The Nevada Traveler: Funded by the Comstock, built in San Francisco |

The Nevada Traveler: Funded by the Comstock, built in San Francisco

By Richard Moreno
Concrete remains of Sutro Baths, once a landmark in San Francisco.
Richard Moreno

People were skeptical when engineer Adolph Sutro first proposed building a four-mile-long tunnel to drain water from Virginia City’s underground mines to the Dayton Valley in the early 1860s.

And while it took 15 years and more than $3.5 million, Sutro succeeded in building his tunnel, later called one of the engineering marvels of the 19th century, to siphon the scalding hot water seeping into the Comstock mines, which threatened the lives of mine workers.

A few years later, people again were dubious when Sutro proposed to turn the sand dunes and headlands of far western San Francisco (called the “Outside Lands”) into a paradise that would include lush gardens, the world’s largest indoor swimming pool and a first-class resort complex.

And, again, they underestimated Sutro’s ingenuity.

The Prussian-born engineer successfully transformed an area considered a sandy wasteland into an attractive recreational complex that included parks, an elaborate public bathhouse, and a resort with a restaurant.

Sutro’s Folly — as his San Francisco development was originally called — is linked in a strange way to Nevada because he would never have had the money to pursue it if not for the success of Sutro Tunnel.

The entrepreneur’s story began when he arrived on a steamer in San Francisco in 1850. His possessions included a few bales of fine German cloth and a couple of trunks of fancy European notions. Within several months, he was able to parlay his stash of merchandise into ownership of several tobacco shops in downtown San Francisco.

In 1860, Sutro traveled to Virginia City and quickly recognized the need to find a way to alleviate the terrible working conditions of the city’s underground miners. The problem was that extremely hot and noxious geothermal water flooded the shafts, making them unsafe and difficult to work in.

The mining companies resorted to a variety of ways to make the shafts more tolerable, including pumping out the water, installing large fans and dropping huge chunks of ice in the holes.

Sutro decided that the best solution to the hot water problem was to construct a long tunnel below the level of the working mine shafts and drain them.

While initially he found support from smaller mine owners, he faced considerable opposition from the so-called Bank Crowd, which saw the tunnel as a threat to its near-monopoly on every aspect of the Comstock’s mines.

Sutro battled the banks, mine owners and politicians for 15 years before finally attracting sufficient capital to complete the project (mostly money from Europe). While the tunnel performed as Sutro promised, by the time it was completed many of Virginia City’s mines had sunk shafts deeper than the tunnel level, so it wasn’t as successful as originally hoped.

Sutro, however, quietly sold his interest in the tunnel shortly after it was completed in 1878 and became an instant millionaire. He returned to San Francisco and by 1881 had begun to purchase land in western San Francisco.

Within a few years, he had acquired several miles of coastline — at one point he owned up to a fifth of San Francisco’s total land mass — and had begun to build out his “folly.”

He began by importing plants from throughout the world that would be tolerant of drought and seaside conditions. He hired a small army of gardeners, installed an irrigation system powered by windmills, and developed a system of paths and promenades, highlighted by a parapet that overlooked the ocean (and resembled the crest of an old castle). Sutro also planted windbreaks of cypress, pine and eucalyptus and erected 200 statues of historic or mythical figures.

Additionally, in 1881, Sutro purchased the Cliff House, a former gambling hall, and converted it into a more respectable resort for families. He added a rail line to bring people from the core of the city to the resort.

Sutro’s Cliff House was severely damaged in 1887, when a ship filled with black powder crashed on nearby rocks and the subsequent blast destroyed parts of the building. Sutro rebuilt the resort only to see it burn to the ground in 1894.

He responded by building a new, five-story, Victorian-influenced Cliff House that opened in 1896 with restaurants, art galleries, parlors and a large veranda overlooking the sea.

He also began construction on Sutro Baths, a 400-foot long glass-walled palace that included 100,000 square feet of stained glass, seven pools (both fresh water and sea water), nine springboards, seven toboggan slides, three trapezes and high diving platforms. The project took three years to complete and cost more than $1 million.

Visitors to Sutro Baths entered through a replica of a Greek temple, then descended to the pools via a wide staircase bordered by a jungle of palm trees. The bathhouse also featured a museum with mounted animals and exotic artifacts.

Sutro died in 1898, just after completion of the baths. His elaborate Cliff House burned in 1907 (it was rebuilt by his daughter but in a more modern style and continued to operate as a restaurant until this year, when the loss of business due to the COVID-19 pandemic caused it to close).

The baths suffered an even more ignominious fate. They flourished until about 1937, then began a slow decline in popularity. A portion of the baths was converted into an ice rink, but it was clear the baths had seen better days.

In 1966, the grand old building was to be torn down and replaced by an apartment house. A fire, however, beat the wrecker’s ball to the punch and destroyed the aging complex.

Interestingly, only after the baths were gone, did San Franciscans begin to realize what had been lost. Due to public opposition, plans for the apartments on the site were scrapped and the ruins were set aside as a shrine to Sutro’s “folly.”

Today, you can explore the former site of Sutro Baths. Dirt pathways lead from the street level to the concrete foundations and twisted metal remains that sit adjacent to the ocean.

The walk is enjoyable as you pass through fields of colorful wild flowers and patches of wild berries.

When you reach the ruins and climb around on the concrete walls overlooking the former pools, you begin to appreciate what Sutro accomplished. This was one big swimming pool complex with massive glass and concrete walls. Photos at the nearby Cliff House give you a better idea of how grand it was.

The Sutro Bath ruins and the closed Cliff House building are now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) which also includes the surrounding headlands.

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