Are the Cliff House and the Sutro Baths Cursed?

If a horror movie tried to capture all of the insane stuff that has happened around San Francisco's Cliff House and Sutro Baths over the years, the end result would be utterly preposterous. Not even the over-killers of American Horror Story would try to squeeze apparitions, satanists, explosions, dead children, secret cemeteries, disastrous fires, mummies (yes, actual mummies), shipwrecks, and Native American legends into a single season. (Give it a try, Ryan Murphy -- we dare you!) Yet this one tiny corner of San Francisco has seen it all.

A good place to start is the abundance of ghost-sightings reported in the area -- the most famous of which is the forlorn woman who wanders the rocks below the Cliff House. Legend has it, the restless spirit is that of Natalie Salina Harrison, who, in life, reportedly waited on the shore in vain for her fiancé to return from World War I. She died broken-hearted, and people have been seeing her ghostly form since 1917. When the Paranormal Ghost Society investigated the area, they claimed to pick up the sound of weeping on their instruments.

An eerie air falls over the Sutro Bath ruins at dusk (Photo: Adam Morse on Unsplash)

Across the way, what remains of the Sutro Baths has also had its fair share of ghostly goings-on. The host of Amy's Crypt, an online paranormal show, picked up a voice recording of someone telling her to “move it” when she searched the area one night. Most investigators are fixated on the tunnel at the Baths, once used to pump sea water into the indoor pools. Not only have inverted pentagrams been found painted in there -- suggesting Satanic activity (there have even been rumors about human sacrifice) -- legend has it that the spirits of a drowned woman and an older man frequent the spot. Stories say that if you leave a lit candle in the tunnel, the spirit of the woman is summoned, and she throws the candle into the ocean.

It's not just the tunnel that's spooky either. The Baths themselves have been a place of interest for strange occurrences for decades. Multiple people have reported seeing Victorian ladies strolling along the beach with parasols, as well as turn-of-the-century bathers hanging around where the seven impressive pools used to be. One of the spirits is rumored to be Frank Denvin, who died in 1896, at the age of 16, having fallen head-first from the ladder of a water slide into an empty, cement tank.

The Sutro Baths in their heyday.

Mediums have claimed that the area has always been overwhelmed by a strange energy, though none of them can say why.  It was six years after he'd purchased the Cliff House, that mining engineer, philanthropist, and Sutro Baths owner Adolph Sutro first got a taste of it. It was then that his ongoing battle to keep his grand property from burning to the ground commenced.

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On January 13, 1887, a ship named Parallel ran aground directly beneath the Cliff House. It wasn't the first shipwreck to land in the region (see also: the King Philip, the SS Ohioan, and the SS City of Rio De Janeiro, which killed 135 people), but Parallel distinguished itself by promptly exploding so violently, parts of the schooner were found over a mile away. The blast happened thanks to the ship's cargo -- 40 tons of black powder and dynamite -- and it took out the Cliff House's north wing entirely.

Seven years later, on Christmas Day, the Cliff House, which had originally been built by Samuel Brannan in 1858 (using materials salvaged from a shipwreck!) burned down in just 30 minutes, thanks to a chimney fire. Adolph Sutro subsequently spent $75,000 and two years rebuilding it in epic, Victorian style. Locals nicknamed the elaborate eight-story structure towering over Ocean Beach, the "Gingerbread House." Then, after all that work, time, and money, it burned down again just 10 years later. It was fire too that ultimately took down the Sutro Baths building in 1966, while the structure was in the midst of being converted into apartments. (How very San Francisco!)

Those who believe in curses might wonder whether Adolph Sutro's persistent fire problem was a result of his penchant for collecting Egyptian artifacts. The Sutro Bath house wasn't simply the greatest indoor swimming facility in the country, it also contained Sutro's extensive taxidermy collection, as well as a museum containing three 3,500-year-old mummified heads, two full-body mummies, a mummified hand, and hundreds of other Egyptian artifacts.

To make matters even more curse-y, the area was once home to a Native American encampment. The Yelamu tribe traveled to Land's End annually in order to fish and hunt, before moving back inland for the colder months. All of that stopped when the Spanish arrived in 1776, bringing disease and a whole mess of other horrors.

All of the weird energy in the area has undoubtedly not been eased by the fact that most of the land around the Cliff House and Sutro Baths used to be Golden Gate cemetery. In the 1930s, when the Board of Supervisors voted to exhume and move 18,000 dead bodies to Colma, the horrific job was not thoroughly completed. In 1993, hundreds of bodies were discovered in unmarked graves, after the Legion of Honor began a renovation. The assumption now is that beneath Lincoln Park Golf Course and beyond, a great many anonymous dead people lie.

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The most pressing concern for most people visiting the Cliff House and Sutro Baths these days is the potential danger of getting swept out to sea by an errant wave.  (There are plenty of signs around there warning people that it might happen.) But all the creepy stories in the world won't halt the area's ongoing popularity with both tourists and locals, thanks to its dramatic scenery and fascinating history. Maybe that's why all those ghosts have stuck around too.

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