Just north of San Francisco's Ocean Beach lies a mysterious ruin.
If you walk down a sloping hill covered in wildflowers, you'll eventually stumble on a smattering of collapsed walls and crumbling structures that look as if they may have once possessed some elegance. Now, though, they are in the midst of being worn down by the ocean breezes.
Origins of the Baths
The Sutro Baths were created by eccentric former mayor and millionaire named Adolph Sutro, who decided to use his fortune to craft an ambitious project: the largest indoor swimming area in the world.
The project began as an outdoor aquarium located on the shoreline of the Pacific and bloomed into a thriving indoor swimming establishment. At one point, the bathhouse — housed in a glass enclosure — could accommodate up to 10,000 people and at one point provided 40,000 towels to guests. The establishment contained a diving board, trapezes, and a slide, as well as artifacts, art, and history exhibits Sutro amassed from around the world.
The baths also offered concerts, shows, and food, and for a time the establishment was the pinnacle of summertime family fun in San Francisco. With many railroads leading to the shoreline, the Sutro Baths — in their initial incarnation — were the source of many positive memories for visitors.
The Troubles Begin
Sutro died in 1898, and over the course of the 20th century, the Sutro Baths struggled immensely. The Great Depression caused the popularity of the baths to decline, and new health codes added complications to running a public bathhouse; and so the baths were converted to an ice skating rink, but that also failed to be profitable.
To make things worse, the area around the Sutro Baths was plagued by countless disasters and oddities. In 1887, a schooner called Parallel shipwrecked on the shoreline just below the Cliff House, Adolph Sutro's mansion next to the bathhouse. The ship exploded violently thanks to its cargo — 40 pounds of dynamite — and the explosion demolished part of the house.
In 1964, plans were made to convert the baths into high-rise developments. But on the first day of construction, which began in 1966, a fire demolished what was left of the baths, and the city abandoned its plans to build towers on the shoreline. Today, the ruins of the burned-out baths still stand.
But they have not stood quietly.
Sutro Baths Fire
Hauntings by the Sea
Apparently, even while the Sutro Baths were a thriving bathhouse, people found the location a bit strange. Patrons rarely returned for a second visit, unable to put their finger on exactly why the house felt "off."
Since then, countless people have reported ghost sightings and paranormal activity at the baths. Psychic mediums have reported feeling an "unnerving force" flowing through the area, and many people have reported seeing various ghosts.
Perhaps the most frequently spotted ghost is that of a woman named Natalie Salina Harrison, whose husband went to fight in World War I. He never returned and, according to legend, she still wanders the rocks of the Sutro Baths, wailing. Several people have also reported seeing Victorian women walking around the beaches carrying parasols.
One explanation for the haunting is the fact that many of the exotic artifacts Adolph Sutro brought to the bathhouse had sacred or occult significance. In addition to Adolph Sutro's taxidermy collection, the bathhouse also contained 3,500-year-old mummified heads and two full-bodied, bonafide Egyptian mummies.
But all this above-ground strangeness can't compare to what lies below the surface of the Sutro Baths.
Summoning Satan in the Tunnels
The land around the Sutro Baths has a dark history. Underneath the soil around the baths lie possibly hundreds, if not thousands, of dead bodies.
The land around the Sutro Baths used to be home to the Golden Gate Cemetery. In the 1930s, 18,000 dead bodies were supposed to be moved from the cemetery to a new location, but the job was not completed. In 1993, hundreds of bodies were discovered in unmarked graves around the area.
Perhaps that's part of why the labyrinthine tangle of tunnels underneath the Sutro Baths has seen so much occult weirdness. Or perhaps some of the weirdness comes from the fact that Anton LaVey founded the Satanic Temple not far from the Sutro Baths.
Sutro Baths TunnelAmys Crypt
Some believe that LaVey used to perform Satanic rituals in the tunnels under the baths, and others go as far to claim that human sacrifices have been performed in the tunnels. LaVey himself insinuated that he had a hand in burning down the baths.
"You know, I was very upset about having the Sutro Baths torn down," he told the S.F. Examiner in 1966. "Ah, the happy hours I spent looking for ghosts in there. So I went out and put a curse on the place. It burned down 35 hours later, which is pretty unusual. It usually takes 36 hours for a curse to work, you know."
The cause of the 1966 fire was found to be arson, but hey...you never know.
Other reports have claimed that the tunnels under the Sutro Baths may be home to a rather Lovecraftian monster, as some visitors have claimed to have seen mysterious claw marks traversing the tunnels.
Other tales of cult initiations and various kinds of delinquent activities also swirl around the Sutro Baths. Whatever's down there, be it ghosts of the past or just a lot of dust and dirt, one thing is clear: Those ruins — and particularly the tunnels — are not for the faint of heart.
In spite of all this sordid history, the Sutro Baths are still a popular place for wedding photographs. And why not? Love and death are never too far from each other, and nowhere is that clearer than at those peculiar ruins by the raging sea.