CONTENT WARNING: SUICIDE. Please skip this article if it will be triggering or harmful for you to read it. If you are in crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The service is available to anyone. All calls are confidential. http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
“Spectrally swaying from the limb of a tree in Sutro forest, the dead body of an unidentified man hung until natural decomposition parted the head and trunk of the corpse. Then the trunk rolled off in one direction and the head in another. The looped rope, hanging from the limb, alone gave mute evidence of the cause of the tragedy. Whoever it was who gave himself up to death deliberately months ago in the dim shadows of the wood, he overlooked not the smallest detail that would prevent his identity from becoming known. In the clothing of the dead man there was nothing by which it could be learned what man had tenanted the bundle of rags enwrapping the grisly skeleton.” - San Francisco Call, 1903
HAPPY FALL EVERYONE!!!! We are diving rotting head first into spooky season beginning with Sutro Forest which SHOULD DEFINITELY BE HAUNTED even if it's not. This is a story about the founding of San Francisco, about philanthropy and populism and MARITAL PROBLEMS. It’s about public spaces and how we use them and what they reveal about our society, It’s about mental health the scourge of suicide. And finally, it’s about MY neighborhood. Before I get into the post, I want to acknowledge the source that inspired me to write about it: The Ghosts of Sutro Forest, a Legacy of Suicides by Rex Bell.
Sutro Forest sits atop Mount Sutro on the Western side of the city. It’s a gorgeous interior greenbelt full of eucalyptus trees, ivy, and walkable trails. When it first re-opened to the public about ten years ago, it was much more dense and overgrown than it is now. The forest was so full you could barely hear outside noise from traffic. It was a cloud forest: always damp and lush inside. The canopy filtered out most of the sun, so it was very shaded. A lot of the old trees had fallen across the canyon in the center of it, giving it an overgrown jungle feel. The forest has been reduced, and it’s sunnier and drier on the trails. It’s also grown in popularity and as the UCSF campus expands, more and more folks are on the trails. In other words, it’s way less creepy than it used to be and that’s not my preference.
Who is Adolph Sutro, and Why is Everything Named After Him?
It turns out he was a pretty cool guy which is honestly a refreshing change, isn’t it? He didn’t own human beings, he didn’t wipe out an indigenous population, he wasn’t a eugenicist or a corporate raider. He was an engineer, a builder, and a man of the people. He was an OG San Franciscan, who lived and worked here at the time of the Barbary Coast and the Gold and Silver Rush. Things are named after him because he built a ton of shit in this town, and at one point he owned about 30% of the land. And he gave most of it back to the people.
Adolph Sutro was born and raised in Prussia. He came to the United States as part of a large emigration of Prussian Jews in 1850. To get from New York to San Francisco, he took the perilous Panama route, and he met famous baddie John C. Fremont on the passage over. Upon settling here, he described Gold Rush San Francisco like this:
“The climate is said to be good, but I doubt it. The nights are cold and it rains almost daily. I wear woollen underdrawers and woolen undershirts. No city in the world has ever been built so rapidly. Most streets have very clean wooden pavements. On one square alone there are 10-12 magnificent gambling places, always filled. Almost every night a gambler is shot or stabbed. Rents are $500-600 a month for a tiny store, interest rates are 5%-10% a month.”
LOL THE MORE THINGS CHANGE.
Sutro lived and worked in the heart of the Barbary Coast, running shops in what is now the Financial District. This stretch of time was the height of gang violence, and Sutro was attacked and stabbed in the face. He grew his famous mutton chops to cover the scar.
The Sutro Tunnel - Virginia City
Shopkeeping was lucrative, but Sutro wanted to build something. In 1859, the Silver Rush began in Nevada, and in 1860, Sutro set out for Virginia City Nevada to try to cash in. The rush was predicated on the discovery of the Comstock Lode, found by Henry Thomkins Comstock in 1858. Comstock actually met Sutro and Fremont on the passage to San Francisco, though he wouldn’t end up nearly as successful as his shipmates. His name is forever tied to those riches, but he never saw them for himself.
When Sutro arrived in Virginia City, it was full of miners and folks seeking to make fortunes off of them, but there was no infrastructure. The town had only 3 streets and 6 structures - everything else was a tent. There was little to eat and the water was disgusting. The mines were difficult to operate and flooded constantly.
They were also extremely dangerous. Between 1863 and 1880, 300 miners died and 600 were injured. It was so hot underground that water collecting at the bottom of the shafts would boil. The temperature in the mines ran between 108 and 112 degrees Fahrenheit, and miners could only work in 15 minute shifts before being rotated out. Mining equipment constantly struck water in underground streams and flooded the mine shafts. TH Watkins described the mines as “a catalog of horrors to challenge Dante’s tour through the inferno. Besides falling down a mine shaft, miners could be torn to shreds by premature explosions of blasting materials, roasted in underground fires, hit by falling equipment, or crushed by a runaway ore car.” In one particularly harrowing event, the Yellow Jacket Mine Fire killed 45 miners Some of the miners are still entombed in the mine shaft that were sealed off to stop the fire.
Sutro saw a solution to this problem: a massive drainage tunnel that would run under the mines and eliminate the flooding and associated hazards, making the mines safer and more efficient. Designing and building this tunnel became his mission, and it wasn’t easy. He had to maneuver political, financial, and engineering challenges to make it happen, and it became an obsession for him. From conception to opening, it took around ten years to get it done.
For financing, he first turned to the Bank of California, which was run by William Ralston. If you live on the Peninsula you know this name! Everything is named after Ralston but *especially* in Belmont. When I hear his name it brings back fond memories of driving to the old Belmont Ice Rink (RIP) to play hockey, and get Wendy’s on the way home (IFYYK). Ralston was also known as “San Francisco’s Sugar Daddy” because he poured so much money into the town. In the end, he and Sutro were alike in that way.
Speaking of sugar daddies, William Sharon was also part of the Bank. Remember him?? Sharon was a hot mess of a man who gained and lost his fortune a couple of times over. He ran a corrupt bank office in Virginia City, became Senator of NV, and was sued for alimony by a crazy actress that he dumped (FTR SHE DESERVED TO BE PAID FOR PUTTING UP WITH THIS GUY). Mary Ellen Pleasant testified against him! David Terry represented his actress wife AND THEN MARRIED HER! Sharon’s orbit was pure mayhem.
The Bank of California initially agreed to fund Sutro’s Tunnel, but pulled out and decided to build a competing project instead - a railroad. They totally screwed him! Sutro hated them and called them “The Bank Ring;” Ralston and Sharon became his mortal enemies.
Sutro got his in the end, though. He built his tunnel without them, made a fortune, went on to become beloved in San Francisco, and lived to an old age. Ralston’s bank collapsed in a humiliating scandal and he walked right out into the ocean and died. Sharon’s fortune fell apart and he was the subject of two scandalous trials involving his mistress. CONSEQUENCES.
After the Bank of California fucked him, it took Sutro many years to raise the money for the project. He first tried to enlist the federal government to finance the tunnel. In 1871 the Sutro Tunnel Commission was approved by President Grant. The Commission traveled to Virginia City to study the project, but the mines were controlled by the bank ring, who manipulated what the Commissioners saw, making the mines look safer than they were. Sutro went to Congress to fight the report, and the House recommended that the United States loan him $2M to fund construction, but the Credit Mobilier scandal intervened, and it was no longer feasible for the government to support him.
That scandal, by the way, is brought to you by THE BIG FOUR (not the cemeteries, the Railroad Barons). For the rest of his life Sutro hated them, making them his new enemy and even running for mayor (and winning) on an anti-railroad platform. Sooooo, that’s a second set of lifelong enemies and keep them in mind, because he’s gonna get his revenge later. The dude almost always ends up on top.
In the end, Sutro managed to cobble together financing from various investors, including the unions, to keep the tunnel project going. The miner’s union put $50,000 into the project because it made the mines safer. Sutro became a one man roadshow, traveling all over the US and Europe to convince investors to back his dream. In all, it took nine years to get the project financed and built, but once it was open, it made him a fortune. He made $10,000 a day renting the tunnel to the mines, who in turn pulled out an astonishing amount of silver. Sutro became a millionaire.
Sutro’s Impact on San Francisco
With the tunnel done, Sutro moved back to San Francisco to start more projects. This dude never sat still. He started by buying up property. This is where Sutro Forest comes from! Sutro bought 40 separate parcels of land, 2200 acres total, most of which was known as “The Outside Lands.” Yes, that is a music festival that I’m too old for, but also it was the entire area west of Stanyan, what is now known as the Sunset and Richmond Districts.
I live in Cole Valley, near the Sutro Forest. One of my neighbors told me that there was a stone retaining wall behind our houses that marked Sutro’s original property boundary. According to the lore, he owned everything from that wall to the ocean. I went to my OTHER neighbor’s house and hung off this precarious ledge in her yard to try to get a look at it. It’s steep and overgrown because there’s an old gulley there, but there is definitely a stone wall. Sooooo, I got a little Sutro on my own fence line. Thank you Lori and I’m glad no one had to use the premises liability coverage that day.
Once he had acquired like, half the city, he started building ALL KINDS OF STUFF! I told you this man loved a project. What’s unique about him, however, is that his projects were for the people. He built a huge house out at Land’s End (SUTRO HEIGHTS OBVS), and he filled his lot with gardens and statuary, and it was open to the public. So open, in facts, that there were tables on the outlook for COMMONERS to hang out on! And then when the train fare to get out there got too high, he built a goddamned train that would bring people for a lower fare.
The train was useful because he had two other projects out there - The Sutro Baths and the Cliff House, both of which were created with regular people in mind. According to his biographer, Sutro bought the Cliff House because it was becoming seedy and he wanted something nicer in his neighborhood. The Baths were an engineering project akin to the Tunnel - a huge challenge involving stone and water and machinery. It was a gorgeous marvel that everyday people could afford, but it was ultimately not a money maker.
Sutro’s projects - aimed at regular people - got him a lot of news coverage and name recognition in San Francisco. In 1894, he capitalized on that notoriety and ran for mayor against Collis Huntington, one of the Big Four. We’ll do a whole post on the Big Four sometime, but history remembers them as corporate robber barons whose reputations were laundered through the capitalist heroics of the Transcontinental Railroad. The Big Four got caught with their hands in the government cookie jar right as Sutro was hoping to get his in there, and he never forgot it. The Credit Mobilier Scandal ruined his chance at federal investment in the tunnel. He also fought with the Southern Pacific Railroad (Huntington’s creature) over fares and contracts and passengers.
Sutro positioned himself as a man of the people and won the Mayoral race, but he wasn’t actually cut out for the job. Running a city isn’t like building grandiose engineering projects, and it’s definitely not something you can chart your own course on. The man was not built for compromise or collaboration. Although people loved him, he’s not remembered as a great mayor.
Sutro couldn’t be chill in his marriage, either. While in Virginia City he took up with a woman called “The $90,000 Diamond Widow.” When his wife found out, she attacked the widow with a champagne bottle (RICH PEOPLE, CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON). She returned to San Francisco and filed for divorce, but instead settled on separation, with Leah Sutro and their children secured for life.
Sutro moved on, though, and began a relationship with Clara Kluge, 30 years younger. He kept her in a lavish lifestyle in Pac Heights and they had one son. She claimed to be married, and sued for a share in the inheritance. I guess he and William Sharon had that in common, after all. After Sutro’s death, she moved into a home on Grattan Street, which if you’re counting, is like the third Cole Valley connection here. Never let it be said that I don’t give my neighborhood enough credit.
One of Sutro’s many projects was urban beautification through planting. He planted the forests around Laguna Honda and west of Twin Peaks - including our very own Mount Sutro/Sutro Forest. He experimented with different tree species and settled on the eucalyptus, which grew well in sandy soil. On Arbor Day in 1886, the city named him the father of tree planting in California. Sutro Forest isn’t the only greenspace he created - Golden Gate Park, Mount Davidson, Sherwood Forest, and the many Western neighborhoods still have Sutro’s trees today.
Sutro Forest has been standing for over 130 years, but it’s beginning to change. The land is now owned by UCSF, and they have been working to reduce its density. It’s kind of a bummer - when I first started walking in there it was incredible. Locals called it a cloud forest -- the fog hung in the trees and supported all kinds of vines and plants and animals. My children, who were small at the time, called it the “Magic Forest.” Looking out at the forest from my yard, it was like a fog shrouded, impenetrable wall of trees. Also, not to be a dick, but it WAS WAY SPOOKIER LIKE THAT.
Now the forest has been thinned, the fog doesn’t coalesce in there. Sun comes through! Which is nice in this town, but it’s also a lot drier and more boring (truly, I have a gift with words). UC has been working on removing “non-native” trees, which in case you haven’t been paying attention to plant politics in California, is the newest trend in urban landscape management. Eucalyptus are a particular boogeyman, and this forest is FULL OF THEM. That shit has been all over the Bay Area for like, a hundred years, so I wish them luck. We used to run track at San Mateo High around the school in this small eucalyptus grove, constantly stepping on those stupid nuts and rolling ankles and inhaling their BO smell. We HATED THOSE TREES. And look at me now! Pining for the Magic Forest of Body Odor Trees a mere 3 decades later.
In UC’s defense, the trails are much better maintained and more accessible now. They’ve expanded the trails all the way to the top, and with the cleared trees, you can now take in an expansive bridge to bridge view of San Francisco. San Franciscans are psycho about their views and on a nice day, this one is the shit. The site is actually 61 acres and it connects a bunch of neighborhoods together in the center. It’s full of bikes, hikers, dogs, and UC residents who cut through there to park in my neighborhood. My husband uses it to get to the Inner Sunset instead of walking on the street. It really is an urban oasis, and we used it A LOT during the pandemic.
The Spooky Part
Sutro Forest has kind of a creepy past - it was once a popular place for people to commit suicide. According to my source for this article, “The Ghosts of Sutro Forest” by Rex Bell (GO READ THIS! IT’S SO GREAT!!), local news reported at least 10 suicides in the forest from 1899-1908. That’s...kind of a lot?? Most of these unfortunate folks were found by foragers or people walking in the woods, which is just awful. Bell tells us that the location was secluded enough that individuals could be assured of success, but their bodies often went unfound for a long time. That means they were badly decomposed and hard to identify in many cases. As late as the 1930s, skeletons were still being discovered in the forest.
These victims had a lot of things in common. They were all men, they mostly hung themselves, and alcoholism, poverty, and mental illness play a role in most cases. This checks out with the historical data on suicide in the United States. In 1860, the most common method was hanging, in 1900 it was poisoning, and in 1910 and forward it was gunshot. All three of these methods show up in Bell’s news search. He posits that hanging was the most obvious method, given the trees, which is interesting given how brittle the eucalyptus trees look now. Their bark peels off and their limbs kind of droop - they don’t look sturdy enough to support a hanging. Maybe they were stronger a hundred and twenty years ago, when they were young. An unfortunate and grisly side effect of hanging is that the heads were often separated from the bodies, leaving a dangling noose and a headless corpse beneath, to be found by some poor hiker.
Another particularly weird scenario was poison. Known popularly as a woman’s weapon (even against herself), it was the most popular way to kill yourself in 1900. Here’s an account from 1899: “The deceased wore a striped suit of worsted material, a black sweater and a pair of bicycle shoes. In the pockets were found a bicycle pump. a pair of pants protectors, and a packet white crystals marked “poison" - the contents of which were afterward found to be cyanide of potassium.” Maybe I’ve watched too many Datelines, but an envelope marked poison?? Just sitting with the body? This is way too suspicious. It sounds like a cartoon murder cover-up. Keith Morrison, I need you on this!!
As guns became more prevalent in the United States, they took more lives by suicide. A 1904 suicide in the forest was attributed to a rusted “British bulldog pistol” found near the body - it was a unique enough circumstance to make the headline. On April 13, 1908, Dr. Halstead A. Stansfield shot himself in Sutro Forest. Dr. Stansfield was a bacteriologist working with Dr. Rupert Blue on the bubonic plague epidemic in San Francisco. The plague intensified after the earthquake in 1906 - rats bred like crazy in the unsanitary conditions left behind by the disaster. Dr. Stansfield was described by the press as “melancholic” and “intemperate.” The press attacked health officials for relying on the findings of this “mentally unhinged specialist,” which shows the attitude toward mental illness and human suffering in the early 20th Century. In reality, Dr. Stansfield recently lost his wife and child to disease and was working under a tremendous amount of pressure. No shit he was melancholic! And who can blame the man for drinking, given the lack of mental health care, medication, or grief support - ESPECIALLY FOR MEN - in those days.
In fact, one of the most striking aspects of Bell’s survey of the news in regard to suicides in Sutro Forest is that they all involved men. This tracks with data that show that the highest rates for suicide in the twentieth century were among white men and increased with advancing age.
Mental health and social circumstances also played a role in the Sutro Forest suicides, and in suicide generally in the twentieth century. According to research, the biggest risk factors for over the past century have been divorce, unemployment, and physical or mental illness. The sad stories collected from Sutro Forest show these factors at work. One man left behind his union card, suggesting that he may have lost his job. Another left a note describing his life of poverty and his grief over being a burden on society. Yet another lost his job at a bakery and couldn’t or wouldn’t find a new position.
Mental illness shows up in accounts of the deceased acting strangely before their deaths, or having drinking problems. Many were connected to the Almshouse that is now Laguna Honda Hospital. We know now that grief and mental illness are connected to self medication with alcohol and other substances, and it seems like the society at the time was aware of these connections, too. Otherwise why would they be referred to the news? References to “strong drink,” “delirium tremens,” “despondency,” “a physical wreck” appear throughout the notices.
Billionaires Gonna Billionaire
Adolph Sutro donated his fortune and ingenuity to the people of San Francisco. I’m sure he had his problems, but all of the coverage I’ve seen of the man emphasizes his commitment to humanity. The forest that bears his name is now owned and operated by a prestigious public medical institution.
A century later, a lot of things have changed but we still have a class of billionaires involved in city life. Adolph Sutro has a forest named for him, but at UCSF the buildings are named for Marc Benioff and Ron Conway. San Francisco General is named for Mark Zuckerberg. These endowments are arguably as public-minded as Sutro’s railroads and baths, but there’s hardly any love lost for the newest crop of billionaires in the Bay Area, especially Zuckerberg.
Sutro’s reputation, of course, has the benefit of time on its side. Locally, he’s seen as a man of the people and a beloved philanthropist but in Virginia City, the attitude is different. To the people there, he was a scheming capitalist just like the rest of the mine barons, and worse, he took his money and fucked off to San Francisco to spend it. Nothing is named for him there, but then again, he didn't leave anything for the people.
Who knows how today's billionaires will fare in the history books - and how long their names will last on the institutions in this town. UCSF and SF General serve the people, in theory, but human suffering and poverty are still very visible on our streets. People are probably sleeping in the doorways of the Ron Conway Family Gateway Medical Building, or at the foot of Salesforce Tower as we speak. In this new Gilded Age, they're not killing themselves in a forest planted by a rich guy, but they are dying slowly on the streets surrounding buildings named for Tech Barons. The despair is not hidden away to disappear into the earth of the forest, it's all around us. Metaphorically, it's like laying the dead at their feet, the way a millionaire's forest swallowed up the despondent dead of a hundred years ago.