by Arnold Woods
Full disclosure. I am not a native San Franciscan. I have lived in the City for 25 years now–in the Bay Area for most of the last 44 years–but my youth was spent in the northeast part of the country where it snowed every winter. When I first moved to the South Bay in the mid-1970s, my new schoolmates excitedly told me about the snow that fell the previous winter. That was the great snowfall of February 1976. Okay, so it was only about an inch, but that was the last time that San Francisco has seen real snowfall. Some of the mountains around the Bay have seen a little snow since then, but not the City.
The now nearly 45 years sans snow is the longest period of time that San Francisco has gone without a little of the white winter wonderland. The largest prior gap was 36 years between 1896 and 1932. However, for San Franciscans of the 1880s, snow was pretty common. There were 4 snow days in the City between 1882 and 1888, two of which were fairly substantial. Let’s revisit the first of the big snowfalls, New Year’s Eve 1882.
At 9:00 a.m. on December 31, 1882, there was not a cloud in the sky. There was a nip in the air, but the City went about its business getting prepared to celebrate the coming New Year. However San Franciscans are well-acquainted with the fact that changes in the weather can come quickly. Two hours later, not only was the sky filled with clouds, but a rare winter snowstorm began.1
After the storm began around 11:00 a.m., the snowflakes continued to fall for about the next five hours. When it ended, the City was covered with 3.5 inches of snow. It was the largest amount of snow that San Francisco had experienced up to that point and today remains the second largest snowfall in recorded City history.
The sight of so much snow was so unusual, a Chronicle reporter waxed very poetically in describing the situation, beginning his article thusly:
Oh, the snow, the beautiful snow.
Covering the world with slush below.
Lying deep in the alleys, piled up in the streets.
Beautiful crystals, your coming we greet.
Flocculent rhomboids, dust of a star.
Materialized mush, how pretty you are!
Drifting-shifting, small boy lying low.
Zip! Shot in the ear! Doggone the snow.
As indicated in the poem, the Chronicle reporter was apparently attacked by boys with snowballs as he left his home that day. He “escaped” onto a streetcar on Market Street, where the conductor and driver braved a snowball salvo to do their jobs. The conductor told the reporter that the company would have to raise his salary if the bombardment continued. Apparently, the snowball war continued for the whole ride with one battery causing a horse to run off from its owner. A livery stable worker improvised a sleigh for rides in the snow, but it collapsed under a fusillade of another snowball barrage. Besides the snowball wars, snowman building was also popular that day, as was sledding down the many hills of the City.
The storm caused some damage, largely along the waterfront from rough waters that the storm kicked up.2 It interrupted cable car service because the snow caused issues for the cables. The denizens of San Francisco would see two more snowfalls of at least one inch, as well as one further light dusting during the decade of the 1880s. Since then, we’ve not seen such accumulations. There have been no snowfalls of more than an inch in the 130 years since that decade. Seems like we should be due for another big snow day, but we’re not holding our breath. Till then, we’ll have to be satisfied with these these views of snow days of the past.
1. “Feathery Flakes,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 1, 1883, p. 1.
2. “Along The Water Front,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 2, 1883, p. 3.
As we wrap up a difficult year, we thought we would share a little Christmas cheer from the past. Herewith our Top Ten favorite images of Christmas trees from our OpenSFHistory collection (and a bonus one from our outsidelands.org collection).
Many of you surely remember just how much the local denizens would light up West Portal Avenue during the holiday season. Christmas trees on the poles holding the wires for the streetcars. Lights on the support wires. It looks like a picture out of It’s A Wonderful Life. This is West Portal Avenue between Vicente and 14th Avenue and dates from 1947.
Nothing says Christmas is near like Christmas trees lined up for sale on the sidewalk. This 1956 image shows that, even then, stores were putting white flocking on trees to create the illusion of a white Christmas that has happened just once in recorded San Francisco history. None of us remember that day because it was a little before our time. On December 25, 1856, a storm dropped an estimated 2.5 inches of snow on the City.
Civic Center Plaza and City Hall have long been decorated at Christmas time with a tree and lights. We have a number of images of Christmas trees in the Civic Center, but this image, likely from the mid-1930s, has always made a big impression on us. The lights and Christmas trees of City Hall are perfectly reflected in the still waters of the pool in the Plaza. There is a grand elegance to the image that we wish we could find today.
Long before there was a UN Plaza to the east of the Civic Center, there apparently was an empty lot for some period of time in that area. Like the rare empty lots in the City today, come December, this lot was used to sell Christmas trees back in the 1920s. There were many more empty lots in those days and the Outside Lands was still in the infancy of its development. So we imagine that there were many Christmas tree lots dotting the city then, as not everybody had a car then to go get their tree.
If you’ve ever been up to Twin Peaks for its fabulous views, you may wonder why the viewing area is known as Christmas Tree Point. Beginning in 1927, the San Francisco Examiner put up a large 120-foot Christmas tree there and it became a big deal for a few years. City employees and some civic groups got involved. A special entrance gateway and floodlights were put up. Buses brought children from orphanages. However, there was a backlash against cutting down such magnificent tall trees, so in 1931, the City instead designated a living tree as an official Christmas tree. That tree was located at…
…McLaren Lodge at the northwest corner of Stanyan and Fell Streets. Every December, the big Monterey Pine tree in front of McLaren Lodge gets trimmed. It makes for a magical entrance to Golden Gate Park at this time of the year. This has been going on for a long time as you can see with this December 1932 image. We wonder if John McLaren, who ruled Golden Gate Park for 53 years and who notably disdained having monuments in the Park, appreciated having this huge tree of lights right outside his residence.
The Verdier brothers arrived in San Francisco in 1850 on a boat called the Ville de Paris (City of Paris) with silk, lace, and fine alcoholic beverages and sold everything right off the ship. One brother went back to Paris and brought another load over and they established the City of Paris store. Over the years it grew and they eventually built a Beaux-Arts building at the corner of Geary and Stockton diagonally across from Union Square. Every Christmas, a huge Christmas tree was put up under their stained glass dome. The City of Paris closed in the 1970s and the building was sold to Nieman Marcus. Despite preservation efforts, the original building was demolished in 1981 and replaced.
From the City of Paris department store, we walk across the street to see the Christmas tree that people are likely the most familiar with today. San Francisco’s annual tradition of erecting a large Christmas tree in Union Square is one that continues today. Here, a huge crowd is gathered to see the Union Square tree in 1929. Fortunately for them, there was no social distancing required that year.
The Hotel Chronicle was located on Mission Street by the Mint and across the street from the San Francisco Chronicle building (we’re guessing the hotel got its name from its neighbor). Back in the 1950s, you could get a room there for $1.25 a night or $6.75 for a week. The Christmas tree they put up above their entrance may not be as grand as some others, but the tree and the window decorations make for a nice holiday touch for the people staying there.
Here’s a different kind of Christmas tree. In November 1964, Willie Mays visited Children’s Hospital in Oakland for the Christmas Tree Benefit Auction. For the event, they made a Christmas tree out of a Willie Mays bat and baseballs. There were 20 baseballs on the tree, representing each of the then 20 major league baseball teams with autographs from players on those teams. The baseball Christmas tree and a glove that Mays had used for 3 years were auctioned off to benefit the hospital.
That completes our OpenSFHistory Top Ten Christmas tree images, but we have a BONUS Christmas tree image from our outsidelands.org collection.
This is one of our favorite holiday images. Henry Pease owned the Associated Gas Station at the corner of Junipero Serra Boulevard and Ocean Avenue and he really went all out with the Christmas decorations. From Christmas trees and Santa in the middle to wreathes in many windows and Christmas villages on the roof. Unfortunately, the gas station is long gone, but we wish we were around back in the day to see this. We hope everyone is able to have a safe and wonderful holiday this year!
by Arnold Woods
As you travel down Third Street by the Giants’ ballpark, you cross over a bridge from another time. The bridge that crosses over McCovey Cove/Mission Creek is a strange looking steel and concrete structure. It is not, shall we say, a thing of beauty, but it does have some old-timey charm to it. We are getting ahead of ourselves though as this bridge was not the first bridge to cross Mission Creek at Third Street.
Before there was a bridge, Mission Creek was a problem for trains headed for San Francisco pier areas. Both Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe Railway wanted bridges across Mission Creek. In the early 1900s, there was much discussion on where best to do this. In August 1903, the Board of Public Works approved a plan for a bridge at the end of Third Street that would connect with Kentucky Street on the other side with the cost to be largely borne by the Santa Fe Railway.4 They forwarded the plan to the Board of Supervisors and State Board of Harbor Commissioners for approval. The Harbor Commissioners approved the location several weeks later.2
Following approval by city government, construction of the bridge would begin in April 1904.3 The bridge was a Page Bascule design4 which had just been patented the year before by John W. Page. The bascule bridge, also known as a drawbridge, was double-leafed meaning that the roadway rose up on both sides of the bridge. The Page design was one of only four built as it never became as popular as other bascule designs.5
Not long after the Third Street Bridge opened though, the 1906 earthquake knocked the anchor piers on each side of Mission Creek out of alignment.6 Repairs would take five months before the bridge was finally reopened on September 25, 1906. After that, San Francisco’s growth put a strain on the structure. The foundations on either side of Mission Creek were not well-anchored. As the drawbridge opened and closed, the foundations inched out into the channel forcing engineers to whittle the ends so that they would properly meet in the middle.7 By the late 1920s, the City was discussing replacing the bridge before it fell into the creek.
On October 7, 1929, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to have the Public Works department prepare plans for a new bridge across Mission Creek.8 On July 21, 1930, the Board of Supervisors authorized bids for contracts to build a new bridge.9 The winning bidder, at a cost of $552,590,10 was the construction firm of Barrett & Hilp for a single-leaf heel trunion type bascule bridge that had been designed and patented by Golden Gate Bridge Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss.11 The contract was signed on November 25, 1931 and work began the next day.12 Construction would be completed and the new Third Street Bridge dedicated on May 12, 1933 with Mayor Angelo Rossi cutting a white ribbon.13
The new Third Street Bridge was 105 feet long with the anchor section for raising the roadway on the north side of Mission Creek. It had tracks for streetcars and railroads with automobiles and pedestrians also permitted on it. During the opening ceremonies, the bridge was lowered and a group of cars led by the Mayor’s vehicle went across first, followed by a State Belt Line train and then two streetcars.
In 1980, the Third Street Bridge would be renamed the Lefty O’Doul Bridge, after the local baseball legend. O’Doul, who was born and raised in San Francisco, had been a pitcher, left-handed of course, with the local San Francisco Seals before making the big leagues. After injuring his arm, he became an outfielder and twice led the National League in hitting. After his playing days, he came back to the City and operated an eponymous restaurant on Geary Street. The renaming of the Third Street Bridge proved prophetic when the San Francisco Giants built a new ballpark next to it that opened in 2000. The now Lefty O’Doul Bridge has been through several renovations since first opening, but remains operating today.
1. “Approve Location Of Third-Street Bridge,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 13, 1903, p. 13
2. “Harbor Commission Meets,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 27, 1903, p. 13.
3. “Santa Fe Begins Work On Bridge,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 22, 1904, p. 7.
4. San Francisco Municipal Reports, 1904-1905, p. 348.
5. “CN/GM&O/Alton Page Bascule Bridge over “Bubbly Creek,” Industrial History, April 3, 2015, http://industrialscenery.blogspot.com/2015/04/gm-page-bascule-bridge-over-bubbly-creek.html.
6. “New Bridge Is Great Success,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 26, 1906, p. 16.
7. “Delay in Replacing Third-Street Bridge Will Be Costly to City,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 18, 1929, p. 24.
8. “Bridge Plans Asked,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 8, 1929, p. 10.
9. “Proceedings of Supervisors,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 22, 1930, p. 6.
10. “Supervisors Let Contract For New Span,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 10, 1931, p. 14.
11. “San Francisco Landmark #194,” Noe Hill website, noehill.com.
12. “New 3rd Street Bridge Started,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 26, 1931, p. 24.
13. “Third Street Bridge Placed In Operation,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 13, 1933, p. 10.
by Arnold Woods
At the east end of the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park sits the SkyStar Wheel, which has had, pardon the pun, a star-crossed year. It was erected to be a part of the Park’s sesquicentennial festivities this year, but the pandemic delayed its opening, caused ride restrictions once it opened, and, currently, has temporarily closed it back down. Despite the pandemic-related issues though, the SkyStar Wheel is not just a simple entertainment option for the Park’s year-long 150th birthday party. Rather it is an homage to an earlier wheel, the Firth Wheel of the 1894 Midwinter Fair.
The 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition was an idea brought to San Francisco by San Francisco Chronicle publisher Michael de Young, after he served as the Commissioner of California exhibits at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. One of the highlights of the 1893 Columbian Exposition was the world’s first Ferris Wheel, designed and built by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. There were earlier iterations of this type of “wheel” attraction, notably the Somers Wheel at several beach resort areas in New York and New Jersey, but Ferris’ design was sufficiently different to survive some patent lawsuits. The Ferris Wheel in Chicago rose 250 feet, towering over the exposition grounds.
De Young wanted Ferris to bring his wheel to San Francisco, but Ferris, who thought the Columbian exposition management had defrauded him out of his share of the profits from the ride, would not do so. De Young would not be denied, however. So the Midwinter Fair’s executive committee turned to the owner of the Phoenix Iron Works, J. Kirk Firth, a part of the California contingent at the Columbian exposition, to design a Ferris Wheel for them.1 Firth’s design was half the size of the Chicago Ferris Wheel, but otherwise modeled on its counterpart.2 There were 16 cars on the structure that were each 8-feet long and wide and 6-feet tall and could carry up to 10 people.3
Night view through archway of Horticultural and Agricultural building at Bonet’s Tower and Firth Wheel, 1894. (wnp37.03185; Isaiah West Taber, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
The Midwinter Fair officially opened on Saturday, January 27, 1894, but various concessions and exhibits opened before then as their construction was completed. On Saturday, January 13, 1894, the Firth Wheel took its first passengers for a ride beginning at 1:00 p.m.4 By the end of that day, over 2300 people had taken a spin on it. On the official opening day two weeks later, some 72,248 people clicked through the turnstiles of the Fair.5 The Firth Wheel was described as going “around like a veritable wheel of fortune” that day.6 A giddy San Francisco Chronicle–remember its publisher, Michael de Young was the brainchild behind the Fair–gave the opening of the Midwinter Fair ten pages of coverage. Day 2 of the Fair quieted down some but about 12,300 people still showed up with about half that amount riding the Firth Wheel.7
Firth Wheel behind Cafe Richie restaurant and Kilauea the Burning Volcano exhibit at Midwinter Fair, 1894. (wnp37.03150; Isaiah West Taber, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
The Firth Wheel was a success, as was the 1894 Midwinter Fair generally. Crowds lined up to ride the Firth Wheel and get a spectacular view of the fairgrounds and beyond. At night, the Firth Wheel and other concessions were lit up to provide an amazing light show. The Firth Wheel proved so popular that a couple, Dr. Alexander von Gunther and Ernetstine Schneider, even got married on it.8
While the Midwinter Fair closed on July 4, 1894, the Firth Wheel remained in place through the end of the year. Then Mayor and real estate tycoon Adolph Sutro purchased the Firth Wheel and some other attractions. He was in the process of building the Sutro Baths at the time and thought the addition of some of the Midwinter Fair’s rides to the Baths area would enhance the attractiveness of Lands End to visitors.9 Sutro hired a local contractor, James Bain to dissemble the Firth Wheel and reassemble it on Merrie Way, where you would today find the Lands End Lookout visitors center and parking lot. Unfortunately, while Bain was working on tearing the Firth Wheel down, he fell 30 feet onto a pile of wood and perished on January 15, 1895. Others finished the work and the ride was installed on Merrie Way.
It is unclear exactly when the Firth Wheel opened for business on Merrie Way, but advertisements for the “Sutro Baths and Pleasure Grounds” began appearing in the Chronicle on March 31, 1896.10 The Sutro Pleasure Grounds may have opened in conjunction with the grand opening of the Sutro Baths on March 14, 1896. Despite Sutro’s plans for a grand Midway on Merrie Way, he had to scale things back due to a lack of cash on hand.11 With Sutro’s death in 1898, the “Pleasure Grounds” soon fell into disrepair. By 1900, official insurance maps listed the area as closed.
The Firth Wheel stood unused for about another decade before finally being torn down in March 1911.12 It was a big success at the Midwinter Fair, but fell on hard times at Merrie Way. The SkyStar Wheel in the Park has suffered through tough times so far, but may yet get a chance to succeed. For more on the short-lived Sutro Pleasure Grounds, see John Martini’s excellent article about it. There is also a discussion of Sutro’s purchase of the Firth Wheel and other attractions to move to Merrie Way on our Outside Lands Podcast about the Recycling of the Midwinter Fair buildings, exhibits, and attractions.
1. “Firth to Build a Ferris Wheel,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 8, 1893, p. 9.
2. “Constructing the Firth Wheel,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 8, 1893, p. 4.
3. “Progress on the Tower and Wheel,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 30, 1893, p. 5.
4. “Life At The Fair,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 14, 1894, p. 12.
5. “Within The Gates,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 29, 1894, p. 10.
6. “The Opening Of The Midwinter Fair,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 29, 1894, p. 1.
7. “Success Well Begun,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 30, 1894, p. 8.
8. “Two Hearts United While Whirling,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 2, 1894, p. 5.
9. “Fell To His Death,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 16, 1895, p. 5.
10. Sutro Baths and Pleasure Grounds advertisement, San Francisco Chronicle, March 31, 1896, p. 14.
11. “Sutro Curios To Be Sold,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 13, 1899, p. 7.
12. “Junkman At Last Gets Firth Wheel On Cliff,” San Francisco Call, March 14, 1911, p. 21.