A beloved social space contains little water these days, but plenty of memories
It is desired that the young women should have opportunity for rowing on Lagunita. It is therefore suggested that the young men refrain from bathing there unless in suitable costume.
— University president David Starr Jordan, 1894
Lagunita! The very mention of the name will bring back a train of memories to every son and daughter of the Stanford Red. Across its calm surface has rippled their mirth; its murky depths have mutely held their tragedies; and, with every passing year, every passing class, it has passed with them into history.— Stanford Illustrated Review, 1934
Leland Stanford built the 118-million-gallon Lagunita reservoir in 1878 to provide irrigation and flood control for his Palo Alto Stock Farm. When Stanford University opened in 1891, he allowed students to row in the lake and to build a boathouse on the shore.
Gov. Stanford died two years later, little knowing to what uses future generations would put his hospitable gesture.
Lagunita was situated on ground too porous for effective water storage, losing 1 million gallons of water a day to seepage, and it was too seasonal for serious athletic training. But it was perfect for revelry and fun.
It became a beloved social space on campus for activities both within and outside university sanction. Decades of Stanford students sailed, rowed, swam, windsurfed and tanned at Lagunita when it was full and built Big Game bonfires on its lakebed when it was empty.
“I fondly remember the sound of frogs croaking that I could hear from my dorm room in Roble,” Kathy Christie Hernandez, ’85, MS ’86, told Stanford Magazine.
From the 1920s, the yearly Water Carnival hosted gleeful but sometimes dangerous jousting and other frolics. Two spectators were seriously hurt in 1938 when a boathouse balcony collapsed and fell into the lake.
I kept a two-man raft in my room for emergency days of floating, sunshine and beer consumption (chilled nicely in the water as it was pulled behind us).— Scott E. Schwimer, ’78
By the time the final boathouse was torn down, just before the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, environmental concerns were already moving Lagunita off the center of the Stanford social map.
Lagunita’s Big Game bonfire was discontinued in 1993 after the lakebed was found to be a breeding ground for the endangered tiger salamander.
Drought and storage-efficiency concerns kept the reservoir from being filled, and purpose-built aquatic facilities now provide recreation.
Lagunita’s circumference remains a favorite running path for members of the Stanford community. Occasionally, after heavy rains, the bottom of the former reservoir fills, and a kayaker or canoeist ventures into the shallow waters as if to symbolize what had been.
Read former students’ Lagunita memories from the 1950s to the present.
A Stanford Magazine timeline reveals the lake’s colorful history.