Before Now – Naming Kelly’s Cove

Mark Lukach recently wrote a fine article about the annual reunion of surfers at Kelly’s Cove, Ocean Beach’s northernmost meeting of sand and sea just below the Cliff House. Lore, legend and some long memories identify this patch of rock, sand and eddying swells as the birthplace of San Francisco surfing, where inner-tube paddlers gave way over the years to longboarders on wooden planks, and then to the neoprene-clad riders of fish-tails and quad-finned carbon-fiber creations of today.

But who was Kelly, and why is this area so important to local surfing history named after him?

Well-dressed tourists on their visit to "Cliff House Beach." Photo by J.B. Monaco.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, long before the advent of surf culture in California, the land around Kelly’s Cove was usually called “Cliff House Beach.” It was a popular place for snapshots. Locals and tourists wearing their bowlers and suits or sand-sweeping dresses would pose to be photographed, with Seal Rocks to their side and the monumental Victorian Cliff House looming behind.

In addition to overdressed visitors of modest propriety, Ocean Beach also attracted free spirits, eccentrics and visionaries. It was a common belief at the turn of the 20th century that salt water, ocean breezes and even “sand-baths” improved physical well-being. Men subscribing to these theories soon were running, swimming and doing various calisthenics at Ocean Beach.

Long before our nation’s obsession with exercise programs, these early aficionados of open-air workouts dressed in singlets or exercise suits of their own design and were seen as slightly odd. And many were. With the exception of large yearly runs by the Olympic Club and other fraternal groups, exercise at the beach brought to the minds of most people a stereotype: an older man in strange swimwear who was a bit of a hermit and curmudgeon, and who professed wild ideas.

One such beachside character was Old Man Kelly (recalled by some old-timers as “Spider Kelly,” although they may be conflating names with the Spider Kelly club and bar in the old Barbary Coast.). Patrick Cunneen remembers being a sixth-grader in the mid-1940s, making his first trips to what everyone called Kelly’s Cove:

“We used to save all the dough we could during the week — bottles, cans turned in for recycling — and nip the 7 streetcar to Playland at the Beach. We’d spend all our dough there on rides and candy, and then we went over to Kelly’s to build a huge fire. Nothing a kid likes better than making a big fire out of driftwood. The guy we thought was Kelly had a platform with a windbreak up on the rocks, no roof. It was made of driftwood and he had his own little fire pit. It was like he lived there.

“Other guys, older guys like firemen, cops and bartenders, hung out there too, and would often chase us kids off. The old guy would swim and run. We assumed that was Kelly.”

Others heard the mysterious Kelly would take a daily swim around Seal Rocks.

By the time Cunneen was in high school, a younger set of athletes — swimmers using flippers, runners and sprinters, early surfers — was visiting Kelly’s Cove, most eschewing team sports at school for the outsider life at Kelly’s Cove. One group wore swimsuits with skulls and crossbones on the chest.

It was about this time, the late 1940s and early 1950s, that the crowd at Kelly’s began the practice of replacing driftwood bonfires with an old car tire set alight. Cunneen remembers having to cut small chunks of rubber off to get the fire going, before tossing the rest of the tire on. The oily smoke and fire of the tire was a beacon on shore for those in the water, while it kept the beachside crowd warm on foggy days.

The "Kelly Tires" billboard hangs above the crowd for al to see. Courtesy of Mary Courtwright Collins.

Tires bring us to a second theory for the naming of Kelly’s Cove.

In the 1920s, the Kelly Tire Company had a billboard just east of the Great Highway and Kelly’s Cove, against the cliff of Sutro Heights. Could the billboard have provided a shorthand identification to arrange get-togethers on the former Cliff House Beach? Is it just a coincidence?

Pick your favorite theory, but I prefer to think the name came from the hermit on the rocks, rather than believe it is due to corporate influence.

Trivia Answers: The answer to our first trivia question — What do surfers call the beach below the Cliff House? — should be evident by now: Kelly’s Cove. Last column’s  trivia question was what names Adolph Sutro gave to Seal Rocks. The answer: Hermit, Arch, Cone, Repose and North Seal. I’ll let each of you figure out which rock is which.

New trivia question: What popular candy shares its name with an Ocean Beach roadhouse from the early 20th century?

Woody LaBounty is the founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the history of western San Francisco, and the author of “Carville-by-the-Sea: San Francisco’s Streetcar Suburb.”

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