Olympic New Year Run: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

Founded in 1860 as the United States’ first private athletic club, the activities of San Francisco’s Olympic Club once dominated the local sports pages. Boxers, shot-putters, bicyclists, and swimmers set world records and won Olympic medals with the club’s “flying O” logo on their chests. With a mission to foster excellence in amateur athletics, the organization embodied the spirit of the Olympics three decades before the modern games were invented.

Photographing the Olympic Club New Year's Day revelers at Ocean Beach, 1910s.
Photographing the Olympic Club New Year’s Day revelers at Ocean Beach, 1910s. (wnp4.0613, print courtesy of a private collector.)

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Olympic Club was well known for an annual New Year’s Day member run on Ocean Beach. Noncompetitive, the event sort of resembled the party atmosphere of today’s Bay to Breakers race without the elite Kenyans or naked people. The men—women were only admitted as members beginning in 1992—ambled through Golden Gate Park from Baker Street, changed into bathing suits, and, as a group, splashed through the waves. After their horseplay in the brisk Pacific Ocean, the club members retreated to the Cliff House or one of the other beachside cafes for lunch and libations.

Olympic Club members running with escort along Ocean Beach, January 1, 1912.
Olympic Club members running with escort along Ocean Beach, January 1, 1912. (wnp15.1072, Pillsbury Picture Co., glass plate negative courtesy of a private collector.)

In later years, club histories claimed the New Year’s Day run started in the early 1890s, but its seems it was inspired by a Christmas Day romp in 1903. In glorious sunshine, the “wearers of the winged O” bobbed in the waves and skylarked on the beach while hundreds of San Franciscans, drawn out by the holiday and the fine weather, watched the men wrestle, sprint, and swim. The San Francisco Call reported that photographs of the event would be sent to the World’s Fair the next year in St. Louis to “advertise the equable climate of California” because “Easterners will hardly believe that residents of this city were able to swim in the ocean on Christmas day.”

Olympic Club members get their feet wet at Ocean Beach, January 1, 1912.
Olympic Club members get their feet wet at Ocean Beach, January 1, 1912. (wnp15.1071, glass plate negative courtesy of a private collector.)

Delighted with the event, the Olympic Club held the first organized New Year’s Day run on Ocean Beach the next week and a tradition was born. Every year afterwards local newspapers featured photos of dripping wet men cavorting in the waves and published alongside the images reports of goggling Easterners amazed at such ample proof of California’s mild and pleasing climate. (Writing as one who has gotten his feet wet at Ocean Beach, I suspect the reporters conspired to suppress the hypothermia cases.)

When San Francisco had its own fair planned—the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, held in today’s Marina District—the San Francisco Call’s headline of January 2, 1912, made clear the promotional quality of the beach run: “Olympic Clubmen Lure Easterners, Annual Run Pictured to Draw the ‘Oh, So Colds’ Westward.” By then the run drew thousands of onlookers, and long distance swimmer Walter Pomeroy entertained the crowd with a swim around Seal Rocks just before noon.

As true road races began being held—the Bay to Breakers race originated as the “cross city run” in 1912—the Olympic Club’s New Year’s Day run became even more a leisurely jaunt for middle-aged members.

Does the tradition continue today? Take a walk on Ocean Beach on January 1st to find out.

25,000 Images: Best of the Latest

by Woody LaBounty

In 2017, Western Neighborhoods Project added 15,000 image scans to this website and we wrap up the year at 25,000 historical views of San Francisco (with a few in the surrounding Bay Area).

Our great thanks go to the Bland Family Foundation and the city’s Historic Preservation Fund for providing the support to accomplish this achievement. Dave Lucas did an amazing job scanning the vast majority of the images, with help from volunteers Greg Gaar, Linda Pomerantz, and Steven Pitzenbarger. A larger group of individuals gave their time to research, describe, and map the thousands of images, and our particular thanks in this endeavor goes to Jaime Borschuk, Barbara Cannella, Emiliano Echeverria, Judy Hitzeman, William Kostura, Andy Lee, Judi Leff, John Martini, Tim McIntosh, Greer Montgomery, and Art Siegel (see the About page for a fuller list of all the dedicated volunteers to OpenSFHistory).

The latest update alone reveals the variety of images we have put up for public education and enjoyment this year. Here are ten of my favorites from the most recently posted:

Lake Merced Aerial, 1957

Looking South toward Daly City and Westlake Development after 1957 Earthquake, March 27, 1957.
Taken after the 1957 earthquake, in which the most visible damage was evident around the lake’s roadways, this photo looks south past the concrete bridge separating South Lake from Impound Lake to the growing Westlake development. (wnp14.10911, acetate negative courtesy of a private collector.)

Lone Mountain Aerial, 1937

Lone Mountain aerial, January 16, 1937.
This view shows how much work was done to create the landscape around today’s University of San Francisco (USF). Lone Mountain’s peak has been flattened for the San Francisco College for Women campus (now part of USF). The Masonic Cemetery has been removed and blocks graded south of Turk Street for new homes. (wnp14.10919, acetate negative courtesy of a private collector.)

Golden Gate International Exposition, 1939

Federal Building, viewed from across the Lake of the Nations at 1939 World's Fair on Treasure Island, March 30, 1939.
The scale of the plazas and monumental buildings created on Treasure Island for the GGIE are shown in this great image of the Lake of Nations and the Federal Building beyond on March 30, 1939. (wnp14.10925, acetate negative courtesy of a private collector.)

J-Line Streetcar float, 1918?

Collingwood near 18th Street, 1918. J-line streetcar float.
You have to love the guy who made his own little J-line streetcar AND a Twin Peaks Tunnel for it to come out of. This is Collingwood near 18th in the Castro, looking north, and the sign advertises a Eureka Valley Carnival, Sept 24-27. The centennial of the opening of the tunnel will be this February. (wnp27.5949, print courtesy of a private collector.)

Watching Hippies, 1967

Hippie musician playing horn with video cameraman filming him and crowd watching.
As we leave 2017 and the 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love behind, this image of a Haight Street musician with a camera in his face perfectly illustrates the public fascination with hippies in 1967 and ever since. (wnp27.5954, print courtesy of a private collector.)

Western Addition, 1905

Bush near Webster, 1905.
I used to pass this block of Bush Street near Webster daily on the 38AX bus headed downtown, and so love this “new” view of the neighborhood shown on June 5, 1905. A streetcar on Fillmore Street and the old St. Dominic’s Catholic Church are in the background. The next year, the April 18 earthquake shattered those twin-domed towers, but some of the residences on the far side of the street stand today. (wnp27.6046, print courtesy of a private collector.)

Fillmore Counterbalance Line, circa 1905

Fillmore at Greenwich, 1905.
Farther north on Fillmore Street, one could transfer onto an unusual counterbalance car to go down the steep hill to Cow Hollow. In this stupendous circa-1905 photograph looking up cobblestoned Fillmore to Pacific Heights the descending car gives the power to pull the one going uphill. (wnp4.1537, copy print courtesy of a private collector.)

Sunset Crossroads, 1936

Ortega and 28th, 1936.
Images that originated from the San Francisco Water Department archives offer some rare scenes of transition between natural landscapes and developed neighborhoods. This view of the intersection of Ortega Street and 28th Avenue, taken May 6, 1936 to document the site for the Sunset Reservoir, looks like a haunted crossroad where a bluesman might meet the Devil. (wnp36.10115, copy negative courtesy of a private collector.)

Proud Students, 1912

Grove near Polk, 1912.
This high school building still stands, but not where these 860 Commercial High School students are posing in 1912. It was moved just a couple of years after its construction to make way for the creation of the Civic Center plaza we know today. The massive brick structure was rolled four blocks south and west to Fell and Franklin Streets. (wnp27.5944, print courtesy of a private collector.)

Sandlot Baseball, circa 1910

Part of the value of the OpenSFHistory program is to tap the public’s collective knowledge for images we can’t identify. We knew this sandlot baseball game on a hillside surrounded with fine Victorian homes was definitely in San Francisco. The little bakery wagon appears to have the business address of 1433 Divisadero on its side and the roadway has cable car tracks. We put it up as unidentified and hoped someone could figure out the location.

Quickly, in response to our public plea, friend and researcher Glenn Koch identified this empty lot being on Pacific Street between Franklin and Gough Streets. A couple of the houses visible in the background still stand, while the rest is gone today. (wnp27.5950, print courtesy of a private collector.)

Want more? We have a target of adding 15,000 more in 2018. If you would like to help our efforts, consider remembering us in your year-end giving with a donation to Western Neighborhoods Project.

Happy holidays and best wishes for the New Year from all of us!

Examiner Christmas Tree: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at OpenSFHistory images.

On the northeast edge of San Francisco’s Twin Peaks is Christmas Tree Point, a promontory with a parking lot and a view of the city’s skyline that has been captured by tourists’ cameras for a century.

The holiday-themed name is ninety years old this year, originating in 1927 with a yuletide promotional scheme by the San Francisco Examiner. The self-described “Monarch of the Dailies” sponsored the erection of an enormous “Forest Monarch” Christmas tree on the point that year with full cooperation and participation by city government.

Public Works employees pose with the tree on Twin Peaks, December 20, 1927.
Public Works employees pose with the tree on Twin Peaks, December 20, 1927. (wnp36.03580, Horace Chaffee photograph, copy negative made from print A732 of Department of Public Works book 41, courtesy of a private collector.)

The newspaper partnered with many other groups and companies to cut, move, and electrify the tree, decorate the approach on Twin Peaks Boulevard, and stage connected holiday festivities. City of San Francisco employees from multiple agencies worked on the “Examiner Tree.”

The first tree, a 120-foot-tall fir, was cut down by the Albion Lumber Company in Mendocino County. Moving the tree to the city must have been a tough logistical problem because it was bisected halfway up the trunk, denuded of all of it branches, and carted up to Twin Peaks in pine-needled piles by a caravan of trucks.

Second Examiner Christmas Tree on the way to Twin Peaks, passing the Main Library at Fulton Street near Larkin Street, December 30, 1928.
Second Examiner Christmas Tree on the way to Twin Peaks, passing the Main Library at Fulton Street near Larkin Street, December 30, 1928. (wnp27.5676, print courtesy of a private collector.)

Public works and park employees “rebuilt” the tree by connecting the trunk halves with an iron collar and drilling holes to stick the branches back in. Park Department superintendent John McLaren oversaw the addition of extra boughs to “fluff out” the fir. Nature was further improved upon with colored streamers, three thousand lights, ornaments, giant metal candles, and fake snow. Thirty floodlights encircled the scene.

Part of the trunk of the Examiner/South of Market Boys Christmas Tree on its way to Twin Peaks in December 1927. (wnp27.5679.jpg, print courtesy of a private collector.)

The South of Market Boys, an influential fraternal and charitable society of men with roots in the old working class neighborhood, helped sponsor a circus show for children and families at Kezar Stadium in conjunction with the tree’s lighting. Shell Oil created a fifty-foot-tall Santa Claus gateway to the point. Drayage companies, electric corporations, and contractors all donated time and money for the effort. The Pioneer Auto Bus Company ferried orphanage groups, children’s clubs, and the city’s Municipal Band up to the site for the big unveiling and lighting on December 19, 1927.

Archway leading up to second Examiner tree on Christmas Tree Point, December 23, 1928.
Archway leading up to second Examiner tree on Christmas Tree Point, December 23, 1928. (wnp27.5561, print courtesy of a private collector.)

At 7:30 pm that night Mayor James Rolph ducked under the overhanging branches and flipped a master switch on a control panel at the trunk base. “A sudden flare of light,” the Examiner wrote the next day, “and fairyland!”

The tree could be seen from Marin County to the East Bay. It was illuminated from sundown until three a.m. each night through the holidays.

The Examiner tree returned for a couple more years before a movement against cutting trees for Christmas created a new San Francisco tradition. The Outdoor Christmas Tree Association was formed by Clarence F. Pratt in 1928 with a mission to promote the yuletide decoration of living trees. The groups called the cutting of Christmas trees “slaughter of the innocents.”

The idea took off nationwide and the City of San Francisco got on board in 1931. The large Monterey Pine in front of McLaren Lodge became the official city Christmas tree. Its decoration and lighting continues to be a holiday tradition today.

Second Examiner Christmas Tree, December 21, 1928.
Second Examiner Christmas Tree, December 21, 1928. (wnp27.5678.jpg, print courtesy of a private collector.)

Hermits of Lands End

by John Martini

Lands End is a familiar name to San Francisco residents, who associate the name with the rock-strewn northwest corner of the San Francisco peninsula, an area stretching roughly from Sea Cliff to the ruins of Sutro Baths.

But few people realize that there is a geographic feature along this desolate shoreline actually called Lands End, and that over the decades it has been home to a series of Lands End hermits.

The physical feature named Lands End is a finger-like rocky promontory extending into the Golden Gate just below the Veterans Administration hospital. (The point is best known today as the site of a well-loved labyrinth built of beach rocks.)

Edward Lynn at Lands End, 1896.
Edward Lynn at Lands End, 1896. (wnp15.0009, courtesy of a private collector.)

Nestled into the windblown western face of the promontory is a small cove and pocket beach known to locals as Lands End Beach or Mile Rock Beach, due to its proximity to both landmarks. A deep cleft in the cliff face, now mostly obscured by sand and rocks, once formed a sheltered—if damp—refuge from the elements.

Sometime in the late 1870s, despite its remoteness, a homeless man named Edward Lynn took up housekeeping in the rock cleft at Lands End Beach. He constructed a perilous trail to the cove, which he modestly named “Lynn’s Beach.” Beginning in 1888, he experienced an upsurge in visitors when the famed Ferries & Cliff House Railroad began running along the precipitous cliffs flanking Lands End. Not long after the line’s opening, a shed-like waiting room was erected alongside the railroad tracks for hikers headed to and from Lynn’s little beach.

The San Francisco Call ran an article about Lynn in the September 13, 1896 edition titled “Has Turned His Face Toward The Sad, Sad Sea,” complete with illustrations of how he had converted the shallow cave into a residence.

“Lynn has built a bulkhead across the front which is sufficiently high to keep out the high spring tides and there is a step of rock and plank to reach the top of this, built of stray planks that have floated in. Just inside the line of this breakwater there is a rude stove, with a tall pipe, and on this Lynn cooks his meals. He was preparing a stew of beef and onions. Behind this there is a long bench on which are a washtub, tin pans and odd and ends, and immediately back of this is stretched across the mouth of the cave a black striped blanket, which shuts out from view the interior.”

Lynn had once been a trained machinist working for Fulton Iron Works, but had invested wildly and badly. He had lost his savings and his house, and then his wife died. In those pre-social-services days, Lynn was left without any financial reserves or source of support. He told the Call reporter, “twelve years ago, when this was all a wilderness, I came out in this section, having bid farewell to society, and for a time lived in a little cabin that belonged to Mr. Sutro and for which I paid him $1 a month rent. It was not much, still it was rent. Then I came down here [to the beach] and settled, and pay no rent.”

Lands End beach and Lynn's cave, circa 1896.
Lands End beach and Lynn’s cave, circa 1896. (wnp15.382, courtesy of a private collector.)

The Call journalist concluded with Lynn’s description of how he survived in the near-wilderness of Lands End:

“‘How do I live? Well, I gather mussels and sell them, and once in a while I get a job on the [rail]road. Then there are a great many people who come down here and have lunch, and as many bring more than they can eat they hand me what is left over, and in that way I manage to get along. I do not seek the society of those who come here, nor the society of any one else, but if people address me I answer them with all the civility at my command, but no more society for me—I have soured on society.’”

No one recorded how long Lynn stayed in his cleft overlooking the beach, but a San Francisco Chronicle article about Lands End on December 4, 1898, relates that he’d departed mysteriously: “There is a deep cave with an arched entrance…here, many years ago, a hermit took up his residence, constructing a rude fireplace of stone beside it and closing the entrance with a bright-hued blanket…One day he disappeared, and there are none who seem to have ever solved the riddle of his fate.”

Lynn’s vacant cave didn’t stay abandoned for long, though, and by 1903 it had another occupant: Ny Pum Chun, or “Old Tom” as visitors to Lands End beach called him. The Chronicle featured him in a story on October 11, 1903, titled “The Chinese Hermit of Land’s End”:

“Here in this weird place a Chinese has taken up his abode and has lived for many months. Except on Sundays or holidays he lives the life of a recluse. His only company are the sea birds, or the passing ships or steamers as they plow through the water a quarter of a mile away on their way in or out of the Golden Gate.

“Even on the calmest days the wind whistles and rustles past the bluff which crowns his home. Often during a storm or in the night the elements howl at his open doorway, and with but the slightest surge the waves could roll through and engulf him. Yet he lives in this place contentedly and apparently in no fear…

“And so he will continue to dream until the waves of the Pacific or the Sutro estate drive him out of his novel home.”

Two years later, Old Tom was gone when the cave became the scene of a mysterious event. An unconscious Englishman, a gent named Herbert Smith, was found lying in its depths with a horrific gunshot wound to his head. According to the San Francisco Chronicle of February 12, 1905, Smith’s version of the events was that two “footpads” had mugged him along the train line, taken his cash, shot him in the head, and carried him into the cave. Police suspected a much simpler explanation: a bungled suicide attempt.

The story relates that a revolver had also been discovered in the cave when Smith was rescued, concealed by a plank set deeper in the cleft. Curiously, none of the gun’s cartridges had been fired. How Smith could have shot himself with a loaded but unfired revolver was never explained.

The Chronicle story concluded with an update on the hospitalized victim’s condition: “Smith is conscious most of the time but complains of terrible pain in the head.” (Well, yeah.)

No additional occupants of the Lands End cave have been documented, but that doesn’t mean that other hermits and homeless haven’t occupied the desolate areas of Lands End. As recently as 2006, the skeleton of a man was discovered in a makeshift tree house not far from Ed Lynn’s and Ny Pum Chun’s former cave.

The website SF Gate reported on April 28, 2006, that a body had been discovered by a hiker 150 feet down a hillside “on a makeshift home woven into the lower branches of a cypress tree.” The coroners’ staff had a perilous time recovering the remains, using ropes to reach the 3½-by-7-foot platform made “of branches intricately woven into the tree.” Nearby were blankets, two backpacks with clothing, and an identification card, which belonged to a man named Frank Pangelinan Cruz, age 63. Officials estimated he’d been dead over a year.

The story concluded on somewhat upbeat note about Pangelinan, the last Hermit of Lands End:

“Investigators said it appeared the man had made a life for himself overlooking the water and may have been living there for some time before he died.

“‘It’s a beautiful view from there,’” said one of the investigators who found the body.”

Since the time of Old Tom’s departure and Herbert Smith’s suicide attempt, the promontory of Lands End has changed dramatically. It’s been repeatedly blasted and excavated for trails and military construction, and the Golden Gate tides constantly rearrange the rocks and shoreline of Lands End Beach. As a result, the hermits’ cave in the rocky cliff face is no longer visible, but the “tall, precipitous cliffs” and “jutting rocks against which the roiling billows break” described by nineteenth century reporters still survive.

And as the anonymous investigator observed, it’s indeed a beautiful view from there.

Retired National Park Service ranger John Martini is a volunteer helping us process the OpenSFHistory collection. His excellent book on Sutro Baths is available on outsidelands.org

Lands End, Mile Rock Beach looking north, circa 1910.
Lands End, Mile Rock Beach looking north, circa 1910. (wnp15.626, courtesy of a private collector.)