A Giant Camera, an Overdramatic History, and Some Really Big Bathtubs

Hi gang!

So since my last post, not only did I fail miserably at my resolution to post more often, but I think this is now the longest I have gone between posts. Facepalm. I swear, I really am going to post more often. And as a sign of good faith, I am going to do a few quick posts this week about travels from earlier this year before I start to tackle the epic vacation I had in March, which will include ghosts, aliens, mysterious disappearances, possessed objects, and of course, tons of food!

The remains of the Sutro Baths in the Land’s End area of San Francisco

Let’s travel back to the end of January when I was at the tail end of my Whole 30 first 30 days, I was cranky and wanted cheese, and I was in San Francisco surviving on coffee and assorted veggies from the Whole Foods salad bar. To keep myself occupied after work, I decided to explore around the Land’s End area of San Francisco, which is an area inside of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, but is away from the action of the bridge itself. It’s a beautiful area along the coast with cliffs, crashing waves, and rumor has it – ghosts!

Obviously if you tell me a place is haunted, I’m going to check it out. So I set out for Land’s End and was pleasantly surprised by how not congested the area was. I expected anything in the Golden Gate area to be packed, but it really wasn’t. Coming from the south, you’ll drive along the ocean on the Great Highway and there are areas you can pull off and park at the beach. I continued on though up to Land’s End Lookout area where I found the Sutro Baths, the Camera Obscura, the historic Cliff House restaurant, a view of Seal Rocks, and sweeping views of the ocean. Fortunately I made the trek after work so I was there just as dusk was starting to set in and had spectacular sunset views.

Sunset over the Sutro Baths

If you’re like me, you might be wondering what in the heck a Camera Obscura is. All I knew in doing my quick research was that it was a tiny building overlooking the ocean with a camera inside. Turns out, it’s WAY cooler than that. Per Wikipedia – “Camera obscura (plural camera obscuras[1] from Latin, meaning “dark room”: camera “(vaulted) chamber or room,” and obscura “darkened, dark”), also referred to as pinhole image, is the natural optical phenomenon that occurs when an image of a scene at the other side of a screen (or for instance a wall) is projected through a small hole in that screen as a reversed and inverted image (left to right and upside down) on a surface opposite to the opening. The surroundings of the projected image have to be relatively dark for the image to be clear, so many historical camera obscura experiments were performed in dark rooms. “

Camera Obscura

Definitely pay the $3 to enter the tiny building and check out the 360 degree image produced by the rotating lens atop the building’s roof. It’s like watching a video but with no electronics involved. Very cool.

The Cliff House with the Camera Obscura in the background

Adjacent to the Camera Obscura is the historic Cliff House and the remains of the Sutro Baths, which both have a very storied history, to put it mildly. The Cliff House was built first, in 1863 as a resort for the wealthy. It sat on a cliff overlooking Seal Rocks and offered expansive views of the Pacific coastline and was built with salvaged wood from ship wrecks. Over the next twenty years, the property changed hands several times and the clientele became increasingly less wealthy and less prominent. In 1883, Adolph Sutro purchased the property in an attempt to restore it to a family-friendly establishment. In 1887, a ship named Parallel, which was carrying many tons of dynamite, ran aground in the rocks below the Cliff House and took out its north wing. Sutro invested in major renovations on the building only to have a chimney fire on Christmas Day in 1894 burn the building down. Apparently an optimist, Sutro invested even more money to rebuild the structure and a grand Victorian Cliff House opened in 1896.

Meanwhile, Sutro was busy designing and building what would become the Sutro Baths, the largest indoor swimming complex in the country. Spanning three acres, the complex contained a massive glass building that held a freshwater tank and six salt water tanks that would fill and empty based on the high and low tides. There were three restaurants on the premises, as well as a 3,700 seat amphitheater and a railroad built to transport visitors from the city out to the cliffs. The complex opened in 1896 and was overwhelmingly popular and could accommodate traffic of up to 10,000 people per day.

Sutro passed away in 1898 but his daughter Emma Sutro Merritt took over management of the property. After extensive renovations ten years later, the Cliff House was slated for a grand reopening when it burned to the ground in 1907. A third and hopefully final Cliff House was opened in 1909 and this is the structure that remains today, although it has seen numerous renovations and restorations and the property is now owned by the National Parks Service. It is a beautiful restaurant perched on the cliffs high above the Pacific

Sweeping views of the Pacific from the Cliff House.

The Sutro Baths, unfortunately, were not so lucky. In 1937, Sutro’s grandson converted them into an ice skating rink, which was not overly profitable and he eventually sold the Baths in 1952 and they were sold again in 1966 to a land developer that planned to demolish the buildings and replace them with apartments. True to form, however, before they could be demolished, a fire destroyed the complex. It seems the land developer had the good sense to walk away, since all that remains today are haunting ruins of the former majestic complex.

Sunset over the Sutro Baths

Now what kind of paranormal research would I be if I didn’t have some ghost stories for you?

One thing I didn’t mention about our friend Adolph Sutro, the eternal optimist, is that he had quite a collection of Egyptian artifacts. This collection included two full mummies, three mummified heads, a mummified hand and countless other Egyptian artifacts, which he chose to display in, you guessed it, the Sutro Baths! These mummies, however, were not the only deceased on the property. The old Golden Gate Cemetery was also on this property and as of 1893, there were 18,000 people buried there. In 1908, city supervisors asked that all burial plots be moved in order to make way for a new city park. The exhumation and relocation of bodies took place over several years, however in 1993 during an expansion of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, around 300 bodies were discovered that should have been relocated back in the early 1900s. Upon further investigation, it is estimated that there could still be 11,000 bodies in the area that were either built on top of or that had been moved around the property but not properly reburied.

Sutro Bath ruins

As if displaced remains weren’t enough to cause some unsettling energy, there are also numerous reports that satanic activities have taken place in the tunnel where the Pacific Ocean water once flowed into and out of the baths. Everyone’s favorite Satanist, Anton LeVey, claimed to have cursed the baths a month before their fiery demise back in 1966.

A popular legend is that if you place a lit candle at one end of the tunnel, it will be picked up by unseen hands and hurled into the ocean. Reports of women in period clothing carrying parasols walking along the beach and people in old-fashioned swim gear milling around where the pools used to be are very common. The area is also reportedly haunted by a teenager named Frank Denvin, who died tragically at 16 in 1896 when he fell headfirst into an empty pool. A woman who drowned at the baths is also reported to be seen wandering the property.

A shell of what used to be…

Over at the Cliff House, the spirit of Natalie Salina Harrison, who died of a broken heart after her fiance was killed in World War 1, has been seen walking along the beach below the Cliff House since 1917.

With such a colorful history, it’s no surprise that the Cliff House and Sutro Baths continue to enjoy a degree of notoriety in the present. Although neither resemble their former lives anymore, the history and mystique of the area is very much alive.

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