The Strange Yet Delightful Histories of San Francisco’s Lands End
“Dawn is coming up in San Francisco now: 6:09 am … at the Seal Rock Inn … out here at the far end of Geary Street: this is the end of the line, for buses and everything else, the western edge of America. — Hunter S. Thompson: Fear And Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972
If you fly your mind, drone-style, through the city of San Francisco, over skyscrapers and the green of Golden Gate Park, you’ll reach the exact spot where sea meets sand. There, you’ve arrived at the western edge of the earth, appropriately named Lands End – 200 acres of beauty, fog, bristling wind, pups and lululemon-ey joggers.
My husband and I first visited Lands End shortly after moving to San Francisco. This casual visit turned into a deep fascination with its history.
I’ve found that Lands End, like many beautiful things, has long been a magnet for builders, conquerors, artists, and dreamers.
If you’re anything like me, knowing the quirky elements of Lands End’s history may just the deepen the trance and lure you back time and again. Here’s just a few of my favorite stories from this western edge of the world.
The Modern Ruins of Sutro Baths
Recently, as some friends and I balance-walked the cement ruins of Sutro Baths, a scuba diver bubbled up next to us out of the soupy green algae stew that pools within the caverns.
It was gross. But. I felt a little jealousy of the terrain he was getting to explore. Through each layer of slime he sank closer to the real Baths.
Sutro Baths was a public bathhouse built in the late 1890s. We don’t really have such a thing “public bathhouses” these days – at least, not like this one. The large white-washed building had the look of a conservatory. Inside steamed seven of the largest indoor pools in America, all heated to different temperatures. It’s easy to imagine, humid, echoing with splashes, filled with running kids in turn-of-the-century bathing suits.
The bathhouse could host up to 10,000 people at any time — and it often did during tournaments, concerts, events at its museum, and even the occasional movie filming.
The seaside location was no accident. Built by Adolph Sutro, engineer, former San Francisco mayor and name-sake to so many SF spots, the building’s pumping system could fill all pools with 1.7 million gallons of seawater within an hour.
As time went on, the baths became wildly expensive to maintain, and were hindered by changes to health codes. And, as fickle, trend-loving San Franciscans tend to do, people moved on to the next hotness.
The building was eventually converted into a skating rink until its purchase in 1964 by developers with an eye for beach-front condos. Plans stalled when a fire burned the Baths to the ground, and it became what it is today — a curiosity, a temptation for divers with a high-threshold for muck, and a reminder that within 100 years, anything can become a remnant of the past.
Despair and Delight, Served on the Rocks
A few times a year I hear about someone falling from the cliffs around Lands End — it’s tragic, meaningless death. But in the lens of history, finality is familiar to these rocks.
In the early 20th century, San Francisco had the highest rate of suicides in the country. Before the Golden Gate Bridge was constructed, Lands End was the spot. (The City Morgue kept a journal dramatically titled “The Death Lure of Lands End.”)
Legends say one of the earliest deaths was in the late 19th century: A Spanish women — a colonial Catherine of the Moors — fell deeply in love with a mission padre. But, he was forced to choose faith over love, and she chose death over the rocks.
Lands End has seen its share of tragedy offshore, too. As sailors made their way through the Golden Gate, Karl the Fog’s ancestors often made navigation a near impossibility. More than 300 ships were claimed by the stretch of sea between Lands End and the Marin Headlands, including the SS City of Rio de Janeiro, which sank in 8 minutes, taking 130 lives.
At low tide you might still catch a glimpse of the SS Ohioan, a WWI Navy Ship that ran aground near Seal Rock on an October night in 1936.
A Victorian Chateau on the Cliffs
When I first visited the Cliff House, my initial expectation was that the interior would match its exterior. In short, I was expecting Art Deco. I got country club. Aside from the views, it didn’t (and still doesn’t) hold enough charm for me to warrant the price of an entree.
This wasn’t always the case.
When San Francisco’s population exploded during the Gold Rush, some clever entrepreneurs dreamt beyond the scuffle of downtown and decided to develop on SF’s beautiful “outside lands.” They opened the first Cliff House in 1863 – a wooden one-story building perched on the cliffs with a glamorous view of the shoreline.
A private company soon constructed Point Lobos Avenue, which the elite could travel by stagecoach to reach this new gathering spot. Eventually, the brawling downtown culture found its way to the shore as the owners allowed alcohol and gaming in a bid to attract new clientele.
In the late 1800s came Adolph Sutro, eyeing the opportunity to make Cliff House Great Again, and transform the entire coastline into the city’s playground. Sutro constructed a railroad along what is now the coastal trail, allowing anyone to travel from the city for just 5 cents.
A fire in 1884 cleared way for Sutro’s real vision — an extravagant seven-story Victorian castle that cost $75,000 and contained every delight a San Franciscan could want, including an art gallery, parlors, twenty private lunchrooms, a gem exhibit, restaurants, and bars.
This new Cliff House miraculously survived the 1906 earthquake. But because we can’t have nice things, a fire in 1907 completely destroyed the building just one day before it was set to re-open after repairs.
Sutro’s daughter Emma rebuilt, and over the years it changed hands again before acquisition by the National Park Service in 1977. While we can safely say it won’t again achieve its original mystique, it’s probably more seismically sound — and hey, that’s a lot more important these days.