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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 7: Skytram

From 1955 to 1966 a futuristic aerial cable car traversed Sutro Baths' cove from the Cliff House to Point Lobos. From all accounts, it wasn't as fun as it sounds.
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Feb 14, 2013

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 7: Skytram Outside Lands Podcast Episode 7: Skytram

(above) Sky Tram, Aug 6, 1957

View north from Cliff House showing Sky Tram passing behind Sutro Baths


Podcast Transcription

WNP7 - Sky Tram

Woody: [00:00:00] Record.

David: Are we ready?

Woody: I think we're relatively ready. If I can get this right though. I think we're relatively ready. Good. Okay. It's Outside Lands San Francisco. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: And we're from the Western Neighborhoods Project. David, what are we gonna talk about today?

David: Today we're going to talk about the Sky Tram.

Woody: Sky Tram. But before we do that, maybe we should have a word from our, oh, we don't have any sponsors, so let's actually do something else. Let me read you a piece of mail that I received via email about one of our previous podcasts.

David: All right,

Woody: You enjoyed…

David: So, someone wrote in and now we're going to talk about what they wrote.

Woody: This is one way to make the podcast last a half hour, right? We just keep saying what we're going to do.

David: Only one person asked for this thing to last half an hour.

Woody: It’s this [00:01:00] guy.

David: Oh.

Woody: So, we got an email from Mark and he says, enjoyed your podcast on street naming in the Sunset District. We kind of talked about the Sunset and the Richmond, but we had a podcast about how those street names were given.

David: You can find it.

Woody: Yes.

David: On our list of podcast episodes.

Woody: That's right.

David: Wherever it is you access those.

Woody: Mark writes that when he grew up just off Monterey Boulevard, the streets there were also in alphabetical order. They had Arcadia. I don't even think that's right. It's not Arcadia, is it? Baden, Congo, Detroit, Edna, Foerster, Gennessee and Ridgewood. Now Ridgewood doesn't seem to be the one that works in alphabetical order, but here's a little fun fact. Ridgewood used to be called Hamburg.

David: Oh.

Woody: And it got changed probably during World War I. A little anti-German sentiment changed the name from Ridge, [00:02:00] I mean from Hamburg to Ridgewood. That's what we…

David: And Westwood Park is, right? That's right at the edge of Westwood Park. So, it could have been matching up with those streets.

Woody: Yeah. Yeah. It's right where Sunnyside goes into Westwood Park and Westwood Highlands, and they already changed one name, because Monterey Boulevard used to be called Sunnyside Avenue or something like that. So, they'd already changed one street name. It wouldn't be so strange for them to not like Hamburg and make it one of the wood streets. So anyway, thanks for writing in Mark. If you wanna write into us about anything we've done and we're not liable to go to jail or anything. We'd love to hear from you. Please email us, well, if we open it up to what any, what we've done, we've done a lot of bad things, David. You know that?

David: How long is the statute of limitations?

Woody: Exactly. We don't wanna get, we don't wanna open the door to everything. Anyway, so that's our mail today.

David: But like I said, we're talking today about the Sky Tram.

Woody: Right, but [00:03:00] I have no idea, David, what is the Sky Tram?

David: Well, it's not in existence anymore. A better question was, what was the Sky Tram?

Woody: David? What was the Sky Tram?

David: The Sky Tram was an aerial tramway that went by cable across, from the Cliff House to the cliffs in front of the Sutro Baths on a cable.

Woody: On a cable.

David: That make sense?

Woody: Yeah, I think I know what you're talking about. So basically, this was like…

David: It was a thrill ride, Woody.

Woody: A thrill ride? From what I've heard of the Sky Tram, and I'm not a stranger to this story, actually, it was incredibly boring that it went very slow. And what it was is an aerial cable car. That's what you're talking about. Right?

David: Right.

Woody: Right. So, it kinda like hung in the air. People were sitting in there looking out windows and it went very slowly from the Cliff House, across that cove where Sutro Baths used to [00:04:00] be, to the little promontory.

David: Kind of right in front of Sutro Baths.

Woody: Right. Goes right in front of them. Right.

David: So, you could look into the Sutro Baths or you could look out to the ocean.

Woody: Gotcha. And it would go over that little bridge where Fisherman's Rock is out there and it would kind of stop somewhere over there on the far north promontory.

David: Right.

Woody: And people get out and walk around.

David: That's a spot that you can still see some remnants of where it was.

Woody: On the promontory.

David: Yeah. On the other side.

Woody: And so, what was the deal with this thing? It didn't even go that far. I mean, how far is that? Is it like a hundred yards or something?

David: Yeah, something like that. It's not very, no, it's farther than that. I don't know how far it was

Woody: But it…

David: You caught me without my facts.

Woody: Well, I don't know if we could find.

David: But we all know how far it is. I mean, you could see from one side to the other.

Woody: Right.

David: It's probably 500 yards, maybe.

Woody: And when did the Sky Tram operate?

David: The Sky Tram was opened on, in May of 1955, I believe. And it [00:05:00] opened to great excitement. In fact, the first week that it opened, they, oh, they, they had a bunch of reporters riding on it so that the reporters could write about it and tell people how great it was and how they should ride it, and it got stuck in the middle of its ride. Right in front of the Sutro Baths, it was stopped.

Woody: It got stuck with the reporters on it.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Like on it's like maiden voyage or one of these early…

David: Yeah.

Woody: Voyages. That's not a good start for the Sky Tram.

David: Yeah. That's kinda, it's kind of funky. Yeah. In fact, I, I read one newspaper report of that, of that, and I'll read it too here. “San Francisco, long famed for its cable cars, got a new version of one recently and the vehicle gave newsmen some unexpected thrills on its inaugural run. The cable car, an aerial tram…”

Woody: The Sky Tram.

David: “Got stuck high over the rocky shore partway on its [00:06:00] hundred foot run from the base of the Cliff House to Point Lobos.” That's not a hundred feet. It's a lot farther than a hundred feet.

Woody: Yeah, it's gotta be.

David: Maybe it's a hundred feet up.

Woody: I think it's oh maybe. Or it's a hundred yards at, it's like a football field. Maybe a little more.

David: Yeah. Anyway, “it got stuck high over the rocky shore from the base of the Cliff House to Point Lobos. While newsmen held their breath inside as the tram swayed sickeningly in the air, engineer Bob Gilman…”

Woody: Yes?

David: “Climbed on top of it and untangled the cable. Said one white face reporter after the experience, ‘The 10 minutes, the car swung in the middle of the span felt like a lifetime.’” That's how newsmen talked back then.

Woody: Was he, is he in Fiddler On The Roof or something? What was that?  The newsman used to talk.

David: That's how newsmen talk, you know?

Woody: Sure, sure. I know how newsman talk.

David: Yeah.

Woody: That's interesting. You said it was Bob Gilman?

David: Bob Gilman, yeah.

Woody: So that he was [00:07:00] part of the Whitney family, I think. Because I think Gilmans and Whitneys got married and were part of that whole little empire. George Whitney and his brother Leo, I think it was, they owned Playland and the Cliff House and Sutro Baths at that time.

David: Right?.

Woody: So, Gilman was part of the family and apparently brave enough to climb out on top of the Sky Tram.

David: Who else?

Woody: To fix it.

David: Not one of those newsmen were gonna climb out there. But this guy, anyway, this Sky Tram, so it was very modern looking. It had a very streamlined design to it.

Woody: Silvery

David: Yeah, it was kind of like a, it reminds me of an Airstream trailer.

Woody: With more windows.

David: Although not that curve, but that's, that's sort of like art modern sort of look to it.

Woody: Right. So, it's futuristic and the, but the funny thing about this, the thing that I think shocks me more than the Sky Tram when I see old postcard views or, or think, or anything about the, what it looked like. But on the other side, on this Point Lobo side, they installed like some waterfalls.

David: Right.

Woody: I mean, that was [00:08:00] the thing. It's like going to this point, it looks like you're going to the, the top of some Swiss mountain with, you know, waterfalls.

David: That's what it was based after. I mean, in the early ‘50s when they first started considering it, there are. I guess there are these aerial tramways that go around in the Swiss Alps.

Woody: Yeah. The other thing it reminds me of is, you know, if you go to Disneyland and you go on those little aerial trams they had there.

David: Oh yeah.

Woody: But didn't one go through the Matterhorn ride or something?

David: Oh yeah.

Woody: Yeah. And so, this is like that. It's like you're on a little…

David: Except it's a lot bigger. I mean, those are like two or three people.

Woody: Right. So, this would hold like 25 people. This guy.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But he installed these waterfalls too, right? What happened to those waterfalls that were over there?

David: Yeah.

Woody: Cause that seems neat.

David: Well, those were just pipe, those was piped up water from the very topmost point. And then it ran down to the second level where the Sky Tram terminal was, and then it kind of cascaded under the Sky Tram. So, you would ride in [00:09:00] and go right over this waterfall. right over to where the water was coming out.

Woody: And then you'd get out there and walk around and take some pictures.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And get back.

David: And I guess you could take the path back or I'm not sure how you would get back. Probably ride it back.

Woody: Yeah. Did you have to take your, because I heard it took forever. I mean, from people who've told me it was a slow…

David: Slow.

Woody: Dull, boring trip across, not a very high, you know, off the water sort of setting, I mean, anyway. It's just…

David: High enough.

Woody: Didn't seem very exciting.

David: If your Buick went off a hundred-foot cliff, you would…

Woody: I remember.

David: It wouldn't feel good. So, I got a feeling that if this thing fell, it wouldn't feel too good either.

Woody: Well, hopefully it wouldn't. I mean, we don't want, you're not getting on it to fall. I remember John Martini told me a story that when he got on the Sky Tram as a kid, while as a teenager, that the Sky tram operator would take out the cash drawer [00:10:00] where he took the, the cash for the people getting on, the little admission fee. I think it was like 50 cents or something. Yeah. And he would take it with him on the Sky Tram to go across. And John asked him like, why he did that? And he said, because if I left it here, it wouldn't be here when I got back. So, that's the kind of rough and tumble environment.

David: So, the Cliff House terminal was that was that, was the visitor center for years.

Woody: Yeah.

David: After the Sky Tram was there, you used to go to I, my memory of it, I don't remember the Sky Tram, but I do remember the little Visitor Center that was built there on the, on the northern edge of the platform, by the, behind the Cliff House.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Right across the, right across the path from Musee Mecanique.

Woody: Right.

David: And used to go in there and look at, look at, through the telescopes, and look at old pictures and things. And that was the Sky Tram terminal from that end. And then the other end was just kind of a little structure that it fit into and, and people could get on or off, I suppose.

Woody: And that Cliff House Visitor Center, the old Sky Tram [00:11:00] terminal, that got torn down when they renovated the Cliff House in 2000.

David: Right.

Woody: And that's when that went away. Now we've got the new Visitor Center up the hill.

David: So, let's get some facts. So, the Sky Tram opened 1955.

Woody: Right. May 3rd.

David: May 3rd. And when did, how long did it run?

Woody: The best date I've heard is that it closed in May 1966.

David: So, it was running…

Woody: 11 years.

David: Right up until the whole Sutro Baths burned down.

Woody: Yeah, that was later that year. So yeah. And I don't remember seeing any Sky Tram pictures in the background. I also don't know if it ran continually. I also have heard reports that it was very bulky and would break down a lot and that sort of thing. So, who knows if…

David: Dan Zelensky told me he rode it once and would never ride it again.

Woody: Why, he was worried?

David: Yeah. He saw, you know, out there in the, by the time he rode it, I guess it was later on, and he, [00:12:00] it was, it seemed very rusty and rickety.

Woody: Right. So, the best thing about the Sky Tram is probably its name.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Sky Tram just sounds good. You know?

David: It sounds like a great…

Woody: Yeah.

David: Attraction.

Woody: Right. But it didn't quite live up to it.

David: It didn't really go anywhere. and went there and went it, and it went there very slowly.

Woody: The other thing is, you know, we have some video on our website of somebody riding the Sky Tram that was donated to us. And this is another funny thing. So, Whitney puts this thing in and you assume that the best thing it's got going for it are its views. But if you're looking back at Sutro Baths at that time, it's, it's beat up.

David: Pretty decrepit.

Woody: It's got broken windows. It's rusty. It's got guano all over it.

David: Right.

Woody: It's not exactly the, the prettiest view. At least looking back, I mean, maybe looking out, maybe you could see Seal Rocks, that sort of thing might be nice. But it, it's not, it's not a great viewpoint even, you know? And now that whole cove is all gone. Sutro Baths [00:13:00] burned down, the Sky Tram is gone. The old Visitor Center Sky Tram thing is gone. And now we've got a river otter playing out there.

David: Right.

Woody: That's about the biggest attraction.

David: Right. I will say though, as I mentioned, if you go out to the promontory on the other side, you can look at the concrete, you can see where the pipe come up, that pump the waterfall water. You can see some, some repair to the cinder block wall there. Then you can imagine where the Sky Tram was. You can see maybe some steel coming up out of the ground.

Woody: Right.

David: And that's where it, that's where it finished up.

Woody: You know, we have to talk about it at a, on a different podcast, is that whole side over there is very neat. I mean, it's honeycombed with tunnels and uh, little intake tunnels for the baths and other sort of natural tunnels. And we should get John Martini to talk about it. But it's almost like something out of a 1950s Disney movie. You know, it's like, this was Family Robinson or something. There's secret tunnels and all [00:14:00] sorts of neat things over there.

David: Sutro made his fortune in tunneling. So…

Woody: Yes. He had less success, I think with the Baths, but more tunneling. It's true. Well, that's it. Did we have anything else to say about the Sky Tram today?

David: I'm sorry that I wasn't able to ride it.

Woody: You are?

David: But not very sorry. 

Woody: I'm not that sorry. I, I, you know, going to the Playland and riding the Big Dipper, that sounds fun. But Sky Tram does not really appeal to me. Before we go, I should tell you, Dave, we have some events coming up that we should tell people about.

David: That's right.

Woody: In case they hear this before Saturday night. This Saturday, February 16th, you and I are gonna do a little presentation on Ocean Beach roadhouses at Three Fish Studios and that's at 4541 Irving Street. And this is all on our website. You just…

David: Irving and what?

Woody: Irving like 47th Avenue.

David: Oh.

Woody: Something like that. You can go to our website, click the events button or link and you can read all this. We also have a walk out in the Sky Tram area [00:15:00] for Flickr people, people who…

David: Photographers.

Woody: Yeah. Use Flickr like the next weekend, and…

David: Anyone can come to that.

Woody: Anyone can come? Okay. And we'll be there for that. And…

David: We have the History Expo

Woody: That's right, at the Old Mint, 5th and Mission, on the weekend of March 2nd and 3rd.

David: And that's not just us. That’s like 40 local history groups.

Woody: Yes.

David: So, if you wanna know about San Francisco history and get to see the Old Mint.

Woody: Yes. Inside.

David: Inside, you should come to that.

Woody: And you know how much all these events cost?

David: I don't know, maybe I can't afford it.

Woody: They're all free, David, free history we're doling out here, Sunday.

David: How do we do it?

Woody: I don't know what, what's not free is on that Sunday is also, the Balboa Theater is having its birthday bash, so,

David: Oh yeah.

Woody: That costs money, but that's well worth it.

David: So that's on the 24th.

Woody: [00:16:00] That's on March 3rd.

David: March 3rd.

Woody: Sunday night. But it's on our events page. Don't trust me. Look at our website.

David: OutsideLands.org.

Woody: That's right. So, I think that's it for this time. You got anything else?

David: I'm not sorry I didn't ride the Sky Tram.

Woody: Okay, good. Okay, well, we'll see you next time. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: This is Outside Lands San Francisco from the Western Neighborhoods Project. See you next time. Learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history at outsidelands.org.

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