SAN FRANCISCO’S CLIFF HOUSE

SAN FRANCISCO'S CLIFF HOUSE

The Cliff House, circa 1900

San Francisco’s Cliff House,

The iconic restaurant that has overlooked the Pacific Ocean at thenorth end of Ocean Beach since the Civil War.

It Closed its doors this week, at least temporarily, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But the COVID-19 outbreak isn’t the only crisis the legendary site has faced in its 162 year history.

From a dynamite-laden exploding schooner to earthquakes and numerous fires,

Here’s a closer look at the institution’s often doomed and possibly cursed history, and its repeated rebirths.

In 1858, Samuel Brannan — the man who shouted “Gold! Gold on the American River!”

Shouted on the streets of San Francisco and became the first Gold Rush millionaire —

Paid $1,500 for lumber salvaged from a shipwreck off the coast at Ocean Beach.

It’s said that he used the wood to build the first Cliff House on the cliffs at Point Lobos.

Other sources say the first Cliff House was constructed a few years later by a man named Captain Junius G. Foster.

Either way, in the 1860s, the restaurant became a Victorian tourist hotspot,

A destination for Sunday horse and carriage riders day-tripping from the city,

Venturing west on a toll road that would later become Geary Boulevard.

In 1883, entrepreneur, and later mayor of San Francisco,

Adolph Sutro bought the site and transformed it into a popular resort where folks could look down at the sea lions on the rocks below while dining.

These city tourists headed out in their droves to visit the recently opened Golden Gate Park on newly built streetcars.

It was reported that on one weekend alone in 1886, the cars delivered over 47,000 people to Golden Gate Park,

Out of a population of 250,000 in the city.

SAN FRANCISCO’S CLIFF HOUSE

SAN FRANCISCO'S CLIFF HOUSE

The first Cliff House, circa 1890

A few years later, the first of many disasters happened at the Cliff House.

A two-masted sailboat named Parallel ran aground in high winds at a small beach below the restaurant.

Parallel was carrying 42 tons of illegally packed dynamite.

What happened next is largely a mystery.

One source reported at the time that the crew,

Fearing the worst, hastily rowed away abandoning the vessel but forgot to extinguish oil lamps on the shipwrecked powder keg.

Others speculated on more nefarious plans.

Sure enough, the abandoned ship exploded in the early morning of Sunday, Jan. 16, 1887.

The blast was so powerful it was reportedly felt over 100 miles away in Sacramento and mistaken for an earthquake.

A police officer standing in front of San Francisco City Hall, five miles from the scene, claimed to hear the explosion.

The Chronicle reported that men from the life-saving station were thrown down the nearby cliff, and some were “horribly injured.”

One man’s skull and shoulders were crushed, with “little hope for his recovery.”

The fire smashed every window and demolished half of Sutro’s restaurant.

The owner of the boat told newspapers afterward that the ship should have been far from the San Francisco coast at the time.

He speculated that someone must have placed an “infernal device” on the Parallel and aimed it at the resort.

Word spread across the city that the almighty boom wasn’t an earthquake, but had come from the Cliff House,

And the following day a crowd of up to 80,000 lookie-loos gathered at Land’s End to see the damage and hunt for relics from the ship.

The restaurant proprietors took advantage of the arrival of thousands of potential customers,

They handpainted a “Bar Open” sign on the remains of the tavern.

Gawkers were invited in for drinks and close-up views of the damage.

The building was quickly repaired, but this would not be the last time crowds gathered to watch disaster engulf the Cliff House.

A much less dramatic cause burned the restaurant to the ground on Christmas Day 1894 — a defective fire duct.

The building was totally destroyed by this fire before manager J.M. Wilkens had a chance to save the guest register,

Which was signed by three presidents.

SAN FRANCISCO’S CLIFF HOUSE

SAN FRANCISCO'S CLIFF HOUSE

The Cliff House, circa 1900

After two years passed, Adolph Sutro announced that the Cliff House would be reborn once more,

This time in the shape of a gargantuan, looming Lovecraftian mansion.

This iteration of the destination looked like nothing San Francisco had seen before,

A seven-story Victorian Chateau perched on the edge of the city.

Sutro was an ambitious man, and in the same year started construction on the famous Sutro Baths next to his new palace.

The baths included six giant swimming pools, a museum, a skating rink and other amusements.

Droves of San Franciscans arrived on steam trains, bicycles and horse carts on weekend trips.

The spectacular baths and new Cliff House would be completed two years before Sutro’s death in 1898.

He would never know that his crowning achievement would soon meet yet another fiery end.

The resort survived the 1906 earthquake,

But, in what was becoming a pattern, the Cliff House burned to the ground a year later on Sept. 7, 1907.

The source of this fire was unknown, but was so ferocious that the giant burning structure was doomed before the first fire truck got to the blaze.

A famous photo of the fire taken from Ocean Beach captured the dramatic scene.

SAN FRANCISCO’S CLIFF HOUSE

SAN FRANCISCO'S CLIFF HOUSE

The fire at the Cliff House on Sept. 7, 1907.

Subsequent iterations of the resort would never reach the dizzying, dramatic heights of Sutro’s castle,

Though Adolph’s daughter, Dr. Emma Merritt, vowed to build another house on the site shortly after the fire,

And oversaw the construction of a more modest neo-classical restaurant in 1909.

The owners of the sprawling theme park on nearby Ocean Beach, Playland,

And bought the Cliff House in 1937 and converted it into an upscale roadhouse diner.

For a brief six years in the ’50s, a sky tram ran across the Sutro Baths basin,

Taking visitors from Point Lobos past an artificial waterfall to the outer balcony of the restaurant.

SAN FRANCISCO’S CLIFF HOUSE

SAN FRANCISCO'S CLIFF HOUSE

The Cliff House in 1968

After the closure of Playland and yet another fire that destroyed the baths (widely believed to be an insurance scheme),

The National Park Service acquired the Cliff House in 1977 and it became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

The cursed resort would finally see a time of peace.

In 2003, the site was renovated and many of the roadhouse-style details removed.

A new two-story wing was constructed overlooking the ruins of the Sutro Baths, giving us the restaurant that stands today.

The 2020 closure of the Cliff House due to the coronavirus pandemic is thankfully less explosive than it’s previous demises,

and will hopefully be but another temporary blip in the history of one of America’s most curious and storied destinations.


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