About the Zoo: Historic Sites
Little Puffer Steam Train
For hundreds of thousands of people who rode the Fleishhacker Playfield Limited, affectionately known as "Little Puffer", the return in 1998 of this historic miniature steam train was a cause for joy.
When you see the Little Puffer today, you'd never guess that this fully functional, pristine miniature steam train is pushing 100 years of age, a throwback to a time when a movie cost a quarter and bottle of Coke was only five cents. It is one of only three remaining 22-inch gauge engines left in the world. Little Puffer is an integral part of the San Francisco Zoo’s history and an important part of the Zoo today.
The History of Little Puffer
Don Micheletti of the Golden Gate Railroad Museum (GGRM) analyzed old photos of the train taken at Santa Cruz in 1908 and 1910 and found that this particular train was most likely built around 1904. He based this on evidence that an unusual bent coupler, seen in one photo, is the same as the train has now. "There was no definitive proof that this is the exact train, but close examination of old photos strongly suggests that this was the same train," said Micheletti.
Records indicate that the train was in service along a sandy beach in Santa Cruz from 1907 to 1915. After this, it is believed that the train was almost destroyed in a warehouse fire.
In the 1920's, Joseph Cornelius Hayes, a Ford car dealer, purportedly purchased the train. It had been sold for scrap by the operation in Santa Cruz when Hayes and a partner discovered the train in a scrap yard near Third and Brannan Streets in San Francisco. The story has it that they purchased the train as scrap metal in exchange for three cases of gin and an old Oldsmobile. "This could be lore as well," said Micheletti. "There are a lot of theories, but really nothing concrete."
Around that time the train was probably restored and was to be relocated to San Francisco's Ocean Beach. However, Fire Commissioners would not issue a permit because the locomotive was a coal burner and consequently a fire hazard. A more promising site was an amusement park in San Mateo called Pacific City. But Pacific City closed due to financial woes soon after it opened in 1924. Rather than have the train impounded, it was removed and hidden for two years in an old abandoned livery stable in Burlingame.
Herbert Fleishhacker purchased the train in 1925 and installed it at the new Herbert Fleishhacker Zoo, where it remained for 53 years. In 1935, newspapers touted the Fleishhacker Playfield Limited as the only train in San Francisco to make daily runs with full passenger loads every trip. The operating costs consisted of the coal burned by the locomotive and the salary of one man who served as engineer, conductor, fireman, oiler and shop man.
Although much of Little Puffer’s early history at the Zoo is unavailable, it is known that the little steam train carried about 100,000 visitors a year during its heyday, running a capacity of 42 passengers in three cars around a third-of-a-mile track for about three minutes.
Little Puffer was renamed “The California Zephyr” in 1965 when the Western Pacific Railroad sponsored a restoration of the train and its tracks. According to a newspaper article in 1971, plans were made to retire the train and replace it with a larger train on a bigger, longer track, powered by a Ford tractor engine. The new train and tracks were to cost $300,000, but plans fell through. Although it had then been scheduled to retire in 1971, it wasn't until 1978 that the train was finally packed away to make room for Gorilla World, an exhibit that opened in 1980.
Back in Service
In 1997, with the generous support of the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund, California Federal Bank and the GGRM, the Zoo had what it needed to bring Little Puffer back to life. San Francisco’s GGRM, a nationally recognized organization dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of historic railroad equipment, went to work to restore the historic steam train.
Working with outside contractors, such as PG&E, track architects, bodywork and boiler specialists, the reconstruction team took the challenge, and breathed life back into the Little Puffer. GGRM members disassembled, reassembled, painted, welded, sandblasted, fitted and created train gears, parts and pieces to recreate the miniature train. They also retrofitted it to run on cleaner-burning natural gas. Meanwhile, the Zoo was at work laying track for the new route. The cost to renovate the train, which sold for just $15,000 in a 1905 Cagney catalog, was approximately $75,000. The addition of the new depot, plaza area, track layout, landscaping and storage barn facility, brought the cost to $700,000.
Did you know that the Zoo’s Dentzel Carousel is more than just a familiar ride? It’s a valuable piece of world — and local — history. It is one of the last existing machines lovingly hand-crafted by William H. Dentzel in 1921.
The carousel concept began as early as the 1100s, when Arabian and Turkish horsemen played a game that Italian and Spanish crusader spectators described as a “little war,” or garosello and carosella, respectively. Part of the event was a ring-spearing tournament in which the men would ride at full speed and try to spear a small ring hanging from a tree or pole. The crusaders brought the game back to Europe where it evolved into an extravagant display of horsemanship that the French called carrousel. By the 1700s, some Frenchmen had the idea to build a device to help train young noblemen in horsemanship and that was the beginning of the carousel as we know it. During the 1800s, carousels became more geared toward amusement than training. In the 19th century, wagon-maker Michael Dentzel began to construct and operate carousels in Germany. His son, Gustav, carried the idea to America in 1860, and the Dentzel family became renowned for its intricate woodcarving, craftsmanship and “menagerie” style, depicting many animals, not just horses.
The Zoo’s Carousel, named to honor Bay Area philanthropist, Eugene Friend, is one of the last machines constructed by Gustav's son, William H. Dentzel. Built in 1921, it showcases the lavish, expensive, intricately detailed, hand-carved wooden artwork that disappeared during the Great Depression of the 1930s (modern carousels are made of cast metal and fiberglass). The Dentzel Carousel came to the Zoo in 1925 from the defunct Pacific City Amusement Park in Burlingame and was one of the Zoo’s first attractions, as well as the first “animal attraction” that visitors saw and heard as they passed through the former Sloat gate entrance. The Carousel’s two chariots and 50 animals, which include horses, giraffes, ostriches, tigers, lions, pigs, rabbits, cats and a reindeer, are embellished with whimsical details and jewels that individualize each of them. This rare menagerie Carousel is one of only 14 in the world, and is one of only seven Dentzel Carousels remaining in the United States.
Take a closer look at the Carousel on your next Zoo visit and you’ll be looking back in time. A treasured symbol of what links the past with the present, it’s something to cherish for the future.
In 1978, the San Francisco Zoological Society funded a $100,000 project to repair and repaint the entire Carousel.
The Carousel was improved again in 1994 with a $30,000 mechanical overhaul. In September 2000, expert carousel restorers Brass Ring Entertainment of Sun Valley, California, were enlisted to dismantle and hand-restore each of the carousel animals. In conjunction with the Arts Commission of San Francisco, a team of experts was brought in to coordinate and document the original colors and color scheme in an effort to restore the carousel to its original appearance. Brass Ring made every effort to rejuvenate each animal with details of color, markings and spots, even matching the stripes of the tiger with those of a Sumatran tiger in the Zoo's collection. Spending almost 1,000 hours on each animal, the restorers have painstakingly and lovingly recreated each animal as originally intended. In addition, the carousel received a new set of hardened steel gears cut to the original Dentzel specifications, a new drive system with electronically controlled motors, new steel bearings, and the interior and exterior carousel building and roof were repaired and repainted. The project totaled $1 million.
In 2006, the Carousel received more upgrades, including beautification of the surrounding area, to enable it to serve the Zoo’s increasing number of visitors.
Fleishhacker Pool, the largest swimming pool in the United States, was located right next to the San Francisco Zoo for 47 years. Its storied history includes movie stars the 1920’s and 1930’s such as Johnny Weismuller, Esther Williams and Ann Curtis. The pool — so large that lifeguards used wooden row boats to make their way across — was also used by the military for drills and exercises, and was an ideal pool to host swimming meets and races. The pool holds fond memories for many San Franciscans, who to this day can recall when they swam in this colossal pool.
Fleishhacker Pool closed in 1971. After years of deterioration and a lack of modern operational systems, the pool could not meet modern health standards. Consideration was given to refurbishing and reopening this historic landmark, but studies showed that public usage was extremely low (22,140 in 1970), the annual operating costs were high ($56,000), and there was little revenue ($6,000) to offset these costs.
The Parks Commission considered these factors along with the costs of rehabilitating the pool, building, and pipeline, and the relatively easy access to other nearby public swimming facilities. The pool lay dormant for several years until it was filled with sand and gravel to serve as an access road for maintenance trucks. In summer of 2002 it became the site of a secured parking area for visitors.
The Zoo staff cares for the bison located at the Bison Paddock in Golden Gate Park. Park Superintendent John McClaren brought the bison to Golden Gate Park in 1891. The species was close to extinction in the United States at the time as a result of massive slaughter by hunters for trophies and hides. Over the years, more than 500 calves have been born in Golden Gate Park. Captive breeding efforts have saved the species from extinction. Today there are healthy herds in a number of National Parks as well as large populations maintained by private breeders.
The first bison to arrive at the Park was a bull named "Ben Harrison." According to an article in the San Francisco Examiner, Ben Harrison hailed from the Kansas ranch of C.J. Jones, an early conservationist who began his own breeding program in 1884. Ben Harrison was purchased for $350 — a great deal of money at that time — and shipped to San Francisco. He was the first of a herd of bison that was intended to help preserve the species. Within two years, he had sired a calf by the first female, "Sarah Bernhardt," and from that point on the herd thrived.
One hundred years ago, the bison were named after public figures: Grover Cleveland, Bill McKinley and Bill Bunker were among the original animals. The bison currently residing in the Park were originally named after the royal family according to Shakespeare. In 1993, the bison relinquished their Shakespearean names in favor of Native American names at a special bison reclaiming and renaming ceremony sponsored by the Watchbison Committee, the Native American Advisory Committee, and the San Francisco Zoological Society.
Evolution of the Children's Zoo
Animated fairy tale sets depicted scenes from Old King Cole, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Humpty Dumpty, Hansel and Gretel, and Old Mother Hubbard. The action sets included See Saw Marjorie Daw (teeter totter), Jack and Jill (slide), Ring-around a Rosie (merry-go-round), Old Woman in a Shoe (circular ride), Witches’ House (play house), Cinderella (creative play form), School House (play house), Monday’s Child (contour path), Humpty Dumpty (maze), and Pooh Corner (creative play form). Drinking fountains included Babar the Elephant and Town Mouse and Country Mouse. Audio sets included King Cole, Rapunzel’s Castle (entrance motif), Sing a Song of Sixpence, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and Alice in Wonderland.
The Mad Hatter’s Munch Bar, a themed food stand, provided refreshments visitors could purchase. At the Sugar Plum Party Area, four party courts were arranged in the form of a four leaf clover around a 12-foot high Sugar Plum Tree. These areas could be reserved for children’s parties at a minimal cost. And while admission to the main Zoo was free, Storyland admission was not: children 12 and under were 10¢, and 15¢ for all persons over 12.
Storyland Children's Zoo
To kick off their new Children’s Zoo concept, the Zoological Society leased Rhue’s famous Baby Zoo out of Thousand Oaks, CA for a period of six months. Rhue’s Baby Zoo was in an enclosed area 120 by 140 feet. Many of the animals could roam around freely and be handled by visitors. The animals included a baby elephant, pygmy horses, pygmy donkeys, burros, a giant tortoise, bear cubs, lion cubs deer, llamas, chimpanzees, pygmy goats, kangaroos, caracal sheep, gibbons, macaques, and an assortment of geese, turkeys, rabbits, piglets and lemurs. At the end of six months, the Zoological Society constructed its permanent Children’s Zoo.
The first completed portion of the permanent Children’s Zoo was a redwood corral and shed located inside the tracks of the Little Puffer miniature steam train. The first occupants of the corral were two eight-month-old burros, Rosie and Tootsie. An egg hatchery where visitors could watch eggs hatched in a display incubator followed. Over time, attractions such as a penguin show were added — a 20-minute performance by 12 Humboldt penguins trained to box, ride a surfboard, dive and even play a piano. From time to time, baby animals from the main Zoo were cared for in the nursery. Even then, the Children’s Zoo offered a learning and teaching experience with many educational graphics to provide teachers and parents with information to discuss with their kids.