The Early History of Spring Valley Science School (& the Beginning of Sherman Elementary)

On its website, Spring Valley Science School—located on the western slope of Nob Hill on the block bound by Hyde, Washington, Larkin, and Jackson streets—says that it’s the “oldest school in California . . . founded in 1852.” While Spring Valley was not the first school in California,[1] their claim is quite simply that it’s the oldest, still-functioning school in the state, and therefore nails its founding date to 1852, when San Francisco’s public school ordinance officially went into effect. That year, Spring Valley indeed became one of five public schools in San Francisco.[2] However, following a bit of research, I came to learn that the school’s history actually goes back a bit further, to January 1851. Given this fact, along with Spring Valley’s undeniable historic value, here’s a closer look at its earliest history.

Spring Valley School - Strong Sketch late 19th Century remembering
A sketch by recollection of the 1851 Spring Valley schoolhouse (S. F. Call, Sept. 8, 1895, p. 21).

First, let’s look at the name “Spring Valley” within San Francisco. Soon after the California Gold Rush of 1849, the first area known as Spring Valley was on the eastern slope of Nob Hill, where springs trickled down from the then-undeveloped heads of the hills, specifically near the block of Washington Street between Taylor and Mason streets, where there were at one time “spring baths,”[3] basically where the Betty Ong Chinese Recreation Center and Cable Car Museum are located today. Furthermore, later in the 1850s a man named George H. Ensign–clearly cognizant of this designation–welled-up and piped these springs to start Spring Valley Water Works.[4] While Ensign sold this business in 1860,[5] it eventually went on to become Spring Valley Water Company, a company that held a monopoly on San Francisco’s water for many decades in the late-18th and early-19th century. While it’s not uncommon to come across remnants of SVWC today, it’s basically unknown that the name goes back to Washington and Mason streets on the eastern slope of Nob Hill. Interestingly, despite Spring Valley Science School’s location today (that is, on the opposite side of Nob Hill from where this Spring Valley was located), this had nothing to do with its first being named the Spring Valley School (in fact, the school located in the Washington and Mason area way back when–exactly where Betty Ong is–was known as the Washington School).

Spring Valley - Annals
Map from The Annals of San Francisco (1854) showing–where at least to some–San Francisco’s “Spring Valley” was once located.

While obviously there were those in the city who considered “Spring Valley” to be in the above location, there were also those in a community at the NW fringe of the city, surrounding what was known as Washerwoman’s Bay, or Washerwoman’s Lagoon, who started referring to their community as Spring Valley, as well. Therefore, when a school was built in this locale in 1851, it became known as the Spring Valley School, and likewise, following the public school ordinance, this district became formally known as the Spring Valley District of San Francisco. Furthermore, despite the fact that the city eventually encroached up and over the eastern hills, eradicating those springs in the location of the other Spring Valley, the Spring Valley around Washerwoman’s Bay, eventually changed its name in the 1890s to Golden Gate Valley (still to be seen on the neighborhood’s library).[6] Today, this Spring Valley/Golden Gate Valley is mostly known as Cow Hollow, a name kicked around for some time in the later part of the 19th century due to the dairy farms established in the area following the gold rush; however, while at first apparently too colloquial a term to officially brand the neighborhood,[7] it wasn’t until the dairy farms were long gone, that in the mid-20th century–from a historical vantage point–the neighborhood reconciled itself with the Cow Hollow designation.[8]


With that realization in mind, the story of Spring Valley Science School starts in January 1851, when Colonel Thomas Jefferson Nevins built a small, wood-frame schoolhouse near the SW corner of what are Union and Franklin streets today. Again, this was then the NW fringe of the city–outside of the city proper–and quite literally, well, soon to be, a hollow with cows, nearby a body of water known as Washerwoman’s Bay or Lagoon (not too far east from the north end of what became Laguna Street). Dairy farmers in the area sent their product to the city by way of the old road to the Presidio (which the school was on), basically a well-worn path that had connected the Presidio with the place of the Yerba Buena (Portsmouth Square) going back to when the peninsula was part of New Spain. Today, from the area of the school, this would basically be like traversing Union Street east from Gough, and then around Van Ness Avenue cutting up diagonally to Pacific Avenue, between Russian and Nob hills to Jackson Square, which after the gold rush, was at the north edge of the commercial and financial centers of San Francisco. At that time, the entire city was mostly located to the east of these hills, though homes were quickly going up onto their slopes, and likewise, there was much development to the south of them, below and along Market Street, into newer residential areas like Union Square (first known as St. Ann’s Valley), plus southwest toward the Mission, where there were two racetracks, hotel/bars, and family weekend retreats.

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“I sustained [Spring Valley School], principally at my own expense,” explained first Superintendent of SF Public Schools T. J. Nevins in 1853, “until after the passage of the School Ordinance, in September 1851.”[9] Though Nevins had built and founded the functioning school in January 1851–also used as a church on Sundays–following the passage of the Free Common School Ordinance, and with his becoming the city’s first Superintendent of Public Schools, he transferred the school to the city for 57 cents a month for 99 years. Therefore, Spring Valley School officially reopened as a San Francisco public school on Feb. 9, 1852, with around 67 pupils and one teacher/principal, named Asa W. Cole.[10]

“The situation [of the Spring Valley school] is delightful,” recorded the Annals of San Francisco, published in 1854, “being shaded by a grove of evergreens, on a magnificent road, and sufficiently removed from the noise and bustle of the living mass, to prevent their interference with useful study.”[11] At the end of the 19th century, an old pioneer recalled the schoolhouse from these early days: “All this recalls the first public school picnic given in San Francisco. It was a union picnic held at the old Spring Valley school that stood on a knoll on what is now the line of Union Street, west of where Franklin crosses it, and it faced the Washerwoman’s Bay and Black Point [Fort Mason today]. I might as well say that when I went out to see that part of the city I missed ‘Washerwoman’s Bay,’ as well as the old schoolhouse, the oaks that grew around it and the old trail that led to it from Pacific-Street Hill. I remember well the old little schoolhouse, with its frontage of thirty feet and depth of twenty-five, and the tall belfry in the rear, all surrounded by oaks that had been growing there long before the adventurous argonauts came to the country in their search for yellow gold.”[12]

Spring Valley 2-2
Circle is around the 2nd Spring Valley schoolhouse, built in 1857, on the same lot as the 1851 structure. Photo is by Carlton Watkins, circa 1860. Up in the distance is Angel Island, at right is Alcatraz Island, then on this side of the bay is Black Point (Fort Mason today) with sand dunes south to about where the line of Francisco Street is today. Washerwoman’s Bay at left. Keep in mind that no people or animals around is most likely due to primitive photography’s long exposure time; documented is the stuff that was still (though the steady smoke from the Pioneer Woolen Mills at top right was constant enough to be captured).

By the mid-1850s, the original Spring Valley schoolhouse was cramped and considered much too small for the demand of this district in an ever-growing city. In 1855, the Daily Alta reported: “Two hundred scholars are registered in the Spring Valley School, of which number 117 are boys and 83 girls. . . . The fact must be mentioned . . . that the accommodation for the scholars is entirely insufficient. The house is too small to seat the children comfortably.”[13] Furthermore, in 1856, the Daily Alta reported that “the teacher often [has] to send applicants away, because there [is] no room; and, frequently, he has had a number of children in waiting for the first seat that would be vacated. . . . some means should be taken to remedy this great evil immediately.”[14]

In November 1856, during the Spring Valley School Festival, it started to rain. “[T]he elements,” reported the Daily Alta, “took this opportunity to show the public how much the Spring Valley children needed a new and larger school house, by causing those present to seek shelter of the old one. By hard squeezing, all managed to get in; and, although the roof is remarkable for its dilapidated condition, everybody, some how or other, managed to keep dry. We would here take occasion to say, that the first money at the command of the Board of Education, not required for the salaries of teachers, should be applied toward a new building.”[15]

Later that month, a petition was submitted to the Board of Education “relative to the construction of a new building for the Spring Valley School” as the present building was considered “entirely inadequate to the requirements of the children.”[16] In January 1857, a committee presented a “report relating to the proposed building” for “citizens living in that vicinity,”[17] and in June 1857, a new Spring Valley schoolhouse was dedicated upon the same lot.[18]

Sherman Spring Valley - 1892
Sketch of the 2nd Spring Valley schoolhouse from the east, thirty-seven years after it was built. At the time of the drawing (S. F. Call, Nov. 16, 1892), it was newly-known as Sherman Primary School. Compared with known photographs (to download photos click here), this sketch is most helpful for frontal details of the 2nd schoolhouse (revealing its being in the Victorian Italianate style like the homes sprouting around Cow Hollow at the time (some of which still stand to this day)), though clearly this takes artistic liberty with the depth/windows of the actual structure.

Later that year, the Daily Alta printed a firsthand account of the Spring Valley District from a passenger aboard a four-horse omnibus (think cable car pulled by horses) from downtown (think Chinatown) up and over Pacific Avenue through Nob and Russian hills down diagonal across where Van Ness is now to Union: “Beyond these [Russian and Nob hills], we come to Spring Valley, a charming little spot, occupied, mostly, for market gardens, and here and there dotted with fine residences … As you turn to the west, the Lagoon, or Washerwoman’s Bay, is spread before the sight. Its shores team with men and women, engaged in active labor, and, from every house of the host surrounding it, the air is whitened with bleaching linen. A short distance further, on surmounting a hill, we come upon the new Spring Valley School House, a very creditable monument of the enterprise of the residents of the vicinity. It is a neat and tasty wooden structure, and advantageously located. . . . From this point, to the terminus of the stage route, the road is lined with milk ranches and henneries; cattle in herds are seen browsing on the scanty herbage of the hills, and every inch of the ground appears occupied; in fact, the aspect is quite pastoral.”[19]


Spring Valley School carried on this way–with Primary and Grammar school–for a decade, until 1868, when following the American Civil War (related note: when the war broke out in 1861, the principal of Spring Valley at that time, J. C. Morrill, resigned his position to take up arms and join the Union Army as part of Colonel Connor‘s Third Regiment of California Volunteers–his fellow teachers presented him with a sword, sash, and uniform, and he boarded a steamer for Oregon[20]), the majority of the students from the school moved to a new building on the south side of Broadway, between Larkin and Polk streets, where Helen Wills Park is today. The Daily Alta reported, “The school is large and prosperous, and shows the great increase of population in this remote section of the city. The total number of scholars cannot be less than five hundred. The new school house is spacious and convenient, and well that it is so for this section of the town is rapidly increasing and educational facilities must keep pace with the progress of population.”[21] A portion of the primary school remained at the old building on Union Street, however, and for the next twenty years, both schools were known as Spring Valley.[22]

That is, until the death of Civil War Union General William T. Sherman in 1891. “A Noble Figure In American History,” wrote the New York Times on the occasion. “A Brilliant Commander Whose Achievements In The Field Went Far Toward Saving The Union At The Time Of Greatest Peril.” (New York Times, Feb. 15, 1891, p. 13, c. 1) Not long after Sherman’s death, the 2nd-built Spring Valley structure–most likely due to its location on Union Street–became known as Sherman Primary School in honor of said general who had at one-time been a post-gold rush banker in San Francisco.

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Spring Valley Water Company remain on a sidewalk in Nob Hill.

Therefore, Spring Valley Grammar School on Broadway carried the Spring Valley torch, and despite being destroyed in the fires following the 1906 earthquake, opened back up in the same locale later that year, operating out of “small temporary buildings.”[23] As San Francisco was rebuilding itself in the wake of the 1906 disaster, the lot for a new, post-1906 Spring Valley School was purchased on Jackson Street, between Larkin and Hyde streets.

Interestingly, in 1909, as plans for this new building were being finalized, the Board of Education passed a resolution to change the name of the Spring Valley School to Newton J. Tharp School, in honor of the recently-deceased architect responsible for many of the post-1906 school designs.[24] When people in the district heard of this looming name change, however, they protested, and were successful in keeping the original Spring Valley name.[25] Furthermore, in November 1911, just before the new school building was completed, the Board of Education considered changing Spring Valley’s name once again, this time to the Columbus School. Once again, the inhabitants of the district protested, and the school retained its original name.[26]

After almost two years of construction, on the morning of Jan. 15, 1912, students and teachers occupied the new Spring Valley School building on Jackson Street.[27] One hundred and six years later, Spring Valley Science School still calls this building home, one-hundred and sixty-seven years after the first Spring Valley schoolhouse was erected; therefore earning it the distinction of being the oldest school in California.


[1] The first school in California was opened in 1847, and was private. The first public school in the state opened in April 1848, operating out of a small wooden structure on Portsmouth Square in San Francisco. It functioned for an extremely short time, just a month or so, closing down when gold fever hit town.

[2] Daily Alta, March 22, 1852, p. 2, c. 4; The other schools were: Happy Valley School, near Mission Street, between 1st and 2nd streets; Rincon Point School, NE corner of 1st and Folsom streets; Central District School, east side of Dupont, south of Jackson; North Beach School, NE corner Powell and Filbert sts. A good look in the Twenty-Second Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools (SF: Spaulding & Barto, 1875) reveals that these four schools eventually either divided and incorporated into other schools over the years, or closed.

[3] Daily Alta, May 25, 1851, p. 1, c. 5.

[4] Daily Alta, May 20, 1857, p. 2, c. 2.

[5] Daily Alta, May 19, 1863, p. 1, c. 5

[6] S. F. Call, Nov. 15, 1892, p. 2, c. 5.

[7] Daily Alta, July 11, 1888, p. 1, c. 5.

[8] William Kostura, “The Cows of Cow Hollow,” The Argonaut, Volume 9, No. 1, Spring 1998, p. 46.

[9] Daily Alta, Oct. 21, 1853, p. 1, c. 6.

[10] Daily Alta, Nov. 16, 1856, p. 2, c. 4.

[11] Annals of San Francisco, 681.

[12] S. F. Call, Sept. 8, 1895, p. 21, c. 1.

[13] Daily Alta, Oct. 25, 1855, p. 2, c. 2.

[14] Daily Alta, Nov. 13, 1856, p. 2, c. 4.

[15] Daily Alta, Nov. 16, 1856, p. 2, c. 4.

[16] Daily Alta, Nov. 27, 1856, p. 2, c. 3.

[17] Daily Alta, Jan. 21, 1857, p. 2, c. 2.

[18] Daily Alta, June 8, 1857, p. 2, c. 2.

[19] Daily Alta, Oct. 18, 1857, p. 2, c. 3.

[20] Marysville Daily Appeal, Nov. 6, 1861, p. 3, c. 4.

[21] Daily Alta, May 31, 1868, p. 1, c. 1.

[22] Langley’s City Directory of 1869, pp. 36-37.

[23] S. F. Chronicle, Aug. 17, 1906, p. 16, c. 4.

[24] S. F. Call, May 18, 1909, p. 9, c. 5; Petaluma Argus-Courier, May 20, 1909, p. 2, c. 4.

[25] S. F. Chronicle, May 22, 1909, p. 22, c. 2.

[26] S. F. Call, Nov. 22, 1911, p. 7, c. 4.

[27] S. F. Call, Jan. 16, 1912, p. 2, c. 4; Crocker-Langley City Directory of 1913, p. 56.

1 thought on “The Early History of Spring Valley Science School (& the Beginning of Sherman Elementary)

  1. Thank you for this article – working at Spring Valley this year and it’s nice to know a little history behind the school 🙂

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