A postcard depicting one of San Francisco's Chutes—giant water slides, ridden in a flat-bottomed boat, not unlike today's Splash Mountain.
For many of us looking back, the Victorian era doesn’t look like a whole lot of fun. (Too many séances and mourning dresses, not enough sex and deodorant, thanks.) It turns out, though, that Victorians in San Francisco had way more fun crap to climb, plunge down and scream on than we currently do—and I’m not even talking about Playland-at-the-Beach. Here, then, are five old amusements that the city would still be super into if they’d survived.
Picture it. Haight Street between Cole and Clayton. Only instead of all the stores, bars and hotels lined up between Hobson’s Choice and Goodwill, there’s an old-timey, giant version of Splash Mountain there. This was the glorious reality at the turn of the century when "The Chutes"—a huge waterslide, ridden in a flat-bottomed boat—were shooting scores of people into a man-made lake, all day every day.
On Dec. 14, 1895—the same year the ride opened—the San Francisco Examiner reported: “The amphibious boats were sent flying after one another down the chute into the pond as fast and full as safety would permit. Many went to watch only, and then seeing what an exhilarating sport the chuting was for others, decided to try it themselves.”
The ride was 350 feet long, 70 feet tall and ran up to 60 miles per hour. It was a bargain, too, charging kids a nickel and adults a dime (about $3 in 2022 money) to ride. The Chutes were incredibly popular, but were moved to Fulton Street (between 10th and 11th) in 1902. Another version located at Ocean Beach was the launching pad for Playland at the Beach.
The Gravity Pleasure Railroad
An ad was placed in the San Francisco Examiner on Dec. 12, 1884, advertising the city’s newest attraction. Under the all caps title “ROLLER COASTER,” the notice read:
The California Gravity Railroad Co. SOMETHING NEW UNDER THE SUN. A sled-ride down hill without snow! Great sport! Physicians recommend it! Bring your family and enjoy yourselves. Open day and evening. Electric Lights.
The 25-foot-high thrill ride was 200 feet in diameter and situated at the intersection of 8th and Mission Streets. Opened Nov. 27, 1884, the Gravity Railroad was designed to operate under its own weight. Each car held 10 to 12 passengers, and was pushed down the steepest part of the track at great speed, the momentum of which would propel it back up again to where it had started. It cost five cents to ride. Sadly, the gravity railroad didn’t last long. It was destroyed in May 1887 by a fire that started in a nearby candy store.
Open in the Mission District between 1866 and 1891, Woodward’s Gardens was completely bananas. In addition to its botanical gardens, art gallery, zoo, aquarium and four museums, it also featured live music and housed a variety of curiosities, including “haunted” windows from North Beach, a stuffed two-headed calf, and an insect display. Special guest appearances—from the likes of “Chang, the Chinese Giant” and “Admiral Dot, a perfect man in miniature”—also made the venue extremely popular at a time when society had few qualms about such shows.
It is unfathomable how owner Robert B. Woodward fit all of this into the blocks bordered by Valencia, Ridley (now Duboce), Mission and 15th Streets—but apparently it was all too much for the neighbors. The park wound up closing down after locals complained about unpleasant “odors and horrible noises.”
Bonet’s Electric Tower
The California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894 left Golden Gate Park with a couple of gifts that continue to thrive today—the Japanese Tea Garden and the De Young Museum (which started life as the expo’s Fine Arts Building). If things had played out a little differently, we might also still have Bonet’s Electric Tower.
The tower was 272 feet tall, covered in thousands of multicolored lights and modeled after Paris’ Eiffel Tower—though architect Leopold Bonet used steel, not iron like the original. During the expo, the Electric Tower acted as a central attraction and viewing platform for fairgoers, who could travel to the top of it in an elevator. At night, the tower’s 6,000-pound searchlight—then the largest and most powerful in America—could be seen in the sky for miles. The attraction was the biggest financial success of the Midwinter Fair, costing a dime to get to the tower’s first level and a quarter to get to the top. The tower also housed the Bella Vista Café.
The Midwinter Fair closed in July 1894 after a booming five months in operation. But Bonet’s Electric Tower was left standing for two years after the fact. Hopes to keep it as a permanent landmark were dashed after Golden Gate Park’s horticulturalist John McLaren—who vocally opposed holding the expo there in the first place—had the tower blown up with explosives and sold for scrap.
The Auditorium Skating Rink
Opened 1906, the Auditorium occupied the entire block between Fillmore and Steiner Streets along Page. This grand marble hall had a skating space that measured about 335 feet by 100 feet. But at capacity, the entire space could accommodate 8,000 people. Which is why it also served as a major venue, hosting military balls, boxing matches, hospital benefits, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and all manner of other events. The interior featured 6,000 lights, oak walls, classical paintings and mirrored pillars. There were even smoking rooms to retire to.
The Auditorium’s primary use, of course, was for roller discos (the bandstand was big enough to hold 110 musicians) and roller polo matches (a no-brainer given that Auditorium manager Frank Rittigstein was the president of the Pacific Coast Roller Polo League). While covering a match at the Auditorium in 1907, the Examiner referred to roller polo as, “By far the most exciting indoor game in the present day.” The newspaper continued: “It is extremely dangerous to the players and only the most expert roller skaters are allowed to play.”
In 1913, the Fillmore venue ran into trouble after alcohol was apparently served to minors. The Auditorium subsequently lost its liquor license. Two years later, the building was destroyed by a massive fire that took down four neighboring stores and killed a firefighter. Thankfully, today the Church of Eight Wheels is keeping skating alive in the neighborhood, just a couple of blocks from where the Auditorium once stood.
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