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SF’s Newest Park was Originally built by prisoners from Alcatraz : A History of Black Point Gardens

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It’s not everyday that our little peninsula gets a new piece of public land, but for the last four years the Parks Conservancy, the National Park Service, and a team of volunteers, have been restoring the gardens, walkways, stairs, and terraces of The Historic Black Point Gardens.

An in-progress peek at Black Point Historic Gardens.
Ryan Curran White / Parks Conservancy

The Black Point Gardens are located at the base of Van Ness Avenue, on the steep east-facing bluff of Fort Mason overlooking Aquatic Park.


The park development dates back to the 1850’s and was a sister park to the Gardens of Alcatraz just across the water. In 1861 a military prison was established on Alcatraz Island, and soil was carried over from Angel Island in order to create gardens to grow vegetables, fruits and flowers.

Alcatraz Island Garden

Citadel garden, Alcatraz 1869. Photo: Eadweard Muybridge, Bancroft Library

Military prisoners were used to make the gardens and to create their walls and pathways on both Alcatraz and Black Point. Back then it was mostly Civil War prisoners or citizens convicted of treason.  (read about the Alcatraz Island gardens history here.)

Black Point Gardens Development 1870

A view from Black Point in 1870, with Alcatraz Island in the distance. Photo: Eadweard Muybridge, courtesy of University of California, Berkeley

Before the US military began developing the point, interestingly enough, The Online Archive of California, describes Black Point Beach as the housing place of a beached ship called Euphemia that served as an insane asylum for the city in the early 1800’s.

Black Point pre military, pre 1850

Black Point pre Black Point Gardens in the 1800’s. The ship on the far bank was the Euphemia. Photo: UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

In 1867 the Pioneer Woolen Mill dominated the landscape near the area we call today Aquatic Park.  The Woolen Mill was later taken over by the Ghirardelli Chocolate makers, some of their big brick buildings are still there.

Woolen & Ghirardelli Building

Once Woolen, now Ghirardelli, above aquatic park, SF.

In the 1860’s five large houses were built on Black Point overlooking the bay. (presumably after a proper insane asylum could be built elsewhere).  John C. Fremont and his wife Jessie Benton Fremont, lived at Black Point between 1860 and 1861. (And took the picture bellow) The Fremonts moved back east with the start of the Civil War when John was appointed Commander of the Department of the West in 1861. –  Shelagh Fritz describes in detail in an article in Pacific Horticulture.

Black Point Estate 1860’s

Mrs. Jesse Fremont on the porch of her Black Point home. Photo: courtesy of the Bancroft Library

Black Point military railway 1918

Black Point train and tunnel, 1918, when the military would send goods to Fort Mason for shipment to military bases in the Pacific, including Hawaii and the Philippines (a U.S. territory from 1898 to 1946). Photo: National Maritime Museum

According to an article by Brian Stokle in FORGOTTEN HILLS: FORT MASON’S BLACK POINT, “The name Black Point comes from the dark laurel brush on the east side of the bluff, facing modern day Aquatic Park.  The top of Black point was where Fort Mason built its final cannon position 100ft above the bay in the 1860’s.

Looking west to Golden Gate from Black Point batteries. A Civil War battery in foreground with Fort Mason Center wharves to right

Now back to present day!   The good news is that the park is rapidly approaching completion and it’s scheduled to be reopened August 25th 2021!  It’s definitely worth a stroll given that it has great views of the bay and it’s sandwiched between aquatic park, and all the good stuff happening at Fort Mason.

To learn more about BLACK POINT HISTORIC GARDENS or volunteer to help keep it up visit:

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Alex Mak - Managing Editor

Alex Mak - Managing Editor

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1 Comment

  1. August 6, 2021 at 12:30 am

    Is this the area off to the side of the Officers Club? I was there for a dinner on a winter night. It looked like there was a large open space outside the windows.