About Us

Contact Us


Legend Emerges as Reality

Sutro, Gonzalez, and the Pursuit of Tidal Energy

By Christine Miller

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 unfamiliar.

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.

When engineer/landowner/philanthropist, 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 truth.

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 campaign.

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 Project at http://www.outsidelands.org/wave-motor.html.