Cliff House Steam Railroad

Unfinished History

The Ferries and Cliff Steam Line, opened on March 1, 1886, ran from California and Central (now Presidio Ave.) to a point above the Cliff House at 48th and Point Lobos. The route was along California Street to 33rd Ave., where the line turned north to follow a very scenic route overlooking the Golden Gate. The line was built by the Powell Street cable system to give them a route from downtown to the Cliff House. The last day of operation for the trains was May 17, 1905, when the city's last steam-operated streetcar line gave way to prepare the route for electrification. (Charles Smallwood, "The White Front Cars of San Francisco" 1978)


Ferries and Cliff Steam Line at Land's End.

Photo: Private Collection

Cliff House Train May 16 1905 AAC-8235.jpg

Cliff House Train, May 16, 1905.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

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Video: Ferries & Cliff Steam railroad along north coast, filmed January 11, 1902 by Thomas Edison Inc.

Video: Internet Archive

(Golden Gate without bridge in background)


Manual labor clearing the right of way near Land's End, early 20th century.

Photo: provenance unknown


El Camino del Mar at far left, looking west towards Land's End. Cliff House railroad tracks abandoned after February 7, 1925 landslide.

Photo: SFDPW, courtesy C. R. collection

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Scenic hiking path around northern shoreline to Land's End in 2013 traverses area that collapsed into sea that once held the #1 streetcar line.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

This streetcar line, later the # 1 Sutter & California, was the successor to the narrow gauge steam train that ran here from 1888 to 1905. This line slid into the drink in 1925, a little to the east of Land's End. The locomotives were double ended. No, there were no cows on this route however, those things on the ends are known as "Pilots" … and both ends had pilots. This system had no turntables. All locomotives had an "East" and" West" end. One more thing: Eagle Point Tunnel was one of 2 tunnels on the Land's End (Cliff) line. the other was at Land's End itself. By 1900, Eagle Point Tunnel had been daylighted (converted into a cut). in 1905, during the conversion of this line to electric streetcar operation, the Land's End Tunnel was daylighted. The land's End Tunnel was always a single track tunnel, and Eagle Point Tunnel was built as double track. This image looks like it was taken before the second track was installed.

Cliff house railroad at Eagle Point Tunnel, J Smith photographer via Emiliano Echeverria 10494924 10152626495048618 3798382433212627879 o.jpg

Cliff House Railroad at Eagle Point Tunnel.

Photo: J. Smith photographer, courtesy Emiliano Echeverria

Land's End is one of the weirdest and most beautiful sections of San Francisco. On the hill above and east of Land's End is the Palace of the Legion of Honor, itself built upon an old potter's field (a cemetery for unnamed and unmarked bodies). The land here is notoriously shifty and unstable; landslides have been known to appear out of nowhere and bury unwary victims; rescue parties have noted that the "molten" land continues to quiver and vibrate while they search for the bodies.

Adolph Sutro built his famous Sutro Baths between Land's End and the Cliff House, and to bring patrons to it he also had a railroad built which opened in 1896. It ran from Presidio Avenue to his Baths and Museum at the Cliff House.

Trains in the Outside Lands

As part of Shaping San Francisco's ongoing 25th anniversary celebration in 2023, long-time friends and collaborators at the Western Neighborhoods Project join us to explore the deep transit history of the west side of San Francisco. A lively evening featured the inestimable Emiliano Echeverria, whose knowledge of San Francisco's transportation history is unmatched. Emiliano drew from his remarkable DVD publications on the Steam Railroads of San Francisco and the history of United Railroads to reveal the transit-driven process of "conquering" the outside lands.

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