by Arnold Woods
It was the explosion heard ’round the Bay. A half hour after midnight on January 16, 1887, San Francisco was awakened by a blast so big and powerful that people reported feeling it as far away as San Jose and Sacramento. Many thought it was an earthquake. However, while the world was indeed shaken, it was not a quake but a powder keg. A schooner called the Parallel, with a cargo of forty tons of gunpowder had blown up at the foot of the Cliff House.
On January 15, 1887, all was serene at Point Lobos. At the time, the area consisted of the Cliff House, a stables/carriage sheds area for people who rode their horses there, and the Cliff Cottage, where J.M. Wilkins, then proprietor of the Cliff House, and his family lived. Wilkins had leased the Cliff House from Adolph Sutro two years prior.
Several days earlier, the Parallel left San Francisco headed to Astoria, Oregon with gunpowder for a railroad company.1 However, weather and tides kept the Parallel from getting through the Golden Gate and they were forced to turn back and wait at anchor for better weather.2 On January 15, 1887, Captain Miller ordered the crew to head for the Golden Gate again. However, heavy swells began pushing the Parallel toward the San Francisco shoreline. Knowing they were carrying dangerous cargo, the crew literally jumped ship, abandoning the Parallel in a rowboat around 8:30 p.m. About an hour later, Wilkins at the Cliff House notified John Hyslop at the Point Lobos Signal Station that there was a light approaching the shore. Hyslop investigated and saw the Parallel drifting broadside toward Point Lobos.
The Parallel came aground on the rocks below the Cliff House. The Life-Saving Station scrambled to arrange a rescue of the crew, but found nobody aboard. Given the darkness, they decided to wait till morning before doing anything further, but posted a couple of guards near the ship. The Parallel would not wait for the morning, however. Getting pounded by waves against the rocks evidently caused some friction that ignited the Parallel’s cargo. The resulting explosion blew out most of the Cliff House’s stables and carriage sheds and destroyed the north wing of the Cliff House.3 The entire Cliff Cottage was pushed five feet by the blast. Adolph Sutro’s estate above the Cliff House had its windows blown out and its outer buildings and conservatory were badly damaged. A clock in his bedroom stopped at 12:34 a.m., fixing the time of the explosion. Down the hill, the Ocean House and Ocean Beach Pavilion also suffered wreckage.
The explosion of the Parallel severely injured Henry Smith and John Wilson, the two members of the Life-Saving Station that had been left on guard. Some members of Wilkins’ family at the Cliff Cottage were also injured. Fortunately, there were no deaths. Although the crew of the Parallel was initially feared lost in the water when they did not show up on the San Francisco shoreline, it turned out that they had rowed to the Marin shoreline. They were brought back to San Francisco aboard the Saucelito, a steamer, later that day.
After dawn on January 16th, the curious began to arrive. Trains and carriages brought the crowds and by mid-morning the Cliff Road and Ocean Beach was packed with people seeking a view of the carnage. By 1:00 p.m., it was estimated that 50,000 people had visited. Despite damage to the Cliff House, Wilkins recognized an opportunity when he saw one and kept his bar open. Scavengers spent the day rummaging through the wreckage.
Sutro would rebuild the damaged Cliff House. An aquarium he was already building in the cove below the Cliff House would be completed later that year. Litigation would ensue against the owners of the Parallel for the damage to the Cliff House. The newly reconstructed Cliff House would only last another seven years before disaster struck again at Christmas 1894.
1. “A Terrible Disaster,” San Francisco Examiner, January 16, 1887.
2. “The Cliff Wreck,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 17, 1887, p. 3.
3. “A Big Explosion,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 16, 1887, p. 8.
by Arnold Woods
In the days before automobiles, roads were sometimes an iffy proposition. In the early days of the Outside Lands, traveling to the ocean meant making your way through miles of sand dunes. In the early 1860s, a group of people formed the Point Lobos Toll Road Company and built a road out to Point Lobos, where the Cliff House was attracting visitors. The toll road originally started at Kearny and Clay Streets, but when streetcar service reached the Lone Mountain cemeteries, the beginning of the toll road was switched to that point.1 It was not the type of road you would find today. Rather, it was dirt and wooden planks across sand. Still it was easier than trudging across sand dunes.
As the Richmond District grew and other roads and streetcars reached the ocean, the Point Lobos Toll Road was not as profitable and it was sold to San Francisco for $26,587 in 1878.2 The portion of now Point Lobos Avenue east of 42nd Avenue was eventually renamed Geary Boulevard. Point Lobos Avenue now ran from 42nd Avenue west to the Cliff House where it turned south and continued down to Balboa Street to meet the Great Highway. This small stretch of road was very popular, however, with the Cliff House, Sutro Baths and other small shops and concessions. Still, it was a dirt road which sometimes became tricky to travel, particularly during the rainy season and occasional rock slides from Sutro Heights. So San Francisco decided Point Lobos Avenue needed a makeover.
With the passage of the 18th Amendment on January 16, 1919 and Prohibition taking effect one year later, the Cliff House had a problem. No longer able to serve alcohol, business lagged despite the promotion of coffee service. In addition, Point Lobos Avenue in the Cliff House area was in “deplorable” condition with ditches, holes, and rocks that caused damage to automobiles.3 With reduced traffic to the Cliff House, San Francisco began planning to widen and pave Point Lobos Avenue to make it safer.
On September 23, 1921, a contract was awarded to the lowest bidder, Clarence B. Eaton, for the work.4 One of the first things to be done was to widen the road down the hill from the Cliff House. To accomplish this, a seawall had to be built to protect the road from the sea near the bottom of the hill where Point Lobos Avenue meets the Great Highway.
Further up the hill, a viaduct had to be built to increase the width of the road. Did you know that you were driving over a bridge as you come down the hill from the Cliff House? You might not know that unless you have spent some time walking in the sand in the Kelly’s Cove portion of Ocean Beach. This work involved the pouring of concrete for the viaduct supports and the base of the roadway.
In the area around the Cliff House and Sutro Baths, the road was widened for traffic, parking, and a sidewalk. The Sutro Heights cliff area on the east side of Point Lobos Avenue, was chiseled into, both for the widening of the road and to stabilize the cliff to protect against rockfalls.
At the top of the hill above the Sutro Baths, work was easier. There was the widening and paving of the road, but there was no cliff above to be dealt with. The sidewalk being constructed extended all the way up to the streetcar depot up at 48th Avenue.
The work on Point Lobos Road was completed by June 1922. The Chronicle described the new roadway as “a wonderfully scenic path for the motoring public.5” The center of the road contained vitrified brick–a brick fired at a higher temperature and longer time to reduce the absorption of water–to diminish skidding on the road during rains. The outer part of the road was bituminized to reduce dust and corrosion.
In addition to the road, the sidewalk they built extended from 48th Avenue down past the Cliff House all the way to the beach. Despite the new roadway though, the Cliff House, then run by Richard “Shorty” Roberts, wasn’t making it as a coffee shop. With his lease up, Roberts gave up and closed his version of the Cliff House in the Fall of 1925.6 Prohibition was blamed for the Cliff House’s downfall. It would remain shuttered until August 5, 1937, when the Whitney Brothers reopened it after extensive remodeling.7
From a dusty dirt road, Point Lobos Avenue had been transformed into a modern paved parkway. However, it was over a decade after the makeover before this once popular area returned to its former glory. To learn more about how the businesses along this stretch of Point Lobos Avenue evolved over time, listen to our Outside Lands Podcast on the evolution of Point Lobos Avenue.
1. “Old Point Lobos Road,” San Francisco Call, May 6, 1895, p. 7.
2. “Board of Supervisors,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 27, 1878, p. 3.
3. “Bids for Repair Work on Highway Will Be Opened,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 11, 1921, p. A1.
4. “Award Of Contract: Resolution No. 70545,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 30, 1921, p. 18.
5. “Cliff Roadway Now Open To Outing Public,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 6, 1922, p. 7.
6. “Lights Out at Cliff House,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 3, 1925, p. 3.
7. “Famous Cliff House Reopens After 13 Years,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 6, 1937, p. 14.