Jan 25, 2022 I Brent Swancer

Strange Paranormal Phenomena at San Francisco’s Cliff House and Sutro Baths

There are some places in this world that just seem to gather strangeness to them. For whatever reasons, paranormal phenomena just seem to gravitate towards such locations, these places infused with some sort of energy beyond our current understanding, imbued with a certain power that defies reason. The world is full of such haunted realms, coming in all shapes and sizes, and one of these is a very unique cliffside building and its adjacent baths in the Bay Area of San Francisco, California, where there are plenty of tales of the supernatural.

Perched upon the top of the rocky cliffs just north of Ocean Beach, in the Outer Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco, California, is a neo-classical style building that overlooks the roiling grey sea and is appropriately called the Cliff House. Built by senator John Buckley, the first Cliff House was erected in around 1863, clinging almost precariously to the top of the cliffs and looking almost like something out of a fairy tale. It served as a restaurant and bar, but since at the time its location was rather remote, its customers were mostly horseback riders, small-game hunters or picnickers on day outings out of the city. When the Point Lobos toll road was built there was an influx of new visitors, and with the development of Golden Gate Park it became a popular destination for those who wanted spectacular panoramic seascape views of the ocean and the seals on the nearby Seal Rocks. The Cliff House was often booked solid, and included among its clientele the rich, famous, and even US presidents. In 1883 the Cliff House was bought by the silver mining magnate, entrepreneur, and one-time mayor of San Francisco Adolph Sutro, after which it would experience the first of many tragedies and misfortunes.

On the morning of January 16, 1887, the schooner Parallel ran aground on the rocks below the Cliff House laden with a cargo that included 40 tons of black gunpowder and dynamite. The ship was quickly abandoned before burning lamps ignited the dynamite and created a fiery explosion that was heard a hundred miles away and severely damaged portions of the structure, wiping out the entire north wing. This was the most famous wreck on the rocks, but there were others before the Cliff House was built, with other ships that met their doom here being the King Philip, the SS Ohioan, and the SS City of Rio De Janeiro, which tragically killed 135 people. After repairs were carried out, the building was hit with misfortune again when a fire razed it to the ground on Christmas night of 1894. In 1896, Adolph Sutro rebuilt the Cliff House from the ground up, and it continued to serve as a popular venue, but although it miraculously escaped being damaged in the 1906 earthquake, in 1907 it was burned to the ground again in another fire. It would be rebuilt yet again in 1909, with this structure lasting all the way into the present day.

1920px San Franciscos Cliff House Restaurant and Seal Rocks ca 1900 CHS 4756 crop
The Cliff House in 1900

Considering its rather unlucky, and at times tragic history, combined with its spooky look sitting up there upon the cliffs, it is perhaps no surprise that the Cliff House has long been said to be very haunted. The most famous spook said to lurk here is the ghost of a woman named Natalie Selina Harrison, who was in love with a man named Sean Eric Anderson. The story goes that Anderson left San Francisco to go off to fight in World War I but would never come back, killed on the battlefields of Europe. The devastated Natalie could not accept this, and would every day go to the rocks by the Cliff House to look out over the lonely sea in the vain hope that her lover would return, and would do this every day until her death in 1917. If the tales are to be believed, even death didn’t stop her forlorn trips to those rocks. Ever since then, the spectral figure of Natalie has been seen standing out there or walking upon the rocks, usually seen at night during bad weather, and often her weeping can be heard. A sinister spin to the tale is that she supposedly calls out to men and lures them out there to their doom, and there have been plenty of stories of men who have vanished here or been swept out to sea, allegedly because they were drawn in by her call. Other ghosts said to lurk here are the victims of shipwrecks and even ghost ships, most notably the spectral, doomed Parallel, eternally approaching to dash itself upon the rocks before vanishing once again.

Inextricably linked to the Cliff House and also allegedly just as haunted are the Sutro Baths. Situated in a small beach inlet below the Cliff House, the Sutro Baths were established by Adolph Sutro in 1896, and were envisioned as being the world's largest indoor swimming pool establishment. The elaborate complex was sprawled over three acres, and included six saltwater pools and one freshwater pool, a 2700-seat amphitheater, club rooms, 517 private dressing rooms, an ice skating rink, and a museum displaying an extensive collection of all manner of artwork, historic artifacts, natural history exhibits, galleries of sculptures, paintings, and artifacts from ancient Egypt, China, the Middle East, and Mexico, as well as stuffed or mounted animals and even Egyptian mummies. The pool complex could accommodate up to 10, 000 people, and the pools included slides, trapezes, springboards, and a high dive, making it like nothing else anyone had seen before. The Sutro Baths pulled in droves of recreation seekers, but high operating and maintenance costs meant it was usually in the red. The baths would operate until 1966, when a fire destroyed the complex and it was left as just desolate ruins of concrete foundations that can still be seen today. They are also ground zero for all kinds of weird stories of the paranormal.

One of the main phenomena is that visitors to the old bath house area have reported seeing numerous spirits lounging about in Victorian era clothes acting as if it is just another day at the baths, seemingly completely oblivious to the fact that it is just now slabs of rock and nothing more. One of the more active spirits is the ghost of a young man named Frank Denvin, who died at the baths after falling head first from a ladder on the water slide at the age of just 16. This spirit will apparently interact with visitors and is said to be quite mischievous, poking and pushing people, and apparently very vocal on EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) recordings, often heard to clearly say "Move it."

1592px Aerial view of Sutro Baths in San Francisco crop
Sutro Baths ruins

Perhaps even stranger are the phenomena reported from the dim, dank tunnels beneath the baths. In its era, the Sutro Baths pumped in water from the nearby sea and used an elaborate system of underground tunnels that were considered an engineering marvel at the time. When the baths were no more, these just became really creepy tunnels and started attracting all kinds of weird stories. One was that there were Satanic rituals being carried out down there in the gloom, with all kinds of occult imagery found etched into the walls. There were also reports of strange claw marks in the walls and the sounds of growling, howling, or other animalistic noises coming from the darkness, as well as neatly arranged piles of bones and fur found down there, and occasional sightings of a shadow figure beast with glowing eyes. Whatever this demonic creature is seems to have company, because there are also the ghosts of an elderly man and a drowned woman who apparently frequent the tunnels. It is said that if you go to the entrance of the tunnel and light a candle, the drowned woman will materialize and toss the candle into the sea before vanishing.

There have been quite a few ideas about why this place is so haunted, and even why it was so prone to being destroyed by fires. One revolves around all of the Egyptian artifacts that Adolph Sutro owned, including the mummies, which might have brought some negative energy to the place. There is also the fact that the land that the Cliff House and Sutro Baths was once surrounded by Golden Gate Cemetery, which was moved in the 1930s, with thousands of corpses disinterred and moved to a new site in Colma, but apparently there were many nameless bodies found that had been left behind. Oh and yes, of course this place was once an Indian burial ground back in the 18th century, used by the native Yelamu tribe. None of these things can possibly help the situation, but whatever the causes might be, whatever forces might be tethering these phenomena to this place, the Cliff House and Sutro Baths have gained a reputation for being some of the most haunted places in the San Francisco area.

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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