I Left My Heart in San Francisco History (pt.1): The Sutro Baths

Originally, I was going to write a small compendium of historical places in San Francisco.  But once I started writing, I realized that each one really deserves its own page.  Consider this one: I Left My Heart in San Francisco History (pt.1).  Enjoy!

Once I found the Sutro Baths last year, (yes, I grew up in the East Bay and had NO idea this existed) I became obsessed with any history related to San Francisco around the era of Sutro.  The Sutro Baths were built by Adolf Sutro in 1894.  Sutro made his millions while in Nevada working in mining operations.  Not having much of a formal education, he was a self-taught scientist and architect.  After selling off his shares in mining, he came to San Francisco.  It is said that his belief was that the rich had an obligation to improve the lives of others in the working-class.  He did just that; realizing there was no place for families to swim or have fun (since the bay water temperature of SF is always a brisk freezing degrees) at an affordable cost.   He built the largest wave powered, heated, saltwater bath house in the world. During the construction of the bath house, Sutro served as Mayor of San Francisco for two terms. While nobody says expressly what he did, people say that he gave more than any other Mayor of San Francisco .

Though the bath house was finished in 1894, it didn’t open to the public for another two years. At the completion of construction, he was in the midst of a battle with the Southern Pacific Railroad-the RR wanted to double the fares to the bath houses.  Sutro asked politely to keep the round-trip rate at 5 cents.  When the RR denied him, he basically said, “To hell with the railroad! I’ll build my own.” And he did.

The bathhouse contained 7 pools, 6 large slides, diving boards, a museum, concession stands, and more.  The pools took 1.7 million gallons to fill and took up over 3 1/2 acres. The facility had a filtration and pump system from the Pacific Ocean into chambers which then heated and expelled the water to fill the baths.


*Picture found on SFGate.com

As popularity rose, Sutro added Vaudeville acts in the evening for entertainment, and ice skating.  Unfortunately, after Sutro died in 1907, bath houses slowly started losing their popularity.  His family kept the baths going until about 1937 then officially drained the pools to make the ice skating rinks a permanent attraction.  By 1952 the facility was becoming too expensive to maintain and the Sutro family sold the bath house to George Whitney (remember this name, you’ll hear it again later).  The Whitney family only ran the bath house for a short time before planning to demolish the facility to replace it with a sprawling condo development.  However, before demolition could be finished, a rather suspicious fire broke out in June 1966.  Within 24 hours, the Sutro Baths were almost nothing but cement and left over iron beams.  What you see today closely resembles what was left after the fire.

On Fire

*Picture found on SFGate.com

Since the fire, the City of San Francisco has protected this land by labeling it a historical monument. We don’t have to worry about the Sutro Bath ruins going anywhere anytime soon.

The ruins can be found to the left of The Cliff House restaurant on Point Lobos Ave. Parking is free but if you get there later in the day, it does get crowded.  Once parked, walk uphill, away from the Cliff House and you will come to a pathway leading down to the ruins.


Bonus: There are trails that run all over this place. If you follow the trail leading around to the Golden Gate Bridge, it is possible to see a few small pieces of shipwrecks from the 1920’s-30’s: The SS Ohioan, The Lyman A. Stewart and Frank H. Buck.




I found this boat by accident while obsessing over finding local derelict boats on Flickr.  I saw this and prayed it was still there. The only problem was finding where “there” was.  Thanks to my other obsession, Google Earth, I prowled around the city of Rodeo until I found it!

The Polaris is a 69-foot tugboat that ran aground at Lone Tree Point near Rodeo in April 2013.  The US Coast Guard responded to the accident; however, the owner declined any assistance.  Later, the Marine Officer issued formal notice to remove the boat, but the owner did not comply.  Negotiation between the original owner, subsequent owners, the district and the Coast Guard started but an agreement could not be reached.

An attempt at repairing the vessel was made, but turned out to be a failure.  Finally, the vessel was cleared of its fuel and any potential dangers to the water and moved to a cove in Rodeo, CA.  Contra Costa Sherriff’s Marine Patrol has moved to have the abandoned vessel removed, as it is considered a public nuisance.

*The above info was found on some meeting notes from the CA state Lands Commission  http://archives.slc.ca.gov/Meeting_Summaries/2013_Documents/12-02-13/Items_and_Exhibits/C111.pdf

The Polaris can be found from two vantage points. One is in a derelict marina off Pacific Avenue.  I wouldn’t say it’s abandoned, as there are quite a few creepy people living on the premises. Knowing this, I would not go alone. And again, luckily, my fiance saw someone and started talking to him about the boat we were in search of.  He told us to “go on in!”. We talked through the marina finding all kinds of boats, cars and junk. Almost at the end of the walkway I saw it! Boom! Like it popped out and bit me. It was so much bigger than I had imagined.

The second, is if you go back out on to Pacific Ave, you can see a pathway leading out toward the water. Follow this and it will take you to the other side of the vessel.  On this side, you have access to what used to be a docking area, though the dock is in various stages of decay and had been burned in some areas. I would not wander on to the dock. But you can walk out on the rocks and go pretty far out when the tide is low.

Please note: Along this path it is clear that there are some homeless who have taken up shelter. Just avoid those areas and I’m sure you’ll be fine.

I do not know the current status of the process to remove this “nuisance” but my guess is it might be sooner rather than later. Happy exploring!Polaris 2





On our way to visit my dad in Shingletown (a.k.a. Mountain Man Terriroty), we ventured off our path to visit an old “ghost” town called Seneca.  This town was an old gold mining town, born in 1851.  At it’s high point, it had a dance hall, blacksmith, post office, grocery store, an opium den, boarding houses, and a hotel.  Ahead of it’s time, the hotel also had solar heated showers.  The 500 Chinese miners who boarded here earned 10 cents a day in rice. Eek.

The largest nugget found in this area was 42 ounces, which was worth $28,000 in 1942.

*The above info is a summarized version of the placard posted in a rock in Seneca.

Many years passed, and as the gold in the area ran dry, so did the town.  There is a bar still standing in the main part of what is left of the town.  As we pulled off the long dirt road (which we traveled so far in, we were convinced we’d be abducted by randoms and buried in the remains of the town), the first thing we see is a group of old-timers.  As we pull up, the man driving his dooley gives a once-over. A little wary to speak, I throw my camera on my shoulder and put on a grin to try to ease the fellow’s gaze.  Luckily, my fiance is the way he is-he loves old guys and their stories-and he started talking to the old guy.  Turns out, the man used to live in the area and frequented the bar, all the way into the seventies. Since then, it has been shuttered.  The man said that he and a few others often go back to Seneca to replace the door to the bar, as all the “urban explorers” keep kicking it in to get inside.

Turns out, the land had been purchased for $250,000 recently, and it is said that the owner intends on using it as an RV park.  Good luck, guy. Have you tried driving down there? It’s VERY narrow in places (even my Ford Fuckus, oops, I mean Focus had an interesting time on a few of the turns and narrow spots).

Anyway, we were lucky enough to see that the door to the bar had been slid open just enough to squeeze in and take some pictures. There was still an old fridge, glassware, sinks, the bar (of course) and a beautiful old piano with old-ass trophies on it.  On the roof and outside by the door, people had stuck business cards and expired driver’s licenses to document their visit. It was cool to see, since we don’t know how much longer this place will be here.

To find Seneca, you must head North on Hwy 89 until you see Seneca Road. Turn onto Seneca Road. Note: it is about a mile long logging road which is still used today; there are lots of turns and narrow areas. Be careful going around the turns in here, as there could be a logging truck coming right at you. You will take this road until you see a couple structures on your right (which look to be storage areas unrelated to Seneca).  Look to your left and you will see the Seneca Bar peeking out from behind the trees. Upon getting there, you will find there is a lot more to the small place than you noticed when you parked.  There are many abandoned RV’s which look like the could have even been recently used. The other structures on the property don’t look structurally sound and have been trashed unfortunately, so I did not go inside and I wouldn’t advise anyone to do so.  The only structure that is still in any kind of shape is the bar.