sails, that rotated like a merry-go-round on a track in a large circular shallow lake, carrying up to a hundred people for a fun ride. The gardens also boasted one of the few Edison phonographs, advertised as “an instrument so wonderful in its powers that it not only repeats the human language as distinctly as a man, but also imitates the peculiarity of the voice uttering it.”

After strolling along the winding paths and enjoying the four acres of gardens, animals and art, one could go visit the 5000-seat octagon pavilion and listen to a concert, or stop in at the restaurant and have a delicious meal. Woodward’s Gardens was the only San Francisco garden that didn’t serve alcohol (beer was an especially popular garden drink at the time). This had been Woodward’s policy at his What Cheer House hotel as well, and just like at that establishment, the lack of liquor didn’t seem to affect its popularity.

Each week thousands of people would come to visit the gardens. Woodward did much to keep things new and interesting, and he was often called the “Barnum of the West.” For a some time he had exotic Japanese acrobats performing for the visitors. During one period, he hired “Admirial Dot” – a 25-inch 15-pound man who made “Tom Thumb” (another popular midget at the time) seem quite large. At one point, Woodward even brought an entire tribe of Warm Spring Indians to the gardens to recreate their lives for the public. He always wanted to do whatever he could to keep the crowds interested and coming back for more.


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