by Arnold Woods
In recents weeks, we talked about the Chutes of San Francisco, beginning with the Haight Street Chutes, a water ride amusement park in the Haight-Ashbury district from 1895 to 1902 and then moving to the Fulton Street Chutes, basically the same water ride amusement park, but then in the Inner Richmond district. When the Fulton Street Chutes closed, like the Haight Street Chutes before it, the Chutes were not done. This time, Irving Ackerman, the son of Charles Ackerman, the original owner of the Chutes, closed the Fulton Chutes so he could move the operation to what he hoped would be a better location. The new Chutes were opened on Fillmore Street.
After the 1906 earthquake, the Fillmore area, which was outside the area hit hard by the earthquake and fire, became the new commercial center of San Francisco while the devastated downtown area was rebuilt. One of the new businesses there was the Coney Island Amusement Park. On March 8, 1909, Ackerman announced that he had purchased a 13-year lease for the Coney Island Park property and would spend $250,000 to move the Chutes there and upgrade the site.1 Although initially smaller, Ackerman would expand the property to fill the entire block bounded by Fillmore, Webster, Eddy and Turk Streets. He also promised some exciting new attractions.
For the new Chutes, Ackerman traveled across the country to check out other amusement parks, such as Coney Island in New York and the Riverview Exposition in Chicago.2 Ackerman examined what were the most popular features of the other parks he visited and bought duplicates of some.
Attractions from the prior Chutes locations included the Railway, merry-go-round, Circle Swing, shooting gallery, and photo studio. Among the new amusements was “Dante’s Inferno,” a labyrinth with hills and drops. It included the “Devil’s Slide,” where patrons could take an escalator to the summit and ride small mats down a steep slide. There was also a human roulette wheel that spun riders in the center around ever faster until the centrifugal forces sent them sliding into the gutter on the outside. People could also spend time in the Dancing Pavilion and there was an outdoor screen on which motion pictures were shown.
The new Fillmore Chutes opened on July 14, 1909. Huge crowds showed up for opening day. People who arrived in the afternoon ate dinner at the park for fear that they would be unable to get back inside in the evening.3 Sure enough, that evening, people crowded the streets for two blocks around the Fillmore Chutes trying to get in. The park closed all but the Fillmore entrance early in the evening, but the crowd pounded on the other entrances demanding to be let in. Ten policeman showed up in a likely vain attempt to control the mass of humanity.
At the opening and for a while thereafter, the Fillmore Chutes featured several daredevil performers. One act, called Desperado, made a daring leap from a 70-foot tower to a wooden chute 3-feet wide and 25-feet long and from there slide down into the waters with great momentum.4 Florence Spray would dive from a 70-foot ladder into four feet of water in costumes that were changed frequently. A bicyclist called Demon would ride his bike down the Chutes slide as fast as he could with the bike on fire and then somersault at the bottom into the lake. Meanwhile, Giuseppe Sirignano conducted the Royal Banda Roma orchestra with entertaining music for patrons. In the ensuing months, other exciting performers, such as triple-bar acrobats, Australian gymnasts performing “kangaroo” acrobatics, a contortionist, and a Parisian aerialist, would be brought in.5
In addition to the daredevil performances, animals also gave performances. First was the flea circus performing “surprising feats.6” In a dramatic change in size, the fleas were followed by elephants. The star elephant, a youngster named Mike, wore costumes and danced a waltz. Mike also dressed like Teddy Roosevelt with a large hat and glasses and fired a gun filled with blanks at the other elephants who would play dead. The Fillmore Chutes also brought in professional boxers to give sparring exhibitions, notably including heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson, who was then using San Francisco as his home base for training and bouts.
Man and woman posing for studio portrait in prop car at Fillmore Chutes photography studio, circa 1909. (wnp37.02164; Abraham Lipman photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
As Ackerman was able to take over additional land, he made plans to expand the park. He received a permit to build a new Chutes theater and on October 31, 1909, a cornerstone for the theater was laid.7 The new Chutes Theater opened on New Year’s Eve 1909 with a line-up of singers, dancers, yodelers, and a ventriloquist.8 The New Year’s Eve expanded Fillmore Chutes debut also featured the return of a zoo and a new aquarium, although Wallace the Lion had been on display for several months.
The Fillmore Chutes were a great success, but it proved to be short-lived. After midnight on May 29, 1911, a fire broke out and soon engulfed the premises.9 The blaze started in a barber shop operated by the Bondy brothers. A water heater was apparently left on and caused ignition when the water ran out. It was unclear if this was accidental or deliberate as the owner of the shop stated he was having problems with the brothers. The fire killed three people and injured seven more. Although the new Chutes Theater building with its concrete construction survived the inferno, must of the rest of the park was gutted.
Ackerman did not rebuild the Chutes after the fire. The land was sold and used for other purposes. The Chutes attraction would disappear from San Francisco at that time, but the Chutes were not yet done with the City.
1. “The Chutes Will Move Downtown,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 9, 1909, p. 5.
2. “Preparing For Opening At The New Chutes,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 4, 1909, p. 42.
3. “Vast Crowds Attend The Opening Of The New Chutes,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 15, 1909, p. 13.
4. “Open-Air Bill At New Chutes,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 18, 1909, p. 22.
5. “Free Picture Show Is Newest Thing At Chutes,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 19, 1909, p. 23.
6. “Elephants Come To Cheer Crowds,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 1, 1909, p. 18.
7. “Lay Cornerstone Of New Chutes Theater,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 1, 1909, p. 2.
8. “Finer Chutes Is Approved By All,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 1, 1910, p. 7.
9. “Three Dead And Seven Injured In Chutes Fires,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 30, 1911, p. 18.