Sutro Heights Depot: A Closer Look

by John Martini

A closer look at an OpenSFHistory image.

I love looking at historic photographs, especially ones that reveal surprises accidentally captured by the photographer. Take this view of the main gate to Sutro Heights. The imposing gates must have been photographed thousands of times—both in their open and closed positions—but in this particular photo (actually, a glass lantern slide) a mysterious building can be seen through the open pedestrian gate at left. Sporting a huge advertisement for Ghirardelli’s Soluble Cocoa, it seems totally out of place so close to the elegant entrance to Adolph Sutro’s formal estate.

Sutro Heights gate.
Sutro Heights main gate, circa 1890. (wnp13.252, negative courtesy of a private collector)

A quick survey of historic maps of the era reveals that this was the Sutro Heights Depot of the Ferries & Cliff House Railroad, the famous steam train that once wound its way along the cliff tops of Lands End.

In the mid-1880s, Adolph Sutro had been instrumental in acquiring the rights to build a rail line connecting Point Lobos to downtown San Francisco, better to bring visitors to his growing attractions at the Cliff House, Sutro Heights, and later, Sutro Baths. After making some initial improvements along the right-of-way, he sold his interests to the already-established Powell Street Railroad.

Sutro intentionally set the western terminus of the line directly across the street from the main entrance to Sutro Heights. His estate, after all, was a major visitor attraction and he wanted to be sure arriving passengers couldn’t miss his Heights.

When trains began running on July 1, 1888, the line was officially called the Ferries & Cliff House Railroad, but locals soon began referring to it simply as the Cliff Line.

Very few photos of the Sutro Heights Depot exist, hence my interest in this partial glimpse through the main gate. Although undated, the spanking-new appearance of the depot leads me to “guesstimate” it was taken not long after the Ferries & Cliff House trains began running. Although not much is visible, we know from maps of the era that the depot was a narrow gable-ended structure that housed waiting rooms, freight rooms, and a ticket office. On the west, a covered passenger platform faced the tracks. Architecturally, the train depot wouldn’t have been out-of-place in Kansas or Minnesota.

Before long, a neighborhood of saloons, cafes, curio shops and tintype studios sprung up across the tracks from the depot. Called “Ocean Terrace,” the hodge-podge of structures along the street was all owned by Adolph Sutro.

Old 48th Avenue Station on Ferries and Cliff Line, February 23, 1905. (U00370A, Courtesy of SFMTA Photography Department & Archive.)
Old 48th Avenue Station on Ferries and Cliff Line, February 23, 1905. (U00370A, Courtesy of SFMTA Photography Department & Archive.)

The Cliff Line changed hands several times, eventually becoming part of the sprawling United Railroads (URR) of San Francisco. In 1905, the URR decided to convert the Cliff Line from steam trains to electric streetcars, and preparatory to the reconstruction they photographed the Sutro Heights station, now called the 48th Avenue Depot. The image above is the earliest photo showing the entire structure—a weather-beaten barn that had endured the brunt of Pacific winds and spray for 17 years. Close examination of the original glass negative reveals barely legible traces of the old Ghirardelli sign under the eaves.

The URR inaugurated their electric streetcar service on May 27, 1905, and as part of their modernizing of the line they spruced up the aging depot. Neatly restored, the depot now served both as a waiting room and as a residence, the latter most likely for a United Railroads employee. The building remained in use as the 48th Avenue station of the #1 California line (the final incarnation of the old Cliff Line) until sometime in the early 1920s.

New 48th Avenue Station on Ferries and Cliff Line on El Camino Del Mar Near Seal Rock Drive, September 23, 1905.
New 48th Avenue Station on Ferries and Cliff Line on El Camino Del Mar Near Seal Rock Drive, September 23, 1905. (U00370A, Courtesy of SFMTA Photography Department & Archive.)

The demolition date of the 48th Avenue station isn’t known, but based on historic photographs it must have been around 1923 when the city constructed today’s El Camino Del Mar around Lands End. The aging depot was simply in the way of the new boulevard and disappeared when the road was pushed through to Point Lobos Avenue.

While much of the Cliff Line right-of-way still exists at Point Lobos as a hiker-biker path, no trace remains of Sutro’s train depot. If you want to visit its exact site, watch out for traffic because the location of the vanished depot lies beneath present-day El Camino Del Mar just south of Seal Rock Drive.

Retired National Park Service ranger and WNP member John Martini is a volunteer helping us process our collection of historical San Francisco images.