Almost every tourist in San Francisco visits the Cliff House, a restaurant and shop perched on a bluff with a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean. But few visitors are aware of its connection to Adolph Sutro, a German Jew with unbounded drive and vision who made his fortune in mining and left his mark on the city in recreational buildings and parks.
Born in Westphalia to a manufacturer of woolen cloth, Sutro was 20 years old in 1850 when he arrived in San Francisco by way of Panama. Starting as a night watchman in a crockery shop, he soon had his own shop, then another and another. But Sutro’s eyes were on the mines.
In 1859 word spread of the Comstock Lode, which would turn out to be the world’s richest deposit of silver ore. Sutro was one of the first to travel to the site, 200 miles northeast of San Francisco. As a boy he had dabbled in chemistry; now he developed a method for extracting gold and silver from the ore discarded by the mining companies, and he made a fortune.His next venture was equally brilliant, but nearly disastrous: a $6.5 million, 4 mile tunnel to the heart of the Comstock Lode, which brought cool, fresh air to the mines and allowed ore to be transported by gravity to mills at the mouth of the tunnel. But Sutro’s opponents had slowed the progress of the tunnel for so long that it never proved profitable. Sutro got out of this venture just in time.
Back in San Francisco in 1880, he started buying real estate considered worthless on the western side of the city and planted the sand dunes and hills with trees. Eventually he would own one-twelfth of the city’s land.
Among his purchases was a sea-front property that included a small home, which he named Sutro Heights, and the Cliff House, a hotel. When the Cliff House was destroyed by fire in 1894, Sutro rebuilt it as a neo-Gothic, turreted public resort that had dining rooms, displays of curios, shops that sold shells and an observatory. He even built his own railroad, and then an electric streetcar, to bring visitors to the site.
Meanwhile, however, Sutro had another project in mind: founding a great research library in San Francisco. He traveled to Europe and bought entire collections, including rare manuscripts and incunabula. By the time of his death, he had amassed 250,000 items, including Hebrew manuscripts from Jerusalem. Historian Irena Narell, in her fascinating book Our City: The Jews of San Francisco, describes this as the largest private library of his time.
Half the collection, including most of the incunabula, was lost in the fire of 1906, but the half that remained became a crucial part of the San Francisco Public Library. After developing the lands around his home and opening them to the public, Sutro built a giant complex of six public swimming pools, each one heated to a different temperature. The entrance was in the form of a classical temple, and the complex included galleries filled with paintings, sculptures, and curios. The baths were destroyed by fire in 1966; the remains can be seen just north of the Cliff House.
Sutro donated 30,000 trees and shrubs to the city to create what is known as Sutro Forest, on the hills just above the Cliff House. A beautiful walk on a dirt path with sudden, magnificent views of the ocean runs from Point Lobos, just above today’s Cliff House, to the Palace of the Legion of Honor.
The seals that lived on the rocks off Point Lobos also became a Sutro project: He campaigned to have them protected by the federal government. In 1887, Congress passed an act giving the Seal Rocks to the city “in trust for the people of the United States.” In recent years the seals have taken up residence at Pier 39, at Fisherman’s Wharf, and the National Parks Service has become responsible for the Cliff House.
In 1894 Sutro was elected mayor, a position to which he was ill-suited. It was a sad end to an exciting career.
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.