If you ride your bike in San Francisco, chances are you have discovered The Wiggle, and you’re probably thankful you did. The meandering one-mile route from Duboce Ave to Fell St. saves cyclists from notoriously steep hills as they make their way from downtown to western neighborhoods.
There’s a reason why the riding is easy. The bike route approximately follows what was once stream bed in a place called San Souci Valley, now thoroughly transformed into the Victorian-dotted neighborhoods of Duboce Triangle and the Lower Haight.
It’s been a well-trodden path for thousands of years starting with the Ohlone, said Joel Pomerantz, the natural historian who coined the term “The Wiggle” in a 1994 article in the Tubular Times. The Ohlone used the route to hike between two villages in the regions now known as the Mission and the Presidio.
“The one at the Mission was like a base camp for summer gatherings for when they came together to gather acorns in the hills, or seeds from the grasses,” Pomerantz said on one of his recent Thinkwalks tours. “In the winter they would go down and get oysters and other things from the Bay.”
Later, Spanish explorer Juan Bautista De Anza may have used that same trail in his quest
to find a spot for The Mission. He came across a big spring of subterranean water that bubbled out of the dunes somewhere around present day Duboce Avenue, ran down Church and 15th streets, and emptied into marshlands near 14th and Mission streets. That water has mostly been diverted into sewers.
The Mission padres diverted most of the water from the stream, named Ojo de Agua de los Dolores (Dolores Spring), into irrigation ditches and drinking water.
They reserved another stream, winding down from Twin Peaks to 18th Street, for the cattle. Traveling up from Monterey to establish the new Mission, it’s believed Spanish missionary Padre Francisco Palóu, out of confusion or exhaustion, stopped south of De Anza’s suggestion to set up camp, and in his journal called the 18th Street stream Arroyo Dolores.
Just shy of the suggested location for the Mission, Palóu recited the first mass, enslaved the native Ohlones to work, and Mission San Francisco de Asís, (nicknamed “Mission Dolores”) was created in the very spot it sits today.
Revising the history
It was this same stream De Anza stumbled upon that led Pomerantz to believe The Wiggle was alongside a streambed, but he’s since realized that’s only partially correct. The creek slowly eroded the green serpentine bedrock between Market St. and Duboce Ave as it flowed toward the sea, forming a portion of The Wiggle’s path. The rest of the route would have been too sandy for a great stream to flow across it, and instead has been shaped by the developing city. This brimming waterway is a prominent feature of the Duboce Bikeway Mural, a fantastical depiction of The Wiggle route created by a team led by Pomerantz.
“The more research I do, the more I realize that the stream that we imagined had nothing whatsoever to do with what’s here. The shape of the landscape is so carved and sculpted by human activity. Most of the area was sand, so the flow across it would have been sunken in – not like this sort of idealized version,” said Pomerantz.
The greenish outcroppings of serpentine visible from the Duboce Ave. mural indicate man-made transformations to the area. The slashed hillside below the U.S. Mint is the result of the construction of Market and Dolores streets for access to the rapidly growing Mission District.
The top of the hill where the U.S Mint now sits was cut away in 1861 to make way for a gravity fed reservoir to supply the developing district with water. The hill was chopped yet again in 1937 when the Mint was installed to turn miners’ gold into coins. The only remnant of the reservoir today is the little noticed Reservoir St., otherwise known as the entrance to the Safeway parking lot, on the opposite side of The Wiggle’s start.
The Wiggle is so popular with cyclists that there are official street signs marking the route for almost its entire length. According to Pomerantz, the official name for a proposed sewer project in the lower Haight is “The Wiggle Main”, which seems appropriate given its watery history. There is even a community organization called “The Wigg Party,” which advocates for the neighborhood surrounding The Wiggle to be a leader in sustainability.
“Its actually gradually going to be named The Wiggle neighborhood,” Pomerantz said with a laugh, “Some people are happy to call it Lower Haight or something. I think Wiggle is going to win in the end”