Legend Emerges as Reality
Sutro, Gonzalez, and the Pursuit of Tidal Energy
People are willing to believe in the fantastic. As a National
Park Service docent at the Cliff House, I have had to answer thousands of
questions. Most questions were routine, some were thought provoking and
some, my favorites, came from the realm of legend.
Is Alcatraz movable? Does the National Park Service have to
keep Alcatraz anchored? Were the Seal Rocks really brought here from
France? Is it true that the Cliff House was once in danger of tipping into
the ocean because ground squirrels were chewing away at the foundation?
Once in a while, however, something from
the realm of legend turns out to be true. Such was the case with the
legend of Ralph Starr and his Fabulous Wave Motor, the story of a
silver-tongued inventor and his machine for generating electricity from
the ocean waves. This local legend survived for over a century because it
was the only known explanation for an abandoned machine out on a rock near
the Cliff House. It turned out that there were five different wave motors
built near the Cliff House between 1886 and 1948. The name of Starr came
from a Southern California wave motor inventor and the legend was based on
several true tales
Like a legend that turns out to be based
on truth, sometimes an extraordinary thing is right in front of your eyes
and you just don’t see it. In the summer of 2002, while working in the
visitor center, a European tourist asked me if San Francisco had any new
tidal energy projects. About a month later, another tourist asked me the
same question. So it was obvious that there was something going on in the
world with tidal energy, but why were they asking me?
What I realized later was that these
tourists recognized a tide machine among the nearby Sutro Baths ruins. The
National Park Service had never researched or promoted the history of
tidal energy in relation to the Sutro Baths and none of Adolph Sutro’s
biographers had touched the subject. So, until those tourists asked me
about it, I had never heard the term. Still, because of the legend about
the old wave motor, the idea of electricity from the ocean was not
I decided to fill this gap in the history
of the Sutro Baths by trying to identify all of the wave energy and tidal
energy projects that had taken place in California. There have only been
two tidal energy projects, Sutro’s Aquarium (1887) and the Sutro Baths
(1896). The original plans for the Aquarium included generation of
electricity, but later those plans were dropped. Neither the Aquarium nor
the Sutro Baths generated electricity but instead used the power of the
tides to empty and fill a settling basin and swimming tanks. They were
built at a time when electricity was still a fairly new phenomenon and the
idea of electricity from the ocean was not considered impossible. Four of
the five wave motor experiments built near the Cliff House took place
during the period when the Aquarium/Baths were being constructed. It was
the cutting edge of technology of the time.
and later mayor, Adolph Sutro built the Aquarium in 1887 he did it to
create a mechanical tide pool that would make the wonders of the ocean
accessible to visitors to Ocean Beach. When the Aquarium proved a success,
he expanded by building swimming ponds nearby to create an area safe for
swimming. His visionary ideas grew into a massive project called the Sutro
Baths, which then became the largest bathhouse in the world. The
extravagant Sutro Baths housed a museum, restaurants, hundreds of dressing
rooms, and other facilities. The canalworks of the Aquarium were
incorporated into the mechanics of the Sutro Baths in order to empty and
fill the Bath’s six swimming tanks.
Sutro was duly mocked during the course
of the Baths’ construction, but when the Sutro Baths complex was finished,
it was too magnificent to dismiss. It was a one-of-a-kind tourist
attraction for San Francisco.
The same could be said for a working
tidal energy plant built today. Although it wouldn’t be quite as much fun.
The Sutro Baths survived until 1966, when
the property was sold to developers who planned apartments for the site.
The buildings were partially demolished when a fire broke out and finished
the job. Only the foundation of the pools and the canalworks of the
Aquarium remained after the fire.
There have been far more wave than tidal
energy experiments in California. Most of these took place around the turn
of the 20th century in Southern California. By the 1920s, however, too
many failed wave motors experiments and investment losses had given wave
energy’s image a big black eye. California’s most successful wave motor
was built in Santa Cruz in 1898, but it was used for pumping water, not
for electricity production.
In 2003, while I was researching old wave
motors from the 1890s, I was also watching tidal energy re-emerge onto the
local political scene. First in the Local Agency Formation Commission,
then at the Board of Supervisors, and then in the Matt for Mayor campaign.
It was a wonder to watch Supervisor Matt Gonzalez take the idea of power
from the ocean, an idea of that has been of interest to San Franciscans
since the 1870s and re-introduce it into present time and modern thinking.
He somehow managed to give the idea respectability again. The best part
was the way in which he fearlessly pursued it.
Of course, many rejected the idea as
impractical or outlandish. Tidal energy was easy to mock because it seemed
too futuristic for San Francisco. Yet nothing could be further from the
In a city surrounded on three sides by
ocean water, Sutro and Gonzalez are the only politicians who have ever
been able to take the idea and make it manifest in some form. Sutro was a
19th-century engineer who used his own money to construct a
tide machine of his own design on his beach property. Gonzalez had
trickier limitations to contend with by trying to push the idea of tidal
energy forward as a city project, but push he did. And the idea moved
forward. In 2003, electricity from the ocean could not have had a better
spokesperson than Matt Gonzalez or a better showcase than the Gonzalez
What ultimately will happen with tidal
energy and wave energy in San Francisco remains to be seen. They may still
be within the realm of the fantastic for now, but as long as people pursue
the idea, it may be only a matter of time before that changes. In 1896 the
Santa Cruz Sentinel said it best: the success of any one of California’s
wave energy projects would signal “a mechanical revolution so vast as to
be beyond the powers of comprehension.”
For more information on the history of tidal
energy and wave motors in San Francisco, visit the Western Neighborhoods