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Land’s End in San Francisco

by Gail MacGowan

The search in the History Room’s clipping disclosed numerous fascinating tidbits about the Cliff House. and the neighboring Seal Rocks, located 400 feet offshore. Over the years it has featured diverse entertainment – including tightrope walkers in the 1860s and a Sky Tram a hundred years later. As early as 1849 San Franciscans were making Sunday excursions to watch the seals cavorting on the Seal Rocks. When the opening of the Point Lobos Toll Road in 1863 made Land’s End easily accessible by carriage, the newly built Cliff House became a popular Sunday rendezvous spot. After the first tightrope walks over Niagara Falls created a national sensation, the fad soon came to San Francisco. On September 27, 1865, nearly 1500 people gathered to watch circus performer James Cooke make the perilous 150-yard crossing to South Seal Rock. The next year, Miss Rosa Celeste achieved fame by making three round trips. She was soon outshone by Millie Lavelle, who coasted to Seal Rock by gripping in her teeth a bit connected to a trolley on a wire cable. Audiences paid $1 to sit on the Cliff House’s veranda to watch these thrilling performances. Nearly one hundred years later, similarly thrilling rides became available to the public with the opening of Whitney’s Sky Tram on May 3, 1955. For 25¢, the Sky Tram offered passengers rides from the terrace below the Cliff House out over the water to Point Lobos, San Francisco’s westernmost point. The tram cars hung from twin steel cables suspended 1000 feet above the surf. The cars could accommodate up to twenty passengers plus two crew members for the four-minute, one-way ride. City Guide Helen O’Brien Sheehan remembers the rides as a little frightening. A photo of an engineer clambering atop the tram in mid voyage to release a frozen brake line suggest Helen’s fears weren’t unfounded! Apparently the frequent fog at Land’s End made maintenance of the Sky Tram difficult, and it closed in 1961.

Debra Brown, a friend of City Guides, recalls another Land’s End attraction of the 1960s. “I have great memories of ice skating at Sutro’s as a kid, and the creepy exhibits of mummies and other oddities in the “museum” portion of the building. You used to have to walk down flights and flights of stairs to get from the entrance to the ice rink at the bottom. There were rooms and rooms of oddities. Some had velvet ropes across them, but we used to sneak into them. It was a fun place. I also fondly remember that the opposite wall of the ice rink was made of hundreds of small glass window panes. They were all painted over with orange paint. We used to take pennies and use them to scratch off the paint so we could see the ruins of the old hotel and bath house and pool beyond. The wooden structure was still there, and kind of creepy, like the mummies, because it was so old. The smells I remember are a combination of wet wood (from our skates chipping the wooden floors and stairs), a moldy dust smell from the mummy rooms, and hot chocolate. I’d give anything to be 8 years old again and relive just one afternoon there.”

Jim Smith, author of San Francisco’s Lost Landmarks, alerted GuideLines to the tale of the bridge’s collapse found on Gary Stark’s Cliff House Project website, www.cliffhouse project.com. On the website’s historic timeline, Stark reproduces the vivid description of the accident from the April 7, 1884, San Francisco Bulletin, reprinted in the New York Times of April 20.

About 30 feet above the beach, two wire cables stretched 160 feet from the cliff to one of the Seal Rocks known as Flag Rock. Slats were wired between the cables to form the four-foot-wide bridge. A railing affixed to stanchions on the bridge provided a handhold for those crossing it, a necessity because of the strong side-to-side swaying of the structure. Still, hundreds had crossed the bridge, and it was considered safe. But on April 6, a group of boys decided to amuse themselves by swinging the bridge at both ends to frighten its passengers. They succeeded: those on the bridge panicked and rushed to return to the cliff or reach the rock. As the swaying increased, passengers lunged for the bridge’s higher side, causing the bridge to topple upside down and throw its 35 to 40 occupants to the beach and shallow water below. Some delayed their fall by clinging to the railings, but in seconds those gave way.

Fortunately the tide was out, so no one drowned, but incoming waves drenched the accident victims, several of whom had broken bones. In addition, 40 to 50 people were stranded on the rock and had no choice but to make the frightening return to the cliff on the damaged bridge, now lacking its handrail. They elected to cross one at a time, with some choosing to cross on their hands and knees while others made a dash for it. Eyewitnesses recount with disgust that those safe on shore, who minutes before had been horror-struck by the accident, found it vastly amusing to laugh at the fear of those forced to use the damaged bridge for their return to the cliff.

Thanks to City Guide John Ferreira for forwarding information from San Francisciana Photographs of the Cliff House by Marilyn Blaisdell and San Francisco Mileposts by Michael Svanevik. And to Jim Smith, author of San Francisco’s Lost Landmarks,

Historic photso reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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Swinging bridge located near the Cliff House, 1880

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1870 View of Ropes from the Cliff House to Seal Rock

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The damaged bridge to Flag Rock on April 6, 1884

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