Before Now – Walking the wire from Cliff House to Seal Rocks
In the 19th century, in the days before televisions, radios, video games and the Internet, before personal automobiles allowed people to travel great distances for a day’s diversion, many San Franciscans looking for weekend amusement would head to Ocean Beach. The surf, sand and open vistas provided their own pleasures, but performers, promoters and daredevils also offered periodic spectacle for the recreation-seeking crowds.
Something as simple as a ship aground or a beached marine mammal could draw hundreds of onlookers. In 1895, a whale carcass that washed ashore near the Cliff House was fought over by Adolph Sutro, then mayor of San Francisco, and one Eddie Farrell, who claimed he paid 80 cents to the man who first stumbled on the whale for “complete and clear title.”
The mayor sent men to snatch the whale off the beach before Farrell could erect a tent and charge admission to view the decomposing corpse. Sutro had some experience in salvaging sea creatures. Just six months earlier he had gained possession of the dying sea lion Big Ben Butler and had the pinniped stuffed for display in Sutro Baths. He had similar plans for the whale, but so far I haven’t found evidence of a cetacean exhibit in the Baths.
When the waves didn’t wash up anything of interest, roadhouses and transit companies — hungry for the nickels of thirsty riders — would often arrange for an attraction.
Capt. Junius Foster, operator of the Cliff House, had benefited from crowds that came to see swimming races around Seal Rocks. In 1865 he decided to go for something more spectacular and arranged for circus clown James Cooke to walk on a tightwire from the rocks to the Cliff House, a 450-foot journey 100 feet above the swells.
James Cooke wasn’t specifically a tightwire walker, but more of a well-rounded variety artist — clowning, juggling and sword swallowing were all in his repertoire. (As a former circus performer of the same breed, I have a soft spot for a jack-of-all-trades entertainer like Cooke.) He was in San Francisco with an Australian circus and was known for walking a wire while carrying a grizzly-bear cub on his back.
The feat was extensively advertised in the newspapers. On the scheduled day, Sept. 24, 1865, the Alta California reported the immense crowd arrived “on horseback, in hacks, in express wagons, in carts, in buggies, omnibuses and every possible variety of two or four wheeled vehicles, and on foot by thousands—old men, young men, women and children, thronged the road in one vast procession from Montgomery street to the Cliff House, from early breakfast to half-past two P.M.”
The newspapers wrote that “nothing short of a hurricane” would stop Cooke, but after a sun-splashed morning the afternoon turned rainy and windy. Apparently determined not to disappoint the crowd, which cheered his courage and the real possibility they might see a disaster to tell about for decades, Cooke rowed out to the rocks, undressed to his pink acrobat tights and chalked up his balancing pole. After a few aborted attempts of a step or two in the gusty conditions, the funambulist decided to call off the walk.
Most forgave Cooke for not risking his life in such dangerous weather, but the Chronicle noted the absence of a hurricane, and mocked Cooke and Foster for tricking so many people to come see a man row out to visit the sea lions. One writer described Ben Butler, — the famous sea lion then still in his prime — as sorely disappointed that Cooke didn’t fall and make a meal for him and his harem.
In more favorable weather, Cooke made a successful crossing in front of a much smaller gathering a few days after. He and Foster immediately advertised in the newspapers: “Yielding to the urgent and repeated solicitations of a large number of my friends and many citizens of this city, who could not attend the performance of Wednesday, I will repeat the Dangerous and Thrilling Feat of WALKING THE TIGHT ROPE, (Providence Permitting,)…” Providence did permit, and on the weekend the clown again conquered the span.
The following summer Cooke’s feat was equaled, if not bettered, by an 18-year-old woman, Rosa Celeste. Her walk to the rocks was made dramatic by the snapping of one of the guy wires that held the rope steady, and another day of damp weather. As the Chronicle reported in a scintillating you-are-there tense: “A fog now springs up from the sea, and by the time she has accomplished two-thirds of the way, has enveloped in its misty folds the brave young funambuliste. Now all eyes are directed toward Seal Rock. See! The flag is waved! It tells that the feat has been accomplished in safety and shout after shout peals forth from the excited crowd.”
The game Celeste sent a note back on a wire that she would return across the rope, but the skittish Foster, happy with his crowd and worried a disaster would mar the day, convinced her to use a rowboat.
Although I haven’t found firm evidence of the event, there’s a commonly told story of another stunt from Cliff House to Seal Rocks that may top both Cooke and Celeste. Miss Millie Lavelle supposedly rode a pulley along a wire from the Cliff House to Seal Rocks while holding on by nothing but her teeth. I did find that in 1891 she made a descent on a wire from the Cliff House to Ocean Beach, but such a comparatively tame stunt would no doubt have made Big Ben Butler sniff in disdain.
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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