by Arnold Woods
Despite being one of the most populous cities in the United States, San Francisco has a surprisingly small freeway imprint. Further, unlike most other large cities, San Francisco has eliminated some of its freeways since the heyday of interstate construction in the 1950s. One freeway in particular drew scorn as soon as it started to be built. The Embarcadero Freeway was so hated that San Francisco prevented the original plan from being fully completed and then worked for a long time to get rid of it.
The original idea was to connect the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge with a freeway.1 Plans were discussed in 1951 to have a freeway run from the Bay Bridge around the Embarcadero, down Bay Street, and tunnel under Russian Hill, where it would meet up with Lombard Street at Van Ness. On August 21, 1952, the State approved a $45,000,000 proposal to build this Embarcadero Freeway.2
This route was initially designated as Legislative Route 224 and added to the new Interstate Highway System on September 15, 1955. It received the Interstate designation of I-480 on November 10, 1958. The other part of this ambitious freeway plan was to extend the central freeway north to meet up with the Embarcadero Freeway after it tunneled under Russian Hill.
The first part of this plan was the construction of the Embarcadero Freeway from the Bridge to Broadway, which was approved by the California Highway Commission in early 1953.3 This allowed land to be purchased along the route, though some complained that this was forcing some businesses out of the City.4 In March 1955, the contract to start work on the new freeway was awarded to McDonald, Young, and Nelson, Inc. and Morrison-Knudsen Co.5 Even before ground broke, however, there were rumblings that the public was not happy about a double-decker freeway down the Embarcadero.6
Work began first on the ramps from the Bay Bridge to the Embarcadero Freeway. Even though construction had begun, the City was still working out issues on the proposed route of the freeway because of a possible impact on a planned state park by the Ferry Building.7 Public hearings were held and the issue spawned many a letter to the editor. A proposal to move the freeway underground before it reached the Ferry Building was abandoned because of the cost.8 By the end of 1957, towers for the freeway structure were going up in front of the Ferry Building.
While it was being built, the Embarcadero Freeway would regularly be described in the local papers with such adjectives as atrocious and hideous. With construction moving forward, a fight began over a proposal to ban billboards along the roadway so as not to further obstruct views.9 Loud opposition to the entire San Francisco freeway plan led the Board of Supervisors to eliminate much of the plan on January 26, 1959.10 Thus, before the sections along the eastern waterfront were even finished, the plans to extend it to the Golden Gate Bridge were already dead. Shortly thereafter, on February 5, 1959, the Embarcadero Freeway opened to traffic.11
Immediately, the complaints came pouring in about the new Embarcadero Freeway. Newspaper icon Herb Caen called it an eyesore that made traffic even worse on Broadway.12 Barely a month after it opened, it was announced that part of the new freeway would be closed for up to six months to build a new offramp that officials hoped would ease the burdens on traffic caused by it.13 The Chronicle, which had opposed it before it was built, was soon editorializing for the Embarcadero Freeway’s demolition.14 In a speech to the American Institute of Architects (“AIA”) on September 15, 1959, Mayor George Christopher said the Embarcadero Freeway was “a regrettable phase of our freeway construction.15” Several months later, the national president of the AIA would later declare that the freeway had done “irreparable damage” to San Francisco.16
As part of his 1963 campaign for mayor, Congressman John Shelley proposed that the Embarcadero Freeway–what he called the “Harold Dobbs monstrosity”–be torn down and replaced with a parkway.17 Shelley won the race, but was not able to get rid of the freeway. The following year, 200,000 people turned out in Golden Gate Park for a protest against the so-called Panhandle Freeway.18 Speakers at the rally noted that they missed their chance to stop the Embarcadero Freeway, so they needed to be vigilant to prevent the Panhandle Freeway.
Ultimately, Mother Nature accomplished what political and civic will could not. The Loma Prieta earthquake on October 17, 1989 caused significant damage to the Embarcadero Freeway. It was closed in the wake of the quake and engineering reports stated that it was in imminent danger of collapse if there were major aftershocks.19 After months of studying whether to retrofit or tear down the Embarcadero Freeway, the Board of Supervisors on September 24, 1990 narrowly voted 6-5 in favor of Mayor Art Agnos’s plan to demolish it.20 That demolition began on February 27, 1991 with Mayor Agnos personally operating a hydraulic battering ram to start the process.21 The freeway that seemingly no one liked was finally gone.
1. “$517,000,000 In Freeways,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 13, 1951, p. 22.
2. “State Okays Waterfront Freeway,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 22, 1952, p. 1.
3. “Embarcadero Freeway Plans Set,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 1953, p. 18.
4. “Many Businesses Being Forced Out,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 26, 1954, p. 1.
5. “Contract Let for Embarcadero Freeway Section,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 23, 1955, p. 4.
6. “Architect, Engineer Debate Freeways,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 1, 1955, p. 17.
7. “City Moves To End Woes On Freeways,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 6, 1955, p. 14.
8. “Hope Ends For Tunnel At the Ferry,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 21, 1956, p. 1.
9. “The Public Wants Unimpaired Views,” San Francisco Chronicle editorial, January 8, 1959, p. 34.
10. “Board Kills Plans For 6 S.F. Freeways,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 27, 1959, p. 1.
11. “Freeway Open Tomorrow,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 4, 1959, p. 3.
12. “Babble-by-the-Bay,” by Herb Caen, San Francisco Chronicle, February 12, 1959, p. 19.
13. “Ramp Work to Close Part of Embarcadero Freeway,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 19, 1959, p. 4.
14. “Junk Freeway, Then Build Park” San Francisco Chronicle, August 21, 1959, p. 34.
15. “Ferry Freeway ‘Regrettable’,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 16, 1959, p. 5.
16. “Embarcadero Freeway Gets Going-Over,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 13, 1959, p. 29.
17. “Shelley Pledges Parkway To Replace Embarcadero,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 4, 1963, p. 62.
18. “Thousands Shout ‘No” To Freeway,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 18, 1964, pp. 1, 11.
19. “Freeway ‘Danger’ On Embarcadero,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 21, 1989, pp. 1, 23.
20. “Supervisors Vote 6 to 5 To Demolish Freeway,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 25, 1990, pp. 1, 18.
21. “Freeway Demolition Party,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 28, 1991, p. 2.
by Arnold Woods
Playland at the Beach was previously known as Chutes at the Beach because its premiere attraction was the Shoot the Chutes water ride. Chutes at the Beach was the brainchild of Arthur Looff and John Friedle who organized the various concessions near the beach into an amusement park. Although the Chutes was the star, the park built some roller coaster rides to complement it. The first ones were the Bob Sled Dipper, where riders rode one in front of the other, as if in a bobsled, through a series of dips then down “a precipitous cliff.”1 The other was the Figure 8 Coaster, a scenic railroad type ride that was longer and slower than the Bob Sled Dipper. However, these rides were about to be eclipsed by a new feature attraction.
In 1922, bigger, faster–scarier–rollercoasters were becoming the “in” thing. Across the Bay in Oakland, Idora Park opened a rollercoaster with large dips of up to 100 feet that they called the Big Dipper.2 So in 1922, Looff and Friedle decided that Chutes at the Beach needed a rollercoaster upgrade. Although the Figure 8 Coaster was only a few years old, they decided to demolish it and build their own Big Dipper.
Although Looff claimed to have designed the Big Dipper, it was likely a creation of the Prior & Church firm that built the Bob Sled Dipper.3 It was built in a rapid two months and was opened in September 1922 in an area around Fulton and La Playa. Looff may not have designed the Big Dipper at Chutes at the Beach, but he did later build the Giant Dipper at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk which opened in May 1924 and still exists today.
The Big Dipper was a hit, but the roller coasters of the time were not quite as safe as today’s rides. On July 23, 1923, a man named Frank Sylvester was thrown out of his seat and suffered severe injuries.4 On August 17, 1924, Peter Biggio was killed when he was thrown off and fell 30 feet.5 Another woman broke her legs when she stood up and jumped from the car near the bottom of a drop.
George Whitney, who had opened a few concessions beginning in 1923, started buying more concessions and was later joined in those enterprises by his brother Leo. Because of the various lawsuits, Friedle, who had previously bought out Looff, sold much of his interest in Chutes at the Beach to the Whitneys. However, he kept his interest in the Big Dipper and several other concessions. Friedle then left for Germany.
The Whitneys renamed the park Whitney’s at the Beach sometime around 1930, but it was commonly known and advertised as Playland at the Beach. They finally acquired the Big Dipper in 1936 and it was the park’s big money-maker through World War II and thereafter. In 1945 alone, some 750,000 people got their thrills on the Big Dipper.6
Despite fixes and upgrades over the years, accidents still occurred at the Big Dipper. In 1945, a sailor on leave stood up and was killed when his head hit a support. On February 6, 1953, Jack Williams, a mechanic, was working near the top of the Big Dipper when he was hit by car and dragged down the “big dip.”7 Williams lost his right foot and suffered severed damage to his left leg. In 1955, the Big Dipper failed its city safety inspection for the first time.8
Whitney decided that the Big Dipper’s best days were behind it. On October 12, 1955, demolition began on the old rollercoaster. It would be replaced by the Alpine Racer ride, which was a copy of a ride at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk called the Wild Mouse. Perhaps because of the loss of the Big Dipper, Playland’s status as a San Francisco destination spot waned. 17 years later, the entire amusement park would be gone. For 33 years though, the Big Dipper thrilled kids and adults as the star attraction at Playland.
1. “Chutes At The Beach Gives San Francisco Great Play Center,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 18, 1922, p. 46.
2. “Idora Park to Open Season Next Saturday,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 19, 1922, p. 6.
3. “San Francisco’s Playland At The Beach: The Early Years,” by James R. Smmith (Craven Street Books, 2010), pp. 1-5, 63-64.
4. “Beach Concession Is Sued For $11,000,” San Francisco Examiner, August 2, 1923, p. 7.
5. “Kin of ‘Big Dipper’ Victim Ask $50,000,” San Francisco Examiner, September 25, 1924, p. 8.
6. “Playland’s Frankfurters and Frustration–Part Two,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 15, 1946, This World section, p. 20.
7. “Mechanic Dragged Into The Big Dip,” San Francisco Examiner, February 7, 1953, p. 1.
8. “Big Dipper Takes Its Last Ride,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 12, 1955, p. 3.