San Francisco History

Over Sandy Trails to the Old Cliff

by Walter J. Thompson

One may still find a sandy trail over the hills to the beach and Seal Rocks, but in following it the pilgrim is likely to discover that it is very much like that serpentine avenue which was supposed to lead to the barn of one Robin Hood of “Merrie Greenwood” notoriety, an edifice, by the way, that in the blaze of publicity has the same substantial evidence as the stately pleasure-dome of Kubla Kahn.

Once upon a time there were half a dozen trails to the old Cliff House, and they were all sandy—pshaw, let’s be honest! They were nothing but sand. The big cliff trail was the long yellow road following the line of thoroughfare now held in partnership trust by gray and green trolley cars. It was the bus road in the days to which we are harking back.

It had an official beginning on Cemetery avenue, later Central avenue, and now Presidio avenue, where Post street ends. There was the terminus of Casebolt’s cars that ran out Bush and California streets. There, too, at the head of Post street was a flight of steps connecting the grades and giving one the impression that some herculean-hoofed giant with a grudge against Mr. Cemetery Avenue had kicked the family residence off the eminence, leaving only the kitchen stairs standing. At the foot of these stairs the cars of the Central Railroad Company unloaded their bands of beach-bound passengers. That was a busy corner.

There stood the Cliff House stages. They were a sort of cross between the old Concord coaches such as Overland Kit and worthies of that sort used to hold up on lonely Sierra paths and the brick red Casebolt cars that were afflicted with St. Vitus’ dance as they bobbed over the uneven tracks.

The stages were of clayey yellow aspect, with a “scene in oil” on each side, a representation of the Cliff House, according to neighborhood gossip, but resembling more, if artistic criticism be credited, Daniel Boone’s old Kentucky House pitched on the castled crag of Drachenfels by an artist’s magic wand or brush. But I’m casting no aspersions on these busses. They were comfortable affairs and once tucked away in them one was whirled along at a good four-horse clip and whizzed through a pair of toll gates, the tariff at which would, if you were in a rig of your own, be twice the value of the whole stage ride.

There was all the languor of dissipation in the lurching of those busses. And don’t think for a moment that there was any chance of “whipping behind” on the steps. No, indeed. A polished oval covering fitted over those steps as the door closed, making the whole appear as if it was the royal coach of a grand sachem of the beaver tribe who was bundled up inside all but his royal caudal appendage, which, being an eccentric monarch, he allowed to hang out in negligee, what-a-happy-day-we’re-having fashion.

When Captain Junius G. Foster arrived here in 1866 as purser on one of the Pacific Mail steamers, the old Point Lobos road stopped at the city cemetery. Beyond to the beach was a bleak and sand-bound district. Foster suggested to a friend, C. C. Curtis, the idea of erecting a house on the cliff, with the seals as an attraction. Curtis caught the idea and put up the means. The cutting of the road through the sand dunes followed, and soon all San Francisco was on its way to see Captain Foster and his partners, the seals, with Big Ben Butler on the crest of the main rock.

Between the two toll gates on the road commencing at what is now First avenue and terminating about 500 yards beyond the half-mile track was a speed road on the right-hand side and a macadam carriage drive on the left.

The epic of the old Cliff road should be written in snappy, sport-smacking phraseology, in order to be true to life and its traditions, which were distinctively of the sporting sort, resonant with the patter of equine hoofs, the objurgatory, or otherwise, exclamations of excited drivers and the whizzing of varnished spokes gleaming like polished metal in the sunlight or throwing out faded flashes by moonlight as the gay life of the growing city dashed to the beach.

It was the era of the horse, and San Francisco was the paradise of liverymen.

Is it any wonder racing was in the air? The makeshift race course at the Mission by the Nightingale was deserted for the new half-mile track on the cliff road through the western sands. It was speedily eclipsed by the nobbier Bay District mile track. The road itself was often a track for wager events in the speed line.

Every one of any prominence in the city was seen on the road in a rig.

“Don’t ask me if he went through here,” First Tollgate-keeper Blake used to say to inquiries, hopping about to the merry jingle of a bushel or so of sliver quarters and halves concealed about his person. “If he lives in San Francisco, he is out here. They’re all out today.”

Watch them whirl by.

Ex-Governor Milton S. Latham dazzled the eye like a meteor in its flight behind his $10,000 team, Lady Dooley and Lady Emmet. William C. Ralston would probably follow with his big gray team, Farmer and mate. Then in rapid succession would come “Chief” M. J. Burke, with his black pacers, Lily and Rose; William S. O’Brien of bonanza fame with Lady Thorne, who could trot in 2:40; Vic Guerrero of Half Moon Bay with the celebrated Jersey Maid, winner of the gentleman roadster’s race at the opening of the half-mile track; ex-Governor Stanford with Occident; George H. Kimball, builder of the once famous Kimball buggies, with a pair of fine grays; Barney Horn, the cattle man, with Breeze, who left several well-known representatives on the State turf; J. B. Haggin, with his speed mare Monarch; Reuben H. Lloyd astride of one of his fine single-footing saddle horses, and so the list swells beyond handling as the field pours into the homestretch of memory.

A pampered pal of Father Time up to several weeks ago aired its weather-beaten front on the line of the city cars going to the beach. It was the archway of the Homestead, one of the trio of roadhouses that were the bases on the long yellow road.

Grimly it stood on the scene of its former glory as woebegone as the “harp that once through Tara’s halls,” etc. Grimly it faced the spot across the way where once was the merry thronged half-mile racing course ruled over by Jim Eoff; grimly it glowered adown the line where the doors of Boniface Staniels’ “Turf House” swung on hospitable hinges. What tales of life, of sport, of revelry by sunlight and moonlight the old arch could have told if things inanimate could wag gossiping tongues! Ere the light of the sign painter’s smile had died out of the freshly limned letters, what gay parties, the beauty and chivalry of the road, surged through and partook of the good cheer dispensed by “Ned” Foster of happy remembrance!

I met a rusty remnant of the old days strolling along Geary street with one red eye fixed admiringly on the Homestead arch and the other one with marked hatred on an approaching auto. As the machine honked by he gave a responsive grunt at it, after which he proceeded to unhip a mass of woe.

“To think of them oil cans taking the place of flesh and blood horse; and that me and the gate, there, should live to see it. Say, I’m glad my old driving partner, Chauncey Kane, ain’t here. He was the niftiest boy that ever held a line over a trotter or pacer on these tracks here, drunk or sober. Huh, he’d give Billy Donathan, Budd Doble, Pat Farrell or any of ‘em the go-by if wanted to win, mind ye.

“Gawd! It was a sight to see him a hummin’ down the homestretch, his hair tryin’ to follow his cap, and just a settin’ in air, his sulky was goin’ so fast, and when that zip-zip of his came down the wind over your shoulder, you just knew it was all off with you and Chance had made up his mind to win. I want to tell y’bout his mix-up with Joe Spanier one day.”

And the rusty remnant told it all to the sympathetic Homestead arch.

As a host, Captain Foster was in a class by himself. Of course, one paid royally for everything that was served at the place. The only thing that was served free was the sliding “telescope” with a big brass ring attached, used by the balcony patrons to stare the seals out of countenance. But Foster mingled with his patrons as a jovial comrade, a companion, hail and hello with all. Globe trotters and famous folk would tell you of inquiries after Captain Foster and his seals in Hongkong, Melbourne, London and other faraway nooks of the earth.

But all of the fun of going to the old Cliff did not lie along the big trail. Others were known to young San Francisco that held out superior advantages in the way of adventure and amusement. There was the Ocean House road, that started somewhere in the Mission hills and wound out past Skaggs’ palace and the old Ocean House and landing one in as fine a Sahara as could be found on the peninsula.

Again, there was sport to be found in wandering around the dunes that stretched from Strawberry Hill, but one required the endurance of Sinbad the Sailor and the patience and pertinacity of Robinson Crusoe to carry the expedition through to the surf line.

One advantage this torturous trail possessed was that when exhaustion was nigh one could easily reach the big road and get a mug of milk at Herne’s or some other of the several dairies that were clustered around the base of the lone mount with cross on its brow.

Come we now to two famous paths to ocean delights—the “Hookey Trails.” When the light of stolen freedom from schoolroom tasks illumined the hookey trails they could only have been discussed in whispers. Publication of these secrets! Horrors! Treason! But, now that the hookey officers are all dead or retired on pensions (peace to ‘em, wherever they are) and we’re all grown up, one can talk about these mystic paths. Schoolboys don’t play hookey any more, anyhow, I am informed by a responsible young person—so it is all right, as far as the moral point of view is concerned.

There were two hookey trails to the Cliff. They had no official starting places. One could converge to them from any part of the city, along several “safety first” lines. One was the Mountain lake and Wild Cat canyon trail, and the other was the Harbor View, Presidio and Fort Point trail. Both had the old Cliff and beach as objective points.

That famed wandered of old, Ulysses of Ithaca, never met with any more glorious adventures on his ten-year hoboing tour after the Trojan conflict, than did young San Francisco along the “hookey trails.” Ulysses may have had his Circes and his Cyclops, but he did not have the fishermen at Harbor View, hauling in their nets and scattering over the strand an infinite variety of finny freaks from the depths of the briny deep; he may have had a Polyphemus Cave, but he did not have an extensive quarry (and it’s in that city park hill yet) where one could sit down, in a cozy cleft, and, pulling out certain well-thumbed and treasured volumes, figure out how the tactics of “Big Feet Wallace” and his partner, the “Giant Trapper of the Brazos,” as applied to defeating the wily trickery of “Lone Wolf,” the Comanche chieftain, could be applied to the eternal undoing of all efforts of vigilant hookey officers.

That Scylla and Charybdis game of Ulysses was not a marker to the excitement of running the gauntlet of the vegetable producers whose gardens bespangled the Richmond district and escaping with an armload of carrots and turnips; nor could his Sirens hold a candle to the frogs at the French restaurants.

No, Ulysses wasn’t so much, not half the hero Jack Harkaway was. Poor fellow, it’s a pity he didn’t have a press agent like Ned Buntline or Captain Mayne Reid and a publisher by the name of Beadle. The only drawback to a complete sense of triumph over Ulysses was the dread shadow that always hung like the sword of Damocles over the hookey trail—the grim rattan of the morrow.

In the perspective of time the shadows gather over all the old trails that led through the sand dunes where the purple and yellow lupin grew in such profusion.

It was ever a land of shadows and one is inclined to yield to the gloom of the realization that as many of those who participated in its former gayety sleep to the right and left of the old cliff road and that even the Homestead arch, the Rusty Remnant and the “zip-zip” of Capless Chauncey Kane blowing down the wind, have gone their way, until suddenly the mellow sunshine of the “hookey trail” breaks in a golden shower and a step carries one over the sandy ridge, and there in glosy shines the old beach with its lacework of white surf and the broad Pacific stretching westward as fair as the dawn of another day.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 23 July 1916. 28.

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