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San Francisco Left Its Heart in El Polín Spring

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Just up the road to the south of the Inn there is a peaceful green glade full of the sound of birds and the trickle of a water. The waters spring from the underlying serpentine rock and sustain a lush riparian habitat that is one of San Francisco’s most diverse spots for birds, butterflies, and native flora. This spot, El Polín Spring, has been the heart of the human and natural history of San Francisco for many centuries. With its native plant and animal life restored as part of the complex Tennessee Hollow Watershed restoration project, the waters of El Polín now nourish a new generation of San Francisco residents and visitors.

The native Ohlone people relied on the springs as a source of fresh water and edible plants for over a thousand years before Spanish soldiers and settlers came to the area. In 1776 the Presidio was established by Captain Anza nearby precisely because he needed fresh water for his soldiers. The Spanish named the springs “El Polín” after the giant rolling timbers used at the docks to load heavy cargo onto ships. The phallic reference was a nod to the age-old legend that the spring water had the magical property of increasing fertility and, especially, helping women give birth to twins. Spanish/Mexican settlers built adobe homes here, creating the first suburb of San Francisco. They raised large families that were widely believed to be the result of the magically fecund water. Notable residents included Juana Briones, a local businesswoman who sold fruit, beef, milk, and medicinal herbs grown at El Polín Spring in the nearby pueblo of Yerba Buena (now the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco). Archaeological digs at the springs have unearthed the remains of several adobe structures and helped historians understand more about life in the Spanish colonial era.

When the Presidio came under the control of the United States Army in the 1850s, much of the native meadows and meandering streams were covered over with roads and housing. The Presidio Trust’s restoration project at El Polín Spring brought the stream back above ground, including pools and streamlets that have encouraged the growth of reintroduced native plant communities. The varied habitat and the year-round source of water make this area a bird magnet, and a favorite spot for birth-watchers. Butterflies and other local wildlife also make their homes here.

The restoration also included building paths, picnic areas, and interpretive signs to educate people about the historic and natural import of the spring. Today, the area attracts local families for picnics, school kids on field trips, and anyone looking for a serene natural respite in the middle of the busy city.

El Polin Spring is less than half a mile’s walk from the Inn and makes a lovely stroll on a summer evening to enjoy the flowers and trees and and listen to the birds.