Ocean Beach, the five mile long stretch of shoreline south of the Cliff House, has been a destination for San Franciscans and visitors since the 1850s. Ocean Beach became even more popular with the advent of public transportation and new roads provided an easy way from downtown over the vast sand dunes that once covered the Richmond and Sunset districts.
The Great Highway, now a standard four-lane city street, runs the length of Ocean Beach. Over the years, various establishments lined the Great Highway, providing food, entertainment, lodging, and public safety for visitors to Ocean Beach. Many of these famous enterprises, including Chutes at the Beach, Playland at the Beach, the Seal Rock House, Ocean Beach Pavilion, Cycler’s Rest, and Topsy’s Roost, were removed and replaced by large residential complexes.
Although the built landscape has changed over the years, Ocean Beach still offers the same surfing, swimming, bicycling, and spectacular ocean views that have attracted visitors for nearly two centuries.
To learn more about the history of Ocean Beach, please explore the following narratives:
Beach HermitsFor many years, the beaches and caves of Lands End have attracted both solitude-seeking hermits and those who have nowhere else to live.
Colonel Dailey, the founder of Carville, chose a secluded life at the beach over the frenzy of a life in politics. Stating in 1896 that he was “soured on society”, Edward Lynn chose to live in a cave rather than pay rent. For these men, the dramatic and lonely atmosphere at the edge of the world may have been a draw. Others came to live here when poverty or social stigma forced them out of the city and left them homeless. Hermit Len Pow was both exiled from China and barred from San Francisco’s Chinatown, He came to live on the beach in 1901, finding no other place that would receive him
CarvilleThis small community of homes and businesses was constructed from the obsolete horse-drawn streetcars of the Market Street Railway Company. Its development began in 1895 when Adolph Sutro purchased several streetcars and parked them on his “Oceanside” tract of land on the Great Highway between La Playa and 48th Avenues, in today’s Outer Richmond district. Sutro intended to sell off the Oceanside lots for the construction of city dwellers‘ grand estates, but the rental of the streetcars quickly gained popularity.
Many who purchased the Oceanside lots followed Sutro’s example, bought their own streetcars, and set them up on the plots. Some cars were full-time residences. Other Carville establishments included vacation rentals, a coffee shop, tearoom, the Lady Falcons bicycle club, a dinner club, musicians’ haven, and even an Episcopalian church.
The community thrived until the early 1910s when more traditionally styled homes began to be built. Some of the old streetcars were incorporated into newer constructions. Others were moved or demolished. Only one of these streetcar homes is known to exist in the neighborhood today.
Chutes at the BeachChutes at the Beach was an early 20th-century San Francisco amusement park, the predecessor to Playland at the Beach. park got its start in 1913 when Arthur Looff built a hippodrome to house his invention, the Looff Carousel. Next to hippodrome, entrepenuer John Friedle owned a shooting gallery and baseball knock-down game called Babyland.
Friedle and Looff partnered up, and by 1921 had expanded their operation to include almost 100 concessions and amusement rides. Among these was the “Shoot the Chutes” ride, which inspired the name, “Chutes at the Beach.” The fam “Big Dipper” rollercoaster opened in 1922. The Chutes was sold to the Whitney brothers in 1926, and the name soon changed to Playland at the Beach
Great Highway and Ocean Beach EsplanadeBeginning in 1915 a concrete esplanade that would protect the scenic roadway (today’s Great Highway) that ran along Ocean Beach was constructed. M.M. O’Shaugnessy, then the City Engineer, is credited with the design of the Esplanade and the O’Shaughnessy seawall.
The first 670 foot section of the Esplanade that went from the bottom of the Cliff House hill to the northern end of Golden Gate Park was completed by the end of 1916. Construction on the esplanade, the Great Highway, and the Seawall continued until its official opening in 1929. Today the road is a standard four lane city street with two lane traffic on each side.
Jack Johnson, the “Galveston Giant”Jack Johnson, the first African American World Heavyweight Champion, often stayed at Seal Rock House and trained at the Ocean Beach Pavilion in the early 1900s. His sessions at the Pavilion preceded some of Johnson’s most famous matches against opponents like Stanley Ketchel in 1909 and Jim “The Great White Hope” Jeffries in 1910, who came out of retirement only to throw in the towel in the 15th round.
The fight between Johnson and Jeffries was charged with racial tension. Until the 1890s it was illegal for boxers of color to face white opponents, and many white boxers still refused to fight an African-American competitor in the early 20th century.
Johnson’s victory was seen by many of his supporters as a victory for the advancement of racial equality.
Lifesaving StationCalifornia’s first lifesaving station was established in 1878 at the northwest corner of Golden Gate Park facing Ocean Beach. The station was manned by members of the Unites States Lifesaving Service, which had been organized in 1871.
The strong currents, heavy fog, and jagged rocks of the coastline around Lands End and Ocean Beach had been the cause of many shipwrecks, and the crew of the Lifesaving Station regularly risked their own lives to save victims of foundering vessels. Large crowds would come to the beach to watch their training. During these excercises the crew would pull its 2-ton lifesaving boat on a wagon into the cold, often choppy water, row out past the breakers, and practice pulling people from the water while bailing out the vessel.
The Lifesaving Service merged with the Revenue Cutter Service in 1915 to create the Coast Guard. In the early 1920s some of the Ocean Beach station’s buildings were removed, but the station remained operational until November 1951.
Ocean Beach PavilionThis grand hall with its Mansard-roof towers was built on Ocean Beach, just south of Seal Rock House, in 1884. It was a large, imposing building that originally operated as a concert venue and dance hall.
After 1929 the building housed a popular restaurant and nightclub called “Topsy’s Roost”. In the 1950s it was a rental hall known as the “Surf Club,” and after that a slotcar raceway. From 1969 to 1972 the building was used once again as a concert venue and counter-culture meeting hall, first as “Family Dog” managed by Chet Helms, and then as “Friends and Relations Hall”. The building was demolished in 1972.
Surfing at Kelly’s CoveSurfing gained popularity in San Francisco after World War II, and was centered at Kelly’s Cove on Ocean Beach. It had been known to the world since the late 1800s, when Hawaiian surfer James Apu gave a demonstration at the 1894 San Francisco Midwinter Fair. Surfing was popular in Southern California in the early 1900s.
Young surfers began meeting in the 1940s at Kelly’s Cove, a section of beach just south of the Cliff House (formerly known as Cliff House Beach). They would set fire to a rubber tire on the beach that would burn all day and act as a beacon to surfers in the water. These pioneers of Northern California surfing created a culture and lifestyle that exists today. Annual reunions are held at Kelly’s Cove. Ocean Beach is still regarded as a highly desirable location for dedicated surfers, who held the 2011 International Surf Open there.
BicyclingThe advent of the inexpensive safety bicycle in the 1890s helped launch a cycling craze in America. Lands End was a natural destination for cyclists. Bicycle clubs formed, and enthusiasts achieved the right to ride through Golden Gate Park and along the Great Highway.
Bicycling stimulated social change for women. Many challenged long-held notions of acceptable dress by wearing bloomers instead of skirts while riding. Members of the Falcons, an all-female group, maintained a clubhouse in Carville at Lands End.
Cyclists and spectators alike gathered at establishments like Cycler’s Rest, a three story chalet on La Playa and Fulton Street across from the Casino. Cycler’s Rest was also the site of one of the first successful experiments in radiotelephone technology, receiving a wireless voice transmission from Francis McCarty at the Cliff House in 1905. The bicycle fad was eventually overshadowed by the overwhelming popularity of the automobile although the 1970s revival of interest in bicycling continues to grow in San Francisco’s Critical Mass phenomenon.
Playland at the BeachGeorge and Leo Whitney took over management of the10-acre Ocean Beach amusement park “Chutes at the Beach” in 1926. The brothers soon changed this to Playland at the Beach, the name by which it would be known to countless San Franciscans. Playland’s attractions included the Big Dipper, Alpine Racers, and Diving Bell, and the Fun House with its mirror maze, spinning wheel, and giant wooden slide.
Laffing Sal, an animated mechanical doll, would greet visitors to the Fun House with a maniacal laugh that could inspire both amusement and terror in the beholder. Sal can still be seen (and heard) at San Francisco’s Musée Mécanique. The “Its-it” ice cream confection was invented as a Playland snack.
Over the 50 years of its operation, Playland became a beloved icon of childhood in San Francisco to generations of city dwellers and visitors. Playland was operated by the Whitney family until it was sold to a real estate developer in 1972. The park’s structures were demolished that year. or more stories about Playland at the Beach, visit www.outsidelands.org/playland.php. To hear Laffing Sal, visit www.museemechanique.org.
Seal Rock HouseSeal Rock House was the first resort and hotel in the Ocean Beach area, opening in 1858. In 1875 it was advertised as the only resort near the city that could be reached without paying tolls.
The name was changed to “Long Branch House” after the 1860s, and again in the late 1880s to “Seal Rock Hotel”. The Ocean Beach Pavilion was built next door in 1884.
Seal Rock House hosted banquets, musical performances, and billiard games. During the bicycle craze of the 1890s, cyclists would gather at the House during their comings and goings along the road fronting Ocean Beach. In the 1890s and early 1900s many boxers trained at the Seal Rock House gymnasium. Among the pugilists was the legendary Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion. The Seal Rock House was closed by 1914
Parachute Jumps and Hot Air BalloonsMany people associate parachute jumps with airplanes. However, the first parachute jump in America was made by Thomas Baldwin in 1887 - launched from a hot air balloon that departed from Ocean Beach near the Cliff House. His successful jump was viewed by a crowd of thousands. Baldwin, who later became the Chief of Army Balloon Production and Inspection, also invented the parachute harness in the same year.
In 1893 Lillie Hagal attempted a balloon-based parachute jump departing from the same location on Ocean Beach. She was seriously injured when her half-filled balloon was released and caught fire, lifting into the air and dashing her against two nearby houses. Newspaper articles published in days following the dreadful accident assured that the battered aeronaut would recover. But Adolph Sutro, who at the time owned the launching beach, banned future balloon launches from the location.
Sand SculpturesThough many artists have been inspired by their surroundings, a small group made Lands End itself both their canvas and medium. Several artists in sand were featured in San Francisco Call Bulletin newspaper articles in the early 1900s. The sculptors’ temporary creations impressed viewers with their complexity, and charmed with their novelty. William Brandhorst, in a 1903 article, describes himself as an accidental artist with no formal training, who chanced upon his skill during an afternoon’s rest on the beach. In 1909 James J. Taylor began sculpting statues and scenes out of wet sand at Ocean Beach. He had earned acclaim as a sand artist in Atlantic City, Long Beach, and other beach cities before his arrival in San Francisco. Taylor had no formal training but was considered one of the best of the many sand sculptors working at the turn of the century. Large crowds would gather to watch him build his creations, providing Taylor with $20 to $30 in tips in a day.
Last updated: May 13, 2022