Archive for February 2018

On December 25, 2004, my wife, Morgen, turned 30. She had decided many months earlier that she wanted to celebrate this milestone by taking a grand trip that would be, in a sense, a sort of pilgrimage. No one has to twist my arm to talk me into going on vacation, especially if it’s to some exotic, faraway place. But I told Morgen that the decision where to go should be hers alone: my only input in the process would be smiling and nodding. “You tell me where you want to go,” I said, “and I’ll be there.” For a while she was thinking seriously about going to Spain and doing the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Then she started talking about Rome. After that, it was Australia, and for many weeks I thought she was leaning strongly in that direction. Then one day last summer she announced that she’d reached a final, irrevocable decision. “Where are we going?” I asked. She replied, matter-of-factly, “Patagonia.” I smiled and nodded and said, “Great!” And then I thought for a moment and added, “Where’s Patagonia?”

Since then, virtually every time I’ve told friends or family about our two-week trip, they’ve had the same reaction. “Patagonia? Oh yeah, the clothing brand. You mean it’s an actual place too? Where is it?” Had I myself not been entirely ignorant about Patagonia just a few months ago, I would be incredulous that such a huge place—and one so full of stories—could be unknown to so many otherwise intelligent, educated North Americans and Europeans. Patagonia is in fact chock-full of interesting things—people, animals, plants, customs, natural wonders, and amazing stories—and now that I’ve had a small taste of it in person, I’m going to do my part to share that information with the rest of the world. Each of the articles on Interesting Thing of the Day this week, and again during a second week next month, will have something to do with Patagonia. Accordingly, I thought we should begin with a little primer on Patagonia: its whereabouts, its history, and most importantly, some of its best-known legends. We’ll revisit some of these items, and many others, in more detail as the series progresses.

Where Patagonia Is
Patagonia is the southernmost portion of South America. Its exact northern boundary is somewhat vague, but it begins somewhere in the vicinity of 40° south latitude, or roughly where the Rio Colorado cuts diagonally across the continent. Patagonia extends all the way to the tip of the continent—encompassing, by most accounts, Tierra del Fuego and the many smaller islands up to and including Cape Horn. The western quarter or so of Patagonia is in Chile; the rest, to the east of the Andes mountains, is in Argentina.

Patagonia is an immense region; its area of about 400,000 square miles (1,000,000 sq. km) makes it well over twice the size of California. And trying to describe Patagonia is very much like trying to describe California—do you want to hear about the deserts, the mountains, the valleys, or the coast? The cities or the rural areas? The wildlife or the politics? With so much to describe, generalizations become difficult. One thing you can say with certainty, though, is that Patagonia is sparsely populated—it has a total of roughly 1.5 million inhabitants (compared to California’s 34 million), of which the vast majority live in large towns. Depending on whose estimates you believe, sheep outnumber humans by at least 5 to 1, and perhaps as many as 20 to 1. And one of those sheep contributed the wool for that Patagonia-brand sweater you have in your closet.

The name “Patagonia” was once thought to have been derived from a Spanish expression for “big feet”—a supposed reference to the proportions of the area’s original inhabitants, described by early European explorers as “giants.” But the generally accepted etymology is that the word Patagonia actually comes from Patagon, the name of a giant in a Spanish novel called Primaleon—apparently a favorite of Ferdinand Magellan’s.

The Stuff of Legend
Magellan, of course, lent his name to the strait that separates mainland South America from Tierra del Fuego; he discovered the long-sought passage between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific in 1520. Even three centuries later, though, when Charles Darwin set out on H.M.S. Beagle (under command of Captain FitzRoy), Europeans knew very little of Patagonia or its inhabitants; it was more of an inconvenient obstacle to sea travel than a place one might actually want to visit. The exotic descriptions Darwin brought back—especially his confirmation that the inhabitants were savage giants—reinforced in the minds of many Europeans the notion of Patagonia as being a desolate and forbidding place, far from (and perhaps unworthy of) civilization.

Partly because of its remoteness, Patagonia attracted its fair share of outlaws. Following a major heist in the U.S., Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid out in Patagonia for several years in the early 1900s. Pirates, too, found the busy shipping channels near Patagonia a lucrative source of business.

As recently as the 1970s, English-speaking people in the northern hemisphere knew little of Patagonia. British author Bruce Chatwin almost single-handedly brought Patagonia into the popular consciousness with his best-selling 1977 book In Patagonia, a travelogue of sorts that is part autobiography, part fiction. Two years later his friend, travel writer Paul Theroux, wrote The Old Patagonian Express, detailing his attempt to travel by train from Boston all the way to the heart of Patagonia. These two books have inspired generations of travelers to discover Patagonia for themselves.

Far and Away
Today, Patagonia is a favorite destination for ecotourists and adventure travelers. Some go to see the vast expanses of steppes—desert-like plains that are constantly buffeted by strong winds and support only the hardiest plant, animal, and human life. Some are interested in the impressive glaciers descending from the Andes, or in the millions of nesting penguins along the coast. Still others are interested in the cultural anomalies, such as the Welsh colony of Gaiman, where you can always get a proper tea. And many tourists stop briefly in Patagonia on their way to Antarctica—a mere 600 miles (1,000km) or so south across the Drake Passage. But one of the biggest reasons to go to Patagonia, even for residents of northern Argentina, is its sheer remoteness: it is one of the last places on Earth that can still be called “one of the last places on Earth.” —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Introduction to Patagonia…

Other sources of general information about Patagonia include:

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Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is essential reading for anyone interested in the region (or simply in good stories). Also see Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express. If you’re planning a trip to Patagonia, Time Out: Patagonia will serve you well.

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At the end of December 2004, I was among the millions watching the endless hours of TV coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami. As I watched the huge death toll rise by the hour, I remember thinking, naïvely, “How could so many people not have known what was coming?” After a bit of reflection, I had a worse thought: “How could they possibly have known?”

Living in the U.S., I’ve become accustomed to having instant information about everything. When something newsworthy occurs anywhere in the country, television crews materialize out of nowhere and broadcast the story to a nation of information junkies. And if the TV or radio isn’t on, I’m never far from a cell phone or a Web browser. If I think I feel an earthquake—not an uncommon occurrence here in San Francisco—I can check a Web site that tells me its strength and epicenter within minutes. The notion that something cataclysmic could be occurring without my knowledge, whether in my neighborhood or across the continent, is almost unfathomable.

And yet, when I fantasize about a dream vacation, the picture in my mind is invariably that of a tiny, picturesque island out in the middle of the ocean somewhere. Maybe I’m even in a bungalow built on stilts over the water. I’ve left all my gadgetry behind, and have nothing to worry about but finishing the next chapter of my book and maybe taking a quick swim before dinner. I’m not thinking about staying connected to the rest of the world; that’s what makes it a vacation. And that, tragically, is exactly the situation many tourists found themselves in when the tsunami struck. Of course, even locals with phones and televisions were not warned, because the existence of the tsunami was largely unknown before it hit.

Since then, while the governments of every coastal nation in the world have talked about the urgent need for a global tsunami warning system, I’ve been wondering exactly how that could happen. On the one hand, I want to know why it isn’t trivially easy (Don’t we have satellites?), and on the other hand, why it isn’t immediately dismissed as impossible (What about all those people on the remote islands without communication equipment?). Although I knew that a lot of money was being spent on sensors and radios, I didn’t understand just how this proposed system would work. So I decided to look into it.

Little Things Mean a Lot
Tsunamis usually begin with strong earthquakes, and there is already a global network of sensors that can adequately detect and measure seismic activity. But not all strong earthquakes that occur in the ocean produce tsunamis, and even when they do, seismic data gives few clues as to the direction or speed of the waves. So although some regional tsunami warning systems are based on seismic data alone, such systems are notorious for false positives. The only way to know for sure if a tsunami is coming is to observe the waves as they move. But perhaps “observe” is not the right word; tsunami waves appear quite small at the surface when far out at sea, even near a quake’s epicenter. With a height of sometimes as little as a few centimeters, they look like ordinary waves from a boat or plane. Only as they approach land do they swell to dangerous sizes. This characteristic makes detection a tricky business—requiring high-tech equipment and computerized analysis.

The first method used to supplement seismic data was taking readings from tide gauges. Although some tide gauges are quite sophisticated, many are simple mechanical devices that measures the height of a float protected from waves by an enclosure called a stilling well. Because tide measurements require a fixed point of reference, tide gauges are normally installed on or near a coast. Thus the data they provide is more useful for landmasses farther out from the tsunami’s starting point.

A more direct way of detecting tsunamis is to measure changes in pressure on the ocean floor. The Deep-ocean Assessment and Reporting of Tsunamis (DART) program, already in use in the Pacific ocean, uses bottom-mounted sensors to detect changes in water pressure consistent with a tsunami. The sensors relay the information via sonar to a buoy floating on the ocean’s surface; the buoy, in turn, transmits the data to a satellite, which relays it to ground-based stations for processing. DART greatly increases both the speed and accuracy of tsunami warnings, but the sensors and buoys are prone to failure and must be serviced or replaced frequently. And there are at present far too few of them in place to monitor all the world’s oceans.

Although tsunamis out at sea are not visible to the naked eye, radar satellites, if they happen to be pointed in the right place at the right time, can detect them. The problem with satellites, apart from knowing where and when to look, is that the data they produce must be processed back on Earth; the time required—currently several hours—is generally too long to be of use for warnings. Future generations of satellites, however, may overcome these limitations.

The Challenge of the Last Mile
But even if and when the world’s oceans are populated with perfectly functioning tsunami sensors, the truly phenomenal challenge will be getting the information from the scientists who operate the equipment to the people living in the coastal areas where the tsunamis will hit. For one thing, tsunamis move incredibly fast—up to 1,000 km/h (about 600 mph). So land areas must be at least a few hundred kilometers away from a quake’s epicenter to have even a small chance of receiving a warning in time. Once the warning does come, the nation must have the infrastructure to relay it rapidly to coastal areas at any hour of the day or night. Although telephones, television, radio, and the internet can be used for such purposes, residents need something that can wake them in the middle of the night—such as a siren—to be assured of having maximum time to react. While such warning systems may be feasible in densely populated coastal towns, it’s inconceivable that every remote beach in the world is ever going to have a tsunami alarm.

Then, of course, there’s the little matter of preparedness. If someone told me right now that a tsunami was going to hit my house in 15 minutes, I wouldn’t know what to do—where to go, what to take with me, how to be as safe as possible. Every child attending school in California learns what to do in the event of an earthquake, but not, in general, how to cope with sudden giant waves. This is all the more true in many other parts of the world. No matter how great the technology is, there’s no substitute for education.

All that to say: if the world’s leaders keep their promises, spend enough money, and encounter no significant technological barriers, global tsunami detection could very well be a reality in a few years. Will we then—or ever—have the ability to effectively warn everyone of an impending wave? Absolutely not. But with diligent attention to education and civil preparedness, we can certainly hope to reduce the risks dramatically.

I learned long after the fact that some friends of mine had been very close to some of the tsunami zones when the waves hit, but all of them returned safely. This made the tragedy seem more personal, and the need for a warning system more urgent. Even knowing what I know now, I still long for that idyllic island getaway. I may, however, pack a cell phone on my dream vacation—just in case. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Tsunami Warning Systems…

Soon after this article was posted, I received messages from two different readers pointing out that Robert Cringely has been talking about tsunami warning systems in his blog—see Wave of Change (December 30, 2004) and the second half of Help Me Help You (January 14, 2005). Cringely is an advocate of the Open Tsunami Alert System (OTAS), which seeks to automate the process of using seismic data to relay tsunami warnings to affected areas using the Internet, SMS text messages, and other means. OTAS will unquestionably be cheaper and more efficient to implement than the large-scale, government-funded projects I discussed above. On the other hand, it is (by its own admission) only a partial solution—the seismic data alone is notoriously unreliable, and the system does not address the needs of folks in areas without cell phones or Internet access (yes, there still are some!).

To learn more about tsunami warning systems, see:

News articles about tsunami warning systems:

Other pertinent sites include:

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New Orleans

The first time I visited New Orleans, I didn’t know anything about the city except that it was legendary for its Mardi Gras celebrations. But the more I learned about New Orleans, the more I came to love it. The history of the city is immensely colorful and complex. New Orleans has some of the most distinctive cuisine in the United States, a well-earned reputation as a center of music and culture, and a vibrant nightlife. But what I find most interesting about the city is its rich collection of legends and myths. The best way to learn about them is to take one of numerous walking tours of the French Quarter.

The Spanish French Quarter
The French Quarter—the focal point of the city for most tourists—is a well-defined area about 13 blocks by 7 blocks, bordered by the Mississippi River on the south. This was the original city of New Orleans, established by French settlers in 1718 and controlled by France until 1762, when it was given to Spain. The city remained under Spanish rule until the early 1800s, when it was secretly returned to France, only to be immediately turned over to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The French Quarter is so named because for many years it was the district in which the majority of the French-speaking population lived. However, much of the original city was destroyed by massive fires in 1788 and 1794. Since Spain was in control during that time, the new buildings for the most part reflected Spanish architecture, and that is what survives today as the French Quarter. Most buildings are only three or four stories high. Wrought-iron balconies extend over sidewalks in the business district, and louvered shutters cover most windows and doors. The French Quarter has the feeling of being very old—for a North American city—largely because of strict construction rules designed to protect the historical character of the buildings.

But it’s not just the old buildings that give the French Quarter its unique vibe. The traffic usually consists more of pedestrians and horses than cars. Every other door seems to lead to a restaurant or bar, and people walking down the street without a beer or margarita in their hands seem out of place. You never have to walk more than a few blocks to find a voodoo shop, antique store, or “gentlemen’s” club.

As I was wandering around the French Quarter during my first visit to New Orleans, I kept seeing signs and brochures for walking tours—particularly “ghost” tours. I thought a tour might be a good way to get to know a bit about the city, and I was curious about the whole ghost angle. So I showed up at the designated location one evening, paid my US$15, and set out with a guide and about a dozen other tourists to see what mysteries we could uncover.

We visited a number of historical sites and heard about the many groups of people who shaped the city’s culture: the French and Spanish, Cajuns, Creoles, and free people of color. But New Orleans has also been a hangout for pirates, slave traders, and rogues of all stripes. As a result, a great many gruesome murders have taken place in the city, not to mention infamous suicides, executions, and deaths caused by the great fires. So it’s little surprise that many of the buildings in the French Quarter are said to be haunted.

Spirits and Spooks
The typical tour guide spiel includes a heavily embellished history of a building’s former owner, the events leading up to the significant deaths, and anecdotes about recent sightings of ghosts, mysterious sounds, or curses that have supposedly kept buildings uninhabited for decades. The stories are all entertaining, even though it’s sometimes difficult to tell at what point the history becomes myth. But not all the tales are apocryphal, and some are really quite chilling. At one point, our tour guide stopped us and said, “Notice that blood-red house across the street. This building was once home to one of the most notorious characters in New Orleans history: Richard Simmons.”

Plenty of companies offer walking tours of the French Quarter, each with its own twist. Some are highly theatrical, with tour guides dressed as pirates or vampires; others offer a more conservative approach that emphasizes historical accuracy. There are ghost tours, vampire tours, witchcraft and voodoo tours, cemetery tours, and so on. There are also walking tours of the city’s Garden District across town, where the main attractions are lavish houses and beautiful landscaping. I’ve taken perhaps half a dozen different walking tours in New Orleans. Some were better than others, and there were certainly instances of overlap and contradiction. But judging by the number of interesting things encountered per hour (or per dollar), walking tours are the perfect way to combine education and entertainment as you explore New Orleans. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about New Orleans Walking Tours…

Among the better-known operators of walking tours in New Orleans are Haunted History Tours, New Orleans Spirit Tours, and New Orleans Ghosts Tours. But there are many others; consult a travel guide or the brochure rack of any New Orleans hotel for more suggestions.

You can find a good basic history of New Orleans at NewOrleansOnline.

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Paris Sewers

Ah, Paris. It’s one of my very favorite places, not least because its ITSKI (Interesting Things per Square Kilometer Index) is off the scale. There are, of course, the very touristy sights like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and Notre Dame, as well as thousands of cafés, shops, and bakeries that tantalize and inspire. There are also a great many lesser-known places of historical interest, including one where I spent an afternoon on each of my past two visits to the city: the sewer system. OK, the aroma wasn’t quite as pleasing as that of a fresh baguette, but the Paris sewer system—part of which has been turned into a museum that’s open to the public—is vast, intricate, and surprising in many ways. You may think of a sewer as nothing more than a conduit for waste, but in Paris, there’s more to the sewers than meets the nose.

The tunnels that make up the Paris sewer system are mostly very large—almost the size of a subway tunnel. In most cases a central channel, wide enough and deep enough for a boat, carries waste and runoff water; on both sides are broad, paved walkways with enough headroom for most people to walk comfortably. Overhead are pipes that supply the city’s fresh water, telecommunications cables, and pneumatic tubes, among other things. But it’s the length and complexity of the tunnels that make them so intriguing: they almost exactly follow the layout of the streets above—in fact, every corner within the sewers has a street sign on it that mirrors the one on the surface. Where a wide boulevard runs on the surface, a wide sewer tunnel (or two) runs beneath; smaller streets have smaller sewers, and even side streets and alleys are duplicated underground. In all, there are about 1,300 miles (2,100km) of sewer tunnels underneath Paris.

Wasting Away
Up through the Middle Ages, Paris had a very rudimentary water-supply-and-waste-disposal system: the Seine River. Water was drawn from the river and waste deposited there, but the population of the city was still small enough that the river could purify the waste biologically. However, waste on its way to the river was a problem even then—it flowed through open sewers and gutters on nearly every street. The odor became, in many places, unbearable—but there was a worse problem: disease. The unsanitary conditions in the city were indirectly responsible for the plague, which wiped out a huge percentage of the population in 1348–1349.

Precursors of the current sewage system date back as far as 1200, when the streets were first paved; a drainage channel down the middle reduced pedestrians’ exposure to wastes. In 1370, Hugues Aubriot built a 300-meter stone-walled sewer under rue Montmartre, and in the late 1600s Louis XIV undertook additional sewer construction in certain areas. In the early 1800s, Napoleon ordered the construction of a network of sewer tunnels totaling 19 miles (30km.) But as the population of the city continued to swell, the primitive sewage systems could not keep up with it, and the Seine—still used for both intake and disposal—became absurdly polluted. A major outbreak of cholera in 1832 finally galvanized the city to find and implement a lasting solution to the problem.

Flush with Pride
In 1850 an engineer named Eugène Belgrand was hired to design a complete system for water supply and waste removal. The result was the current design, which by 1878 had reached a length of 373 miles (600km). In 1894, a law was enacted that required all waste to be sent to the sewers; the local saying at the time was that the city was completing its long transition from “tout à la rue” (all in the street) to “tout à l’égout” (all in the sewer). The sewer system was hailed as a technological marvel, a brilliant achievement that helped to usher Paris into the modern age.

Paris sewers have been a tourist attraction since 1867, when the first public tours were offered. From 1892 to 1920, visitors rode through the sewers in a locomotive-drawn wagon. In 1920 the wagon was replaced with a boat, which floated tourists along until 1975. Today’s sewer tour consists of a very small portion of the sewers which has been turned into a museum. In order to read all the signs describing the timeline of sewer construction, visitors have to stand on a metal grating over an active sewer channel; this arrangement serves to keep traffic moving at a lively pace. Exhibits also show the machinery and techniques used to dredge the sand and solid waste from the channels and the computerized monitoring system, and of course restrooms are conveniently provided at the end so visitors can try out the system personally.

The Stuff of Legend
Apart from their relatively mundane primary function, the sewers of Paris have provided fertile material for a number of writers over the years. Victor Hugo spent about 50 pages of Les Misérables describing the sewers based on information he received from his friend Emmanuel Bruneseau. Bruneseau was the sewer inspector Napoleon commissioned to explore the tunnels and create an exhaustive map of the sewers as they existed in the early 1800s—until that time, the sewers had been assembled bit by bit, without a plan or written record, and were widely regarded as a mysterious and dangerous maze. Indeed, Bruneseau found a number of interesting artifacts during his explorations, ranging from lost jewels to the skeleton of an orangutan that had escaped from a zoo several years previously. Thus Hugo’s description of Jean Valjean’s adventures in the sewers, through which he carried Marius after he had been wounded, was based on factual information and is still considered historically significant. The sewers also play a role in Phantom of the Opera and in Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum.

Along with the sewers, Paris has a great many other underground passages, including an immense subway system, catacombs, and the crypts near Notre Dame. Although ordinary citizens do not normally have access to the sewers and most of the other tunnels, it is hard not to believe that they are used for, shall we say, secondary purposes from time to time. Imagining great escapes, secret meetings, and the occasional vampire makes a visit to the Paris sewers all the more fascinating. —Joe Kissell

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More Information about Paris Sewers…

The (more or less) official Web site of the Paris Sewer Museum lists hours and locations but not much else. In a nutshell: take the Metro to the Alma-Marceau stop, cross the bridge, and look for the large blue sign on your left. You purchase your ticket at a small kiosk and walk down the adjacent stairs into the museum.

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For a detailed look at the sewers, check out Paris Sewers and Sewermen: Realities and Representations by Donald Reid. A shorter account, and with a different slant, is Matthew Gandy’s The Paris sewers and the rationalization of urban space (PDF). I also found Frederique Krupa’s Web site Paris: Urban Sanitation Before the 20th Century quite interesting and useful.

The entire text of Les Miserables is available online; for the bits on the sewer, see Volume V: Book Second—The Intestine of the Leviathan, which contains the long description of the sewers, including a detailed recounting of Bruneseau’s discoveries; Volume V: Book Third—Mud But The Soul actually contains the scene where Jean Valjean rescues Marius using the sewers.

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Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum is one of my favorite books of all time. Among the other Paris landmarks mentioned in the book is the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, home of the eponymous Foucault’s Pendulum.

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by Morgen Jahnke

Remains of the Sutro Baths

At the intersection of the Boulevard St. Michel and the Boulevard St. Germain, in the heart of Paris’s Latin Quarter, a ruin of brick and stone walls, vaguely recognizable as rooms or chambers, is being unearthed. This spot was once the site of Roman public baths, a place of leisure for local residents in the first to third century A.D. These baths were destroyed in the third century, and the property was later bought in 1330 by the Abbot of Cluny, who built a new structure alongside the ruins. During the French Revolution, the property passed out of the church’s hands, and had various owners (one of whom covered the bath ruins in six feet of soil) before being bought by Alexandre du Sommerard, a collector of medieval antiquities. Today, both of these sites are part of the Musée National du Moyen Age, a museum dedicated to the arts and history of the Middle Ages.

Besides the relative novelty of visiting ancient (and surprisingly intact) Roman ruins below the streets of a 21st-century city, the baths give a fascinating insight into Roman culture. These baths consisted of a series of pools: the tepidarium (lukewarm), caldarium (hot), and frigidarium (cold). Guests normally moved from the lukewarm pool to the hot pool, then to the cold before retiring to rooms designed for socializing with other guests. Roman baths of this type were open to everyone, and were an important part of life in ancient Roman towns.

Water, Water Everywhere
Almost two thousand years later, in 1896, San Francisco entrepreneur and mayor Adolph Sutro opened his own public baths, albeit on a much grander scale. At the time, Sutro owned almost 1/12 of the land in San Francisco, and he decided to build his baths on part of that property, near his own home on Sutro Heights. Built to house 25,000 bathers, the three-acre complex included three restaurants, an amphitheater, an outdoor tide pool, and five saltwater pools of various temperatures—a design similar to the Roman baths. These pools were filled and emptied by the movement of the tide, the sea water moving into and out of the pools through a large tunnel.

Sutro conceived of the baths as a benefit to the public, much as the Roman baths were intended for everyone. In fact, when he learned that train operators were charging seaside visitors two fares to reach the baths, he built his own rail line to bring people there for the price of one 5-cent fare. This was in keeping with Sutro’s general concern for the public welfare; in 1869 he successfully agitated for the construction of a tunnel linking various Comstock Lode mines in Nevada to ensure better working conditions for miners (although he did also benefit financially from the completion of the project).

Road to Ruins
After its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, the baths fell into disuse, and in fact were in the process of being demolished when a fire gutted the property in the 1960s. This left a sprawling mess of concrete foundations and melted metal. By the time I first visited the site, in the 1990s, it looked incredibly aged, its former bathing pools choked with algae, and its metal pilings eaten away by the tide. But despite this decay, or maybe because of it, the scene was incredibly picturesque, with a gorgeous view opening out onto the ocean, and white calla lilies dotting the upper slopes of the property. At the time I didn’t know the history of the place, but was fascinated by its glorious state of decay.

After visiting the Cluny baths in Paris, I immediately thought of the Sutro ruins, and was surprised to realize that the Sutro Baths appealed to me on the same level as the Roman baths, despite having been built almost two thousand years later. There is something mysterious and melancholy about any place that has outlived its use, and a modern visitor is similarly drawn to imagine what it once was like, whether it has been abandoned for a hundred or a thousand years. On the one hand, this shows the limits of human memory, that anything that occurs before our lifetimes seems foreign and unknowable, but on the other, it highlights our own sense of mortality, and the hope that our works will be remembered and wondered over when we are gone. —Morgen Jahnke

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More Information about Sutro Baths…

For photos of the ruins of the Sutro Baths, see sutrobaths.com.

For more information about the history of Sutro Baths, see the Golden Gate National Recreation Area site, In Search of Adolph Sutro in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, or this article on The San Francisco Insider.

The Cluny Museum in Paris has its own Web site.

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