This article was originally published in the (Hi)Stories of Our Neighborhoods column in the Summer 2017 issue of the Glen Park News. It is republished here with permission, and has been updated to reflect recent decisions.
A number of significant events have occurred in the stunning ravine called Glen Canyon, with the most historic of all being the canyon’s connection with inventor Alfred Nobel.
It’s been nearly 10 years since I first wrote about the Giant Powder Company, the first dynamite factory in the United States (see Glen Park News, Winter 2007/2008, pg 12). Originally known as Rock Canyon or Rock Gulch, the site was quite removed from the young city and sparsely populated with milch (dairy) ranchers.
Nobel personally licensed his patent for dynamite to San Francisco pioneer merchants Bandmann, Nielsen & Co. The company leased 1 to 2 acres of land adjacent to Islais Creek (now the site of the Glen Park Recreation Center) from California railroad pioneer L.L. Robinson. Incorporated as the Giant Powder Company, production of dynamite began on March 19, 1868.
Staffed by 3 experienced Nobel employees, operations proceeded smoothly until November 26, 1869 when the 7-building complex was obliterated by a sudden, massive explosion. Tragically, the chemist and teamster were killed, the chemist’s assistant injured, and 8 Chinese workers severely burned. The cause was never determined.
Three months later, Giant Powder was back in business west of Twin Peaks, and a few years after that moved to the East Bay. To many, dynamite had brought death and destruction into the world, a grievous fact for Nobel who was a lifelong pacifist. This is why he bequeathed his great fortune to establish the Nobel Prizes, awarded to those “… who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”
In 1991, San Francisco civic activist and historian Ms. Jean Kortum worked with the City and State to establish the site of Giant Powder Company in Glen Canyon as California Historical Landmark No. 1002. However, a plaque commemorating the site was never placed.
The Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project (GPNHP) is now collaborating with San Francisco Recreation and Parks and the California Office of Historic Preservation to install an official plaque on the grounds of the newly renovated Glen Canyon Park Recreation Center. The GPNHP has received a grant from the Historical Preservation Foundation of the Native Sons of the Golden West and Twin Peaks Parlor No. 214 of the Native Sons of the Golden West in the amount of $3000 to support the purchase and shipping of the plaque. We will be ordering the plaque from the historic California Bell Company, originators of the El Camino Real Mission Bell Markers in 1906.
The San Francisco Parks Commission granted final approval for plaque placement at the Elk Street entrance to Glen Canyon Recreation Area on August 17, 2017 (Commission documents: Main, Attachment A, Attachment B, Attachment C, Attachment D, Attachment E.)
As shown in Attachment E, there was overwhelming community support for the plaque, including very positive survey responses, and letters of support from the Glen Park Association, the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association, the Diamond Heights Community Association, as well as District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy and California State Senator Scott Wiener. Surprisingly, one of the SF Parks Commissioners stated he had grown up in Diamond Heights, had spent much of his childhood playing in Glen Canyon, and had never heard of the history of the Giant Powder Company until he received the request for plaque placement!
In May 2017, the California Office of Historic Preservation approved the text for the plaque. Once placed, it will read:
THE FIRST DYNAMITE FACTORY IN AMERICA
GIANT POWDER COMPANY, UNDER PERSONAL LICENSE OF INVENTOR ALFRED NOBEL, BEGAN PRODUCING DYNAMITE HERE ON MARCH 19, 1868. ON NOVEMBER 26, 1869, A MASSIVE EXPLOSION LEVELED THE COMPLEX'S BUILDINGS AND FENCES. GIANT POWDER SOON RESUMED OPERATIONS IN WEST SAN FRANCISCO AND MOVED TO ITS FINAL SITE AT PT. PINOLE IN 1892. AS A PIONEER COMPANY, GIANT POWDER WAS SO INFLUENTIAL THAT "GIANT" BECAME SYNONYMOUS WITH "DYNAMITE," A VITAL INGREDIENT FOR CALIFORNIA'S EARLY DEVELOPMENT.
CALIFORNIA REGISTERED HISTORICAL LANDMARK NO. 1002
HISTORIC SITE DESIGNATION MAY 3, 1991. PLAQUE PLACEMENT APPROVED AUGUST 17, 2017. BY THE GLEN PARK NEIGHBORHOODS HISTORY PROJECT, IN A COLLABORATIVE EFFORT WITH THE TWIN PEAKS PARLOR #214, NATIVE SONS OF THE GOLDEN WEST, HISTORIC RESERVATION FOUNDATION OF THE NATIVE SONS OF THE GOLDEN WEST, AND SAN FRANCISCO RECREATION AND PARKS.
Glen Canyon Park will forever be linked with Nobel, and through that link to the Nobel Prizes, the most prestigious awards in the world. In the very near future, the GPNHP will be announcing a fundraising drive to support development of additional exhibits to help provide context to the plaque, the history and impact of Nobel’s invention, in addition to other events in Glen Canyon’s remarkable history. If you would like to help financially support these efforts, please contact GlenParkHistory@gmail.com for more information. Or, Donate Now!