History of a Wandering Yankee: Cliff House and Sutro Baths

After Frank and Nell arrive in foggy San Francisco, it doesn’t take long before they begin to explore the city. The Felters were particularly excited about visiting sights along the coastline like the Cliff House, Sutro Baths, and Seal Rocks. I like the description of the water slide (“chute”) and the different ways bathers ride the copper chute down into the pool. As Frank says, “tis a most fascinating sport!” The Cliff House and Sutro Baths were both sadly destroyed by fires in 1907 and 1966.

Cliff House and Seal Rocks
Frank and Nell could have looked out this very same window out onto the Pacific Ocean! Cliff House and Seal Rocks, circa 1905. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

[Spring 1900]

Our trunks come and we unpack and rest ourselves, ready for the morrow’s excursions.

Recollecting that we are almost alone in a great city, we get a City map and guide book, lest we may lose ourselves.

There is a splendid car service in Frisco, and one can get a good idea of the City by patronizing the car lines, on some of which, by their system of transfers, you can ride an hour of two for a nickel.

Frisco has many hills, and the cars, mostly cable, have to climb grades as steep as 26%, which is a rise of 26 feet in every 100 feet of travel.

Cliff House
Cliff House, circa 1902. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

During our stay in Frisco we rode out to the Cliff House many times. This Hotel is built on a projecting rock at the entrance to Golden Gate and can be seen many miles out at sea.

From the balcony which faces the ocean, and which is entirely enclosed in glass, one can get a beautiful view of the Pacific in all kinds of weather and look down into the water as it breaks into foam and spray against the cliff below.

Seal Rocks.jpg
Seal Rocks circa 1898. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

A few hundred feet out are some large rocks which are often covered with thousands of seals and from that fact are called Seal Rocks.

Close to the Cliff House is the entrance to the famous Sutro Baths, and the Museu, the largest salt water baths in the world. There are seats surrounding the tanks which will accommodate 10,000 spectators. The building is 500 feet by 250 feet. The main tank is 300 feet long, and this, with five smaller ones, ’tis said will hold 2,000,000 gallons of water, and will accommodate thousands of bathers.Here one can sit for hours and watch the bathers dive off the high perches, -swim about, -or slide down the chutes. The water is heated to different temperatures in the different tanks, and one can choose any degree of heat desired. Depth of water varies from two feet to eight feet in order to accommodate women and children as well as the strong swimmer. The tanks can be emptied and filled by the action of the tides. Twenty-five cents admits one to the building and pays for a bathing suit. We were particularly interested in the chutes, which consist of a slide commencing 18 or 20 feet above the water, and extending downward in an almost vertical line about twelve feet, and then gradually curving until it reaches the surface of the water  horizontally.

Sutro Baths
Sutro Baths, circa 1898. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

This slide is covered with copper plates, and when in use, a stream of water is constantly flowing over its surface which makes it extremely slippery. The bather mounts the stairs to its top, and looks down. If ’tis his first trial, he puts one foot over, then the other and holds on the sides with both hands, then after waiting four or five minutes, he either tries to get back and give it up, or else takes a long breath and lets go. In less than three seconds he has slid down and gone under water several feet. If the individual happens to be of the female persuasion she invariably screams when she starts and of course goes under water with her mouth wide open. This is more interesting to the spectators than to her, but she comes up all right, and after a while her friends persuade her to try it again, and go down head first. This takes lots of nerve, but is entirely successful, and as she comes down with tremendous speed, is shot out and skims gracefully along the surface of the water half across the tank, -all in a few seconds. Having acquired the nerve and the proper method, ’tis a most fascinating sport, and some parts of the day an almost continuous stream of bathers is shooting down this steep incline: sometimes several going down together holding to each other as in a chain.

Sutro Baths today
The ruins of the Sutro Baths as seen in 2012. Photo credit: Library of Congress.

During afternoon and evening there are concerts, and this immense building is filled sometimes with the sweet strains of a dream ragtime. Here one can find ample accommodation and amusement for several days, as there is a Hotel, a restaurant, theatre, museum, and picture gallery, all enclosed in this class covered structure.

I could write a week of the beauties and sights of San Francisco, and then not do justice to the subject. In many respects Frisco is like all large cities, having its system of Public Parks, its museums, observatories, theatres and churches, fountains, libraries, Art galleries, public buildings, cemeteries, race-tracks, etc., etc.

This post is part of a longer travelogue written by Frank L. Felter of Los Angeles, a distant relative of mine, as he and his wife Nell journeyed up to and around Alaska in 1900. To read the previous part, click here. To read the next part, click here.

 

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Author: Tyler Stump

Historian and archivist who likes writings about history kinds of things.

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