OpenSFHistory Top Ten: Presidential Visits

by Arnold Woods

From the time that California joined the Union through the 1910 census, San Francisco was the largest and most prominent city on the west coast. Even though Los Angeles grew larger by the 1920 census, San Francisco was still an economic and cultural power to which politicians frequently paid homage to. Naturally, U.S. presidents frequently made the trip from Washington, D.C. to court the local power brokers and seek votes and influence. Our OpenSFHistory collection contains numerous images from these visits and here are ten of our favorites.
 

President Benjamin Harrison and party with Adolph Sutro at Sutro Heights, April 27, 1891.President Benjamin Harrison and party with Adolph Sutro at Sutro Heights, April 27, 1891. (wnp4/wnp4.0194; A.J. McDonald, photographer / Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

Rutherford B. Hayes was the first sitting president to make the trip to San Francisco in 1880. We unfortunately have no images from that visit. (UPDATE APRIL 2024: We recently identified a photo in our collection of the Palace Hotel, decorated in preparation for Hayes’s visit.) However, eleven years later, President Benjamin Harrison would visit as part of a long transcontinental train trip. He arrived in San Francisco on the evening of April 25, 1891 and spent the next week plus in the Bay Area before departing up the Pacific Coast. On April 27, 1891, Adolph Sutro hosted a luncheon for the President and his party. Chicken and duck were the main entrees and the lunch also featured oysters, artichokes, asparagus, and many different wines, champagne, and cognac.
 

President William McKinley and General Shafter in Presidio for dedication of General (later Letterman) Hospital, May 23, 1901.President William McKinley and General Shafter in Presidio for dedication of General (later Letterman) Hospital, May 23, 1901. (wnp37.00935; B.L. Singley, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

A decade later, President William McKinley made another cross-country railroad trip, arriving in San Francisco on May 12, 1901. Unfortunately, his wife fell ill on the trip up the coast and McKinley’s itinerary was postponed after his arrival as he sat bedside with her until she improved. Events were rescheduled for May 19th through the 24th. On May 23, 1901, the President visited the Presidio for the dedication of General Hospital, which would later be renamed Letterman Hospital. The presidential party left on May 25, 1901 to return to Washington, D.C.
 

President Theodore Roosevelt in Union Square giving speech dedicating Navy Monument, May 14, 1903.President Theodore Roosevelt in Union Square giving speech dedicating Navy Monument, May 14, 1903. (wnp37.01050; Underwood & Underwood, photographers – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

Shortly after his visit to San Francisco, President McKinley was assassinated and Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency. Exactly two years after McKinley’s visit, now President Roosevelt arrived in San Francisco for a visit. During his visit, he attended a banquet in his honor at the Cliff House on May 13, 1903. The next day, the President gave a speech in Union Square to dedicate the Navy Monument, which honored the Navy’s victory in Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. Late that night, he took a boat to Oakland on his way to Yosemite.
 

President William Taft breaking ground for the Panama Pacific International Exposition at Polo Fields, October 14, 1911.President William Taft breaking ground for the Panama Pacific International Exposition at Polo Fields, October 14, 1911. (wnp37.01874; G.H. Dresser, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

Eight years later, Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft, traveled to San Francisco to break ground for the Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). Taft, as Secretary of War under Roosevelt, had overseen the Panama Canal project. The PPIE was designed to celebrate the coming completion of the Panama Canal, so Taft naturally was interested. He arrived on October 13, 1911 and went to the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park the next day for the ceremonial groundbreaking for the PPIE. The specific location for the PPIE had not yet then been chosen, but the Park was a possible location, so the Polo Fields hosted the ceremony. The Marina District area was later chosen at the location for the PPIE. President Taft had lunch at the Cliff House on October 15, 1911, then departed later that day.
 

President Woodrow Wilson and Mayor James Rolph in automobile procession on Post Street near Powell, September 17, 1919.President Woodrow Wilson and Mayor James Rolph in automobile procession on Post Street near Powell, September 17, 1919. (wnp37.00045; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson came to San Francisco as part of a nationwide trip to promote the idea of a League of Nations. He arrived in San Francisco on September 17, 1919 and took part in a procession down Market Street, which was lined with spectators, to the Civic Center Plaza, where 60,000 school children greeted him. President Wilson ascended onto a reviewing stand there to acknowledge the crowd, but soon left for the St. Francis Hotel where he and his wife were staying. He gave speeches at the Palace Hotel and Civic Auditorium before leaving on September 18, 1919. Unfortunately, this West Coast trip resulted in health issues and was cut short. Wilson would suffer a severe stroke soon after returning to Washington D.C.
 

President Herbert Hoover and Governor James Rolph in car on McAllister Street in Civic Center, November 8, 1932.President Herbert Hoover and Governor James Rolph in car on McAllister Street in Civic Center, November 8, 1932. (wnp14.4266; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

Warren Harding followed Wilson in the presidency and notably died from an illness at the Palace Hotel on August 2, 1923 while visiting San Francisco. He did not engage in any public events while here because of his illness, so we have no images of him from the visit. After Calvin Coolidge’s presidency though, a “local man” became president. Herbert Hoover had graduated from Stanford in 1895 and later became a member of Stanford’s Board of Trustees. When he received the Republican nomination for president in 1928, he accepted it with a speech at Stanford Stadium. Seeking re-election in 1932, he returned to California to cast his vote. Upon his arrival on election day, November 8, 1932, President Hoover was warmly greeted with a reception at the Civic Center. Due to the Great Depression, however, he was soundly defeated.
 

President Franklin Roosevelt's motorcade leaving Treasure Island, July 14, 1938.President Franklin Roosevelt’s motorcade leaving Treasure Island, July 14, 1938. (wnp27.2675; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

It was six years into Franklin Roosevelt’s 12 years as president before he first visited San Francisco while serving. He arrived on July 14, 1938 and drove across both the then still new bridges spanning the Golden Gate and the Bay. Roosevelt stopped on Treasure Island, where the Golden Gate International Exhibition was being readied and was feted by 1000 people at a luncheon. The president delivered a speech and left for Oakland after lunch to inspect the Pacific Naval fleet while aboard the U.S.S. Houston. Then, like his cousin Teddy many years before, he left the area to visit Yosemite.
 

President Harry Truman speaking at Golden Gate Park bandshell, June 13, 1948.President Harry Truman speaking at Golden Gate Park bandshell, June 13, 1948. (wnp28.1381; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

Harry Truman made several visits to the City during his presidency, first in 1945 at the closing of the convention that created the United Nations. He returned in 1948 during his re-election campaign, during which he delivered a Flag Day address at the Golden Gate Park bandshell before 30,000 people. Truman stated his desire that the U.N. become a powerful force for justice in the world. He would return again during the 1952 election campaign to stump for Democrat candidates.
 

President Dwight Eisenhower waving from motorcade on Geneva Avenue on way to Cow Palace for Republican convention, August 23, 1956.President Dwight Eisenhower waving from motorcade on Geneva Avenue on way to Cow Palace for Republican convention, August 23, 1956. (wnp14.3680; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

The 1956 Republican convention was held in San Francisco at the Cow Palace. There was never a doubt that the very popular President Dwight D. Eisenhower would be renominated. When Eisenhower came to the Cow Palace to accept the nomination, crowds lined Geneva Avenue to greet him. The President won re-election and returned in 1958 to speak with 24 ladies of the California Federation of Republican Women at the Civic Center, an event that was televised throughout the western United States.
 

President Lyndon Johnson greeting crowd at Market, Turk and Mason Streets intersection, June 19, 1964.President Lyndon Johnson greeting crowd at Market, Turk and Mason Streets intersection, June 19, 1964. (wnp14.2722; Bob Bryant, photographer – SF Examiner Negatives / Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

President John F. Kennedy campaigned in San Francisco before his election in 1960, but never visited the City while in office. After his assassination in 1963, his successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson, made the trip twice during the 1964 election campaign. The first time was on June 19, 1964, where he dedicated the new Federal Building. He also did some glad-handing with the crowds on Market Street. Four months later, Johnson arrived on Columbus Day, October 11,1964, soon after the parade was over. A large crowd remained at Washington Square to hear him speak. After the speech, President Johnson left town to do more politicking.

President Franklin Roosevelt was the first American president to travel by airplane while in office. As late as President Truman’s visits, presidential campaign trips were still largely “whistle-stop” train travels. Later presidential trips, both campaign and official visits were largely by airplane travel. As flying entered the jet age, presidential visits to San Francisco became more frequent. Every president since Johnson made the trip to Baghdad by the Bay with the notable exception of George W. Bush. Gerald Ford’s trip in September 1975 was marred by Sara Jane Moore’s attempted assassination of him outside the St. Francis hotel. San Francisco is no longer the largest city on the West Coast, but it remains an important financial and political power that demands that presidents come for regular visits.
 

Streetwise: The Neon Glow

by Frank Dunnigan

San Francisco is a town that once embraced neon light. From the World War I era until the late 1960s—and from downtown Market Street, radiating out through residential neighborhoods—glorious neon shone down on the streets and on the people who were out and about during evening hours.

Most long-time San Franciscans have at least one memory of a neighborhood neon sign radiating out into a foggy evening, often from a local movie theater, corner grocery, or just that ubiquitous cocktail glass above the entrance of a nearby watering hole. Where did all those classic signs go? Read on:

Beginning with BART/MUNI construction along Market Street in the summer of 1967, City government began limiting the size and configuration of business signs and severely downplaying neon, especially in the downtown area, in the name of “beautification”. Also, over the years, many vintage neon signs became prohibitively expensive to maintain, requiring significant work every five years or so. Many of these beauties fell into disrepair or were replaced by signs featuring plastic panels backed with inexpensive fluorescent lighting.

Local historians/authors Al Barna and Randall Ann Homan of San Francisco Neon compiled 200+ classic photos for their book, San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons (Giant Orange Press, 2014). This led to a renewed interest in neon on the part of many people, and by 2017, many examples of neon art, beginning in the Tenderloin neighborhood, are now being brought back to life by a City-sponsored restoration program.

Here’s a brief look back at some memorable examples of neon art from the OpenSFHistory collection that once graced the local scene—though only a few are still with us today.
 

Night view east on Market from Leavenworth, 1959.Night view east on Market from Leavenworth, 1959. (wnp5.50448; Courtesy of Jack Tillmany)
 

This is the view toward the Ferry Building from Market & Leavenworth in 1959. After BART/MUNI construction began in 1967, there was a trend away from neon lighting on downtown businesses. In addition, many downtown movie houses were closed in subsequent years, resulting in a changed appearance for the renovated Market Street.
 

Night view east on Market at Hyde, circa 1954.Night view east on Market at Hyde, circa 1954. (wnp32.2207.jpg; Courtesy of Emiliano Echeverria)
 

The Orpheum at Market & Hyde, circa 1954, featuring Cinerama—a film process with 3 synchronized motion picture images projected onto a large curved screen. The Orpheum now features stage productions and a less showy marquee. The Crystal Palace Market, opposite the Orpheum was an enormous multi-merchant retail space featuring groceries, produce, gourmet items, and household goods from 1923-1959. It was then demolished to make way for Del Webb’s TowneHouse, an upscale, multi-story motel. That motel was later converted to apartments and ultimately demolished to make way for a much larger, high-rise residential project at the site, which opened in this millennium.
 

Twilight view east on Market at Jones, June 1960.Twilight view east on Market at Jones, June 1960. (wnp25.1379; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Taken from the roof of the Hibernia Bank at #1 Jones Street, this June 1960 image shows the widespread use of neon signage on many Market Street businesses, large and small. Crocker-Anglo Bank was a descendant of Woolworth National Bank which was renamed Crocker Woolworth National Bank, when acquired by the Crocker family. Later, it became Crocker-Anglo Bank, Crocker-Citizens National Bank, then Crocker First National Bank and finally Crocker Bank. The institution was sold to British-based Midland Bank in 1981, but after a series of financial losses it was acquired by and merged into Wells Fargo Bank in 1986. The building now houses a check cashing service and other tenants.
 

Night view west on Washington from Grant, circa 1956.Night view west on Washington from Grant, circa 1956. (wnp12.00498.jpg; Courtesy of David Gallagher)
 

Washington Street near Grant Avenue in Chinatown shows a variety of multi-lingual neon signage on several businesses, circa 1956. Decades later, a new restaurant, Golden Dragon, opened in this location and in a sad footnote to history, became the scene of a 1977 massacre and closed a few years later. Today, other restaurants and retail stores occupy these buildings, though most of the old neon signage is gone.
 

Night view of Carl's Pastry Shop sign at 18th and Guerrero, circa 1980.Night view of Carl’s Pastry Shop sign at 18th and Guerrero, circa 1980. (wnp119.00004; Meg Oldman photo – Courtesy of Meg Oldman Collection / Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project)
 

Carl’s Pastry Shop at 18th & Guerrero, circa 1980. Carl’s was founded in 1950 by a German couple, Carl and Mabel Reichmann. It passed through other hands before it was finally sold to partners Charles Walter and Roman Michno in the early 1990s, who operated it successfully for nearly a decade, but they closed the business in 1998 due to fewer customers, rising rent, and competition from supermarket bakeries. Since 2002, a new bakery, specializing in bread, has operated at this location, though sans the neon.
 

Night view of Goodman Lumber on Bayshore near Cortland, circa 1980.Night view of Goodman Lumber on Bayshore near Cortland, circa 1980. (wnp119.00002; Meg Oldman photo – Courtesy of Meg Oldman Collection / Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project)
 

Goodman Lumber was an independent, family-owned business on Bayshore Boulevard that was founded in the years after World War II and prospered for decades. According to news reports at the turn of the millennium, a family dispute among the founder’s 3 adult children forced its closure. The site is now home to a big-box home improvement store.
 

Newman's Grill sign on Market near New Montgomery, June 29, 1984.Newman’s Grill sign on Market near New Montgomery, June 29, 1984. (wnp32.3437; Emiliano Echeverria photo – Emiliano Echeverria Collection / Courtesy of Emiliano Echeverria)
 

Hoffman’s Grill opened in 1891 near the SW corner of 2nd and Market Streets, and by the 1980s, it was one of the few remaining full-service restaurants located on Market Street in the Financial District. It closed in 1984 to make way for a high-rise, but the restaurant’s brick façade was preserved and incorporated into the new structure.
 

Noe Theater on 24th between Noe and Sanchez, 1956.Noe Theater on 24th between Noe and Sanchez, 1956. (wnp5.50566; Courtesy of Jack Tillmany)
 

The Noe was among the last pre-World War II theatres built in San Francisco, and one of the first to close down and be demolished in the post-War era. Built in 1937, it stopped showing films in 1952, and was briefly used as a church before the 1,000-seat auditorium was demolished. The site has since been home to a number of different grocery stores.
 

500 Club at 17th and Guerrero, circa 1980.500 Club at 17th and Guerrero, circa 1980. (wnp119.00017; Meg Oldman photo – Courtesy of Meg Oldman Collection / Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project)
 

The corner of 17th Street & Guerrero has been home to the 500 Club and its iconic cocktail glass neon sign ever since the 1950s. Shown here in 1980, the corner has changed very little, and although closed during the pandemic, the owners have announced that its reopening is imminent.
 

Marc Duffett, owner of the Ocean Park Motel, at 46th and Wawona, July 1995.Marc Duffett, owner of the Ocean Park Motel, at 46th and Wawona, July 1995. (wnp07.00091; Richmond Review Newspaper Collection / Courtesy of Paul Kozakiewicz, Richmond Review)
 

The Ocean Park, known as San Francisco’s first motel, began operations in 1937 to accommodate visitors who attended the dedication of the Golden Gate Bridge. Tucked away near the western end of Sloat Boulevard, and operated by Marc and Vicki Duffett, it is still a quiet spot for visiting guests, with a classic neon sign glowing in the foggy mists.
 

View south on Castro from Market, September 19, 1939.View south on Castro from Market, September 19, 1939. (wnp26.106; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

From the time of construction in the early 1920s, the old Castro-Market Branch of Bank of America sported an enormous rooftop neon sign that greeted passersby. As part of the Market Street beautification project that accompanied construction of MUNI Metro, the bank replaced the large sign by the mid-1970s with a smaller version that wrapped around the building’s façade. By the mid-1990s, following the acquisition of Hibernia Bank, the Bank of America branch relocated to Hibernia’s classic bank building one block away at 18th Street & Castro, while this building was transformed into a variety of other commercial uses. The Castro Theatre sign at left continues to cast its warm red glow over the scene.
 

Kilpatrick's Bakery at Shotwell and 16th, December 1980.Kilpatrick’s Bakery at Shotwell and 16th, December 1980. (wnp119.00024; Meg Oldman photo – Courtesy of Meg Oldman Collection / Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project)
 

Kilpatrick’s Bakery was in business at this Folsom Street site prior to World War II, though its neon signage was added in the post-War era. Following the bakery’s closure and removal of the sign, Joseph Schmidt chocolates were produced at the facility before that company was acquired and production ceased. With new residential construction nearby, this site has many new possible uses in the offing.
 

The Unloved Freeway: A Closer Look

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.
 

Embarcadero Freeway construction by Ferry Building, November 29, 1957.Embarcadero Freeway construction by Ferry Building, November 29, 1957.(wnp25.0594.jpg; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

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
 

Construction of Embarcadero Freeway by Ferry Building from Sacramento near Drumm, circa 1957.Construction of Embarcadero Freeway by Ferry Building from Sacramento near Drumm, circa 1957. (wnp4.1375; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

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.
 

View of Embarcadero Freeway construction from Ferry Building, 1958.View of Embarcadero Freeway construction from Ferry Building, 1958. (wnp14.3110; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

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
 

Construction of Embarcadero Freeway along Embarcadero, July 1958.Construction of Embarcadero Freeway along Embarcadero, July 1958. (wnp14.3114; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

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.
 

View of Embarcadero Freeway and Bay Bridge from Coit Tower, March 1959.View of Embarcadero Freeway and Bay Bridge from Coit Tower, March 1959. (wnp25.5870; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

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
 

Aerial of Embarcadero Freeway and downtown, 1960.Aerial of Embarcadero Freeway and downtown, 1960. (wnp27.7879; Moulin / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

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
 

Embarcadero Freeway end with ramp curving to Broadway, circa 1965.Embarcadero Freeway end with ramp curving to Broadway, circa 1965. (wnp27.6035; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

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.
 

Demolition of Embarcadero Freeway in front of Ferry Building, 1991.Demolition of Embarcadero Freeway in front of Ferry Building, 1991. (wnp4.1340; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

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.
 

Notes:

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.

The Big Dipper: A Closer Look

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.
 

View of the Big Dipper construction, circa 1922.View of the Big Dipper construction, circa 1922. (wnp66.139; Laurie Hollings Photo Album / James R. Smith Collection)
 

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.
 

Big Dipper under construction, circa 1922.Big Dipper under construction, circa 1922. (wnp66.140; Laurie Hollings Photo Album / James R. Smith Collection)
 

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.
 

Long line of people at Big Dipper entrance, circa 1922.Long line of people at Big Dipper entrance, circa 1922. (wnp66.127; Laurie Hollings Photo Album / James R. Smith Collection)
 

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.
 

Big Dipper roller coaster from Fulton near 48th Avenue, circa 1925.Big Dipper roller coaster from Fulton near 48th Avenue, circa 1925. (wnp4.1014; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

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.
 

Riders on Big Dipper ride with Sutro Heights in background, circa 1922.Riders on Big Dipper ride with Sutro Heights in background, circa 1922. (wnp66.131; Laurie Hollings Photo Album / James R. Smith Collection)
 

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
 

Aerial of Playland, Big Dipper at lower center, March 28, 1949.Aerial of Playland, Big Dipper at lower center, March 28, 1949. (wnp37.04090; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

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
 

Dodger bumper cars and Big Dipper at Playland, 1951.Dodger bumper cars and Big Dipper at Playland, 1951. (wnp4.1013; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

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.
 

Notes:

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.