Before Now – The Olympic Salt Water Company
Round, with graceful, arched window openings and capped pilasters in between, the Romanesque edifice had faded lettering painted along the cornice and over one of the window arches: “Plunge,” “Tub Baths,” and “Bush & Larkin,” a strange reference to an intersection six miles from the beach.
The story behind the brick structure stretches back before the start of Playland, into the late 19th century, and connects with another Ocean Beach landmark that puzzles many who look at old photos and postcards: a long iron pier emerging out of the sand and extending out into the Pacific Ocean just south of where Balboa Street intersected with the beach. By the mid-1960s the pier was little more than a few pairs of skeletal posts that jutted out of the waves, acting as a southern boundary line for what local surfers called Kelly’s Cove. (Supposedly, Old Man Kelly, the possibly mythical namesake of the area, exercised by doing pull-ups on the pier.)
Both the round brick building and the old pier were created by the Olympic Salt Water Company, a business formed in 1892 to satisfy the public’s general preference for swimming in salt water. The health benefits of saltwater immersion were promoted since antiquity, but the pollution of bays, rivers and lakes after the Industrial Revolution boosted the reputation and popularity of seaside swimming and wading. Ocean breezes and salt water were synonymous with health.
Olympic Club president William Greer Harrison came up with the idea of pumping seawater from Ocean Beach to the club at Post Street between Mason and Taylor streets, for a saltwater pool. Club membership had declined, and the addition of a saltwater swimming option was thought to be an attraction that would bring in new blood. The directors of the newly formed Olympic Salt Water Company — all but one were Olympic Club members — secured rights from the city to transport the water across town for 50 years.
The company built an iron pier supporting and protecting an intake pipe that ran more than 300 yards out from the shore; a pumping station a few hundred yards from the beach just south of today’s Balboa Street; and miles of pipe across the mostly empty Richmond District to deliver water from the Pacific Ocean downtown. Part of the pitch the company gave the Board of Supervisors was the water would be available for salt baths in private homes along the route, useful for flushing sewer lines and cleaning streets, and available for firefighting needs. No household or agency seems to have taken advantage of these additional amenities, however, and the whole enterprise really was about doing laps in salty water.
The Olympic Club’s new pool, or “plunge,” opened on Jan. 6, 1893 and was an immediate success. Membership increased as hoped for, with the pool as a major attraction. The club contracted for 200,000 gallons of seawater a day, but the Olympic Salt Water Company made most of its money off the creation in 1894 of the Lurline Baths, a public bathhouse with an impressive colonnaded façade on the northwest corner of Bush and Larkin streets. For 30 cents, one could rent a suit and swim not only in cold brine, but also in ocean water heated by leading the mains through the steam engines of the nearby Sutter Street Cable Company powerhouse.
The round brick building revealed during Playland’s destruction in 1972 was the company’s pump house. Sixteen feet in diameter, capped by a sky-lighted roof with a vented octagonal finial, the pump house enclosed a 22-foot-deep well and pumping works powered by three coal oil steam engines in an attached building behind. A 120-foot-tall chimney loomed above the whole operation.
Up to 3 million gallons of seawater a day were drawn from the pier’s intake pipe and sent though a 16-foot metal pipe out Balboa and over today’s Geary Boulevard to the company’s 5 million-gallon reservoir and settling tanks near today’s Euclid and Masonic streets in Laurel Heights. From the reservoir, the water went on to the Olympic and Lurline pools by gravity.
The popularity of saltwater swimming remained high into the early 20th century. Adolph Sutro built his Sutro Baths in 1894 in the cove just north of Ocean Beach. The City of San Francisco opened the massive open-air Fleishhacker Pool (today the site of the San Francisco Zoo parking lot), and pumped in seawater to fill it just 100 yards from the beach. When the Olympic Club rebuilt its clubhouse after the 1906 earthquake and fire, a new saltwater tank was installed.
As the Annals of the Olympic Club explained in 1914: “Ask any Olympian what he regards as the most entertaining feature of his club, and without hesitation he will reply — ‘the swimming tank and its salt-water accessories.’”
Beachside amusements began to surround the Olympic Salt Water facility on the Great Highway, and by the 1920s a decorative archway framed the front of the pump house, interrupting a series of new eateries facing the beach. The Sea Lion restaurant (later the Chicken Range) crowded in on the north, while the Pie Shop, Hot House and It’s It ran to the south. Playland’s Chutes water ride rose up just to the east, and one could be forgiven for mistaking the round roof of the pump house for the similar-appearing Loof carousel a block away.
The Olympic Salt Water Company’s franchise from the city expired in the midst of World War II, but operations had taken a hit earlier than that. Competition, maintenance issues and changing tastes closed Lurline Baths in 1936. The pump house was boarded up from public view, while the iron pier began a crumbling decline into an eyesore and safety hazard.
Saltwater swimming fell out of fashion by the 1950s. Sutro Baths became a skating rink before it closed and burned down. Voters rejected a plan to restore the decaying Fleishhacker Pool, and it shut down in 1971. Eventually, even the Olympic Club’s grand pool was filled with chlorinated fresh water.
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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