Three months ago, a twenty-year-old sailor fell thirty feet to his death from the gritty cliff surface near the intersection of Froude Street and Sunset Cliffs Boulevard.
Three miles of cliffs stretch south from the Ocean Beach pier to the tip of Point Loma, forming the jagged side of the peninsula that cradles San Diego Harbor. Far below them, waves crash against the rocks, transforming eroded surfaces into rivulets and miniature waterfalls. Beyond the shoreline, the sea wrinkles out to a vast horizon, reflecting the most spectacular sunsets in the county.
The engineers’ plan was to seal off the caves with dikes, dump heavy boulders at the points of worst erosion, and build a beach from Del Monte Avenue to Osprey Street with sand dredged from the San Diego River.
I learned the lore surrounding Sunset Cliffs as a child growing up in Ocean Beach in the Forties. I was shown a barricaded hole on Sunset Cliffs, “where the car went through,” and was told dark tales of children falling off the cliff and never returning. It was scary but not enough to deter my brother and me from exploring. What did slow us down was the occurrence of a cave-in, involving three of our schoolmates from Ocean Beach Elementary. It left us with the image of two little girls running on the beach, one carried to safety by a sea of sand, the other struck down by hundreds of tons of falling dirt and rocks.
An outrigger was fastened to an International Harvester utility truck to keep it from tipping, and a twenty-one-foot retractable boom was installed.
One of the girls was my unofficial “glee club” director at school. Clytie Purvis was nine, three years older than my friends and I, but every day at recess, she would organize us on a schoolroom step and lead us in song. We knew she had lived in Hawaii before her navy father was transferred to San Diego, and we were proud to be her chosen pupils.
One Sunday in February 1941, Clytie and her friend Betty de Armand decided to have a picnic on the beach after Sunday school. They wandered farther than they had intended and were exploring a narrow canyon between two cliffs when Betty looked up and noticed the surface above them starting to crumble.
“I grabbed Clyde's hand and started to run,” Betty reported later. “A rock struck my wrist, and then I was hit by the falling dirt and sand. There had been a boy about ten feet the other side of Clytie, but we did not know him.”
Off-duty sailors and marines saw the landslide, called police, and started digging frantically with their hands. Then Engine 15 of the Ocean Beach Fire Department arrived, drawing hundreds of spectators in its siren’s wake. It was an hour before the body of Clytie Purvis was uncovered and another hour before firemen reached the body of the boy, Byron Burns.
When I moved back to Ocean Beach five years ago, after many years’ absence, I discovered I was living a stone’s throw from the site where Clytie and Byron died. The trees we planted in their memory at Ocean Beach Elementary are gone, but cliff calamities still occur. In 1986, a silver Mercedes roared down Hill Street, through the guard rail, and straight over the cliff without slowing down. A father and son visiting from Arizona drowned on a disarmingly mild February day last year, when they were swept from the low rock shelf under the cliffs by a series of errant waves kicked up by a distant storm. And just three months ago, a twenty-year-old sailor fell thirty feet to his death from the gritty cliff surface near the intersection of Froude Street and Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. A companion jumped after him in a futile rescue attempt and sustained minor injuries himself.
If the early developers of Ocean Beach and the Sunset Cliffs subdivision had given a thought to the erosive dance between the cliffs and the sea, they might have refrained from building houses and streets that would be toppling into the sea within a few decades. Had they been able to foresee the hundreds of accidents occurring as people slipped off unbarricaded cliff edges or became trapped by landslides below, they might have built some safeguards into their plans. But a comprehensive erosion study of the cliffs was not completed until thirty-five years after the area had become accessible to the public in the Twenties. And during those years, public demands for preventive safety measure became lost in endless discussions of nature preservation, coastal access, and the futility of it all. Only the city fire department and the Lifeguard Association rose to the challenge of the treacherous cliffs by developing efficient techniques to save some of the cliff victims’ lives.
Accidents at Sunset Cliffs date back to 1881, when a boy named Waldham got into a tussle with his friends near the old Point Loma lighthouse, slipped, and tumbled to the surf. He was one of the lucky ones, escaping with bruises and a broken arm. In the Twenties, the numbers of accidents escalated dramatically, and the types of mishaps expanded through the years to include not only falls and cave-ins but also vehicular accidents involving automobiles, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, and a bus.
The area was developed by romantic entrepreneurs in an era when “picturesque” was the trend, and the closer you could bring houses and roads to scenic views, the better. Albert G. Spalding is credited with naming Sunset Cliffs when he came to Point Loma in 1900. A fifty-year-old widower, he had already made his fortune in Chicago, manufacturing sporting goods, and he came west to marry an old sweetheart, Elizabeth Churchill Mayer, director of the Isis Conservatory of Music at the Theosophical Institute (now the site of Point Loma Nazarene College). Spalding bought a brush-covered hillside adjacent to the institute, encompassing land from the present Catalina Boulevard to the ocean. He built a magnificent house and immediately became involved in the affairs of San Diego.
He was appointed, along with John D. Spreckels and E.W. Scripps, to the new post of county road commissioner. Known as the “Triple-S” commission, the three millionaires laid out a plan for a system of highways to connect outlying areas with San Diego. Not surprisingly, Point Loma was high on the list of areas designated for road building under the $1.25 million bond issue that the commission promoted. Complaints that the Triple-S commissioners used the plan to further their own personal property interests were muted by the fact that the only daily newspapers in town were owned by Spreckels and Scripps.
After opening roadways to Point Loma, Spalding spent $2 million of his own money developing a park along the top and face of Sunset Cliffs in anticipation of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. There were Japanese-style gardens, benches, cobblestone pathways, and exquisite bridges linking the cliffs to outlying rocks. Stairways led the way to the lower portion of the cliffs, where rock formations and caves could be explored. At the bottom of one of these stairways was “Spalding’s Pond,” a large, hollowed-out rock that was immersed by high tide but provided a salt-water tub at low tide.
All this made about as much sense as planting a rose garden around the rim of Mount Saint Helens, as Spalding might have realized, had he known the erosional nature of the cliffs he was manicuring so carefully. They had come into being over a 60-odd million-year time span, rising out of mud deposited by sea action. Over the eons, the sediments settled into a mounting sandstone structure, with its west edge under attack from the same ocean that had created it. The vertical face of the land mass is an “abhorrence of nature,” according to city engineer Robert Cain, which the law of gravity tries to correct by crumbling it down to a 45-degree angle of repose. At the same time, ocean waves are gnawing away at the lower layers, hollowing out caves that cause the top-heavy upper sediment to fall off in massive chunks, returning the cliff face to a vertical angle in a self-perpetuating cycle of erosion. The majestic cliffs lose face every year. Estimates vary from a few inches to a foot and a half, but as much as forty feet has been lost in one swoop from a cave-in.
Spalding, however, was less concerned with the science of the cliffs than their prettiness, and his park did attract thousands of visitors from the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. The camera was also coming into its own, and picture postcards of nymphlike women posing on bridges or under the natural arch, Needle Rock, began to circulate around the world.
There was a personal motive behind all this San Diego boosterism. In 1912 Spalding had formed the San Diego Securities Company to develop 1000 acres of Point Loma property, including the cliffs, for residential sales. His unexpected death from apoplexy in 1915, just as the exposition was getting under way, brought the project to a halt, although his widow vowed to deed the park property to the city and “lay out the surrounding property as a building tract of the most exclusive nature.” However, Mrs. Spalding’s interest centered increasingly on Theosophical activities, and by the time of her death in 1926, it had been acquired by John Mills, another self-made millionaire, who, along with his partners, Alexander Pantage (of Hollywood fame) and Jesse H. Shreve, subdivided it and put it up for sale.
The Mills organization boasted $1 million in sales the first day. Lots were sold at ten percent down, the balance payable within five years. Construction began immediately on a few lots, including Mills’s own mansion, which still stands at the corner of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard and Osprey Street.
Meanwhile, Ocean Beach was undergoing a transformation from a sleepy summer resort town to a residential community. Business was thriving, schools were being built, and permanent houses were replacing seaside cabins. Streets were laid out to the very edge of the cliffs and began to lure adventurers. In July of 1926, three-year-old Percy Robbins wandered from his house to the foot of Narragansett Avenue and fell to his death. A year later, a new Chrysler plunged over a cliff nearby in the middle of the night. No body was found. The ownership was traced to Homer Fletcher of San Diego, who said he had loaned it to a friend the night before. The Beach News, an Ocean Beach weekly, headlined “Auto Mystery on Sea-Shore” and followed with a report that “the police have evolved a theory that the car was driven to the edge of the cliffs by feminine hands....” What detective work contributed to this hypothesis was not explained.
Automobiles could now wend their ways south through Ocean Beach to the Mills subdivision on the newly paved Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, which fan parallel to the cliffs and afforded a breathtaking view of the sea. There were no obscuring guardrails or fences, only a curb that was open here and there to allow cars to drive right out on the cliff.
Below was Spalding Park, which Mills had restored at a cost of $1 million and deeded to the city, with a clause that it be regularly maintained. When he noticed the cliff face crumbling, Mills blamed it not on natural erosion, but on the city’s negligence. Council members countered that the clause was too ambiguous but agreed to build rest rooms and parking areas. By October of 1929, these improvements had not been accomplished, and Mills sued for return of the property. But by the end of that month, more than the cliffs had crumbled. The stock market crash of 1929 put an end to Mills’s dream. Payments on the lots lapsed, and those who held their property could not afford to build under the restrictions of their contracts during the depression.
But streets had already been paved for houses that would not be built for years, and cars continued to pour into the area. The park along the cliffs was now completely neglected, the city claiming it was as broke as everyone else. Erosion continued, but the view was still spectacular. More and more motorists took advantage of the breaks in the curb to drive right along the sheer drop-off.
The extent of the erosion that the cars were blithely driving over was revealed when Mr. and Mrs. C.J. Hundley took their daughter Claudia Jean to the cliffs to celebrate her eleventh birthday on February 25, 1935. Mr. Hundley had driven twenty feet off the road to obtain an unobstructed view of the sunset when his back wheel sank in a hole. As he peered down the hole, he could see surging water sixty feet below. A truck from the police department came out to help, but soil gave way with every jerk from the tow line, and by the time the car was finally removed, the hole was eight feet in diameter; underneath the waves lashed against the walls of a huge cave. (Investigations years later would reveal caves extending under the boulevard and even under some houses, but no such exploration took place at this time.) Police expressed amazement but not alarm and built a barricade around the hole.
Two other cars had driven off the cliffs and into the sea since the “mystery” auto of 1927. In these cases, the drivers had been thrown from their respective autos and their bodies had washed onto shore later. But on July 7, 1935, a few months after the cave incident, a disastrous car accident took place, which pointed out the need for specific cliff rescue procedures. When Mrs. Victoria Murphy drove a carload of companions over the cliff, the sedan landed upside down in two feet of water, and onlookers made their way down the cliff to see if there were any survivors.
The day had started out like a holiday. Mrs. Murphy and her cousin, Mrs. Mary Roome, had driven to Santa Fe station to meet the noon train carrying Helen Billings and her daughter Constance from their home in Boston for a three-week vacation in San Diego. The Billings women were schoolteachers and close friends of Mrs. Roome, who had also taught in Boston before her retirement to San Diego.
Mrs. Murphy drove the vacationers to Balboa Park for a glimpse of the 1935 California-Pacific International Exposition, then on to La Jolla for a visit with her sister. They decided to return to San Diego by the scenic route through Point Loma. At Adair Street, Mrs. Murphy pulled off Sunset Cliffs Boulevard onto the sandy cliff top at about 3:00 p.m.
Whether her brakes failed or she simply misgauged her distance was never discovered. Witnesses said she drove slowly toward the cliff and simply did not stop. One man fishing on a nearby rock saw the scene unfold like an eerie, slow-motion nightmare.
“I looked up just in time to see the car hanging over the edge,” he told a San Diego Union reporter. “I didn’t hear anyone scream because of the surf, but suddenly I saw the machine topple forward. It turned completely over once and then made another half turn.”
By the time the fire department arrived, the bystanders who had hurried to the scene had pulled the women from the wreckage. The three passengers were dead, but Mrs. Murphy was still breathing.
In those days, you could survive the fall and die from the rescue attempt. The firemen put together a makeshift sling attached to a rope and began to haul Mrs. Murphy up the face of the cliff. About eight feet up, her weight shifted, and she fell out of the sling and back into the arms of the firemen below. She was finally taken up a ladder and then to a hospital, where she died shortly after her arrival.
Next to arrive on the accident scene was William England, proprietor of the Mission Beach Garage and owner of a tow car. He attached a steel cable to the wrecked car, then returned to the top of the cliff to haul it up. He had it almost to the top when the cable snapped, and a loose guy wire whipped him off the cliff to fall, along with the wreckage. “He just went flying,” recalls Leland Plaisted, a former fireman now retired, who was on the scene. “He went off the cliff with his feet straight out in front of him.” England was taken to a hospital where he, too, died a few hours later, bringing the death toll of the accident to five.
The tragedy prompted city officials to consider, for the first time, building a fence to protect motorists. Senator Ed Fletcher offered rocks from his quarry to make a rustic fence in keeping with the environment. He suggested that the wall “should not exceed two feet in height and eighteen inches in width. The rocks should be reddish in color, the same as the dirt.”
While councilmen pondered the aesthetics of the fence, the fire department decided to update its rescue equipment. As Leland Plaisted remembers it, it was George Tyler who came up with the idea of a basket sling to secure the victim in either a lying or sitting position, with no possibility of falling out. A contrivance to hold the rescuing fireman was attached. Booms were installed on the trucks. By the time another car went over in 1938, the fire department was ready.
The city councilmen were apparently still making up their minds about which fence design would be most attractive, because there was none in place when nineteen-year-old Harold Johnson and his seventeen-year-old passenger, Norma Hines, both from out of town, were driving along Sunset Cliffs Boulevard about 9:30 p.m. on a Wednesday evening. When Johnson realized they were heading off a cliff, he applied his brakes. But it was too late, and the car slid over the edge and into the sea. The couple managed to get out of the coupe before it sank but found themselves in water over their heads and right up against a sixty-foot cliff. Fortunately, someone had seen the car go over and called police, who threw the pair a life preserver.
The fire department then arrived, eager to try its new winch and basket arrangement. Fireman R E. Hall was lowered with the basket and plucked the weary swimmers from the ocean. They were taken to a hospital and treated for exposure but suffered no serious injuries. The fire department had redeemed its reputation from the Murphy incident.
Guardrails finally appeared on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard in the Forties, but the number of accidents continued to increase. After the cave-in took the lives of Clytie Purvis and Byron Burns, police and other city officials considered dynamiting the surrounding cliffs. This seems like an idea born of desperation, and someone must have seen the implausibility of it. No one seemed to know what to do to prevent cliff accidents. When Fireman Plaisted’s own son was seriously injured in a 1944 cliff fall, Plaisted and other residents began to hound the city to do something to protect their children.
“To actually prevent children from exploring the cliffs, we’d have to keep half a dozen guards on duty patrolling more than a mile of rugged, winding shoreline,” replied City Manager Fred Rhodes. “That’s out of the question.”
But if the city could wash its hands of responsibility for the children’s safety, it could no longer ignore the reality of creeping erosion. In 1946, after a heavy storm, 300 tons of earth fell along a 200-foot section of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, causing the pavement to sag. Something had to be done, but the actions taken by the city, as well as the public, over the next decade and a half proved that being part of the solution could aggravate the problem.
Concrete and asphalt debris was dumped along the foot of the cliffs to absorb the beating of the waves. The trouble with this approach was that the debris itself moved around in heavy seas and actually tore into the soft cliff face it was supposed to protect. During this period, Needle Rock and other delicate landmarks of which Spalding had been so proud disappeared, and numerous fresh caves intruded the land mass. Then, early in the Fifties, the city began dredging Mission Bay to convert it to the water park and playland it is today. As part of this project, a jetty was built at the mouth of the San Diego River, and the normal accretions of sand deposits along Ocean Beach and the cliffs farther south were eliminated. Although some efforts were made to dredge the sand trapped by the jetty and transfer it to Ocean Beach, a major resource for a cliff beach buffer had been sharply curtailed.
At the same time, housing construction in the communities of Ocean Beach and Sunset Cliffs proliferated, and the new residents were quick to landscape and maintain their properties. A lot of water began to pour into the gardens on top of the cliffs, contributing to the instability of the land formation and hastening the erosion process. Another factor was the increased foot traffic along the cliffs as surfers, scuba divers, swimmers, and other nature seekers discovered the area.
The lifeguard service became more involved in cliff rescue during the Fifties, since so many of the accidents were water related. The fire department still responded to emergencies but often found lifeguards already on the scene when they arrived. Lifeguards were the more appropriate rescuers for surfers or scuba divers who had launched off from a low-lying cliff shelf but found upon their return that their landing rock was covered by high tide, leaving only a sheer cliff. Lifeguards also began responding to land rescues, often involving servicemen or tourists who found or forged steep pathways to the sandy coves under the cliffs. The return to the top sometimes proved much more difficult, and falls were frequent. Nor were local residents immune to accidents, especially children who still found the adventure of cliff-climbing irresistible. Two such accidents in the early Sixties drew public attention, once again, to the hazards of the cliffs.
Several teenage boys had developed a Tom Sawyer-like cave at the foot of Pescadero. Unlike Tom’s limestone excavation, however, the sandstone afforded the boys an opportunity to dig further “rooms” and create a personalized retreat. They took advantage of a holiday, Lincoln’s birthday, 1962, to expand their getaway. There had been recent rains, which made the cave walls soft enough for further digging, and despite nearby residents’ warnings, they proceeded. They had just settled back to relax and read their comic books when they noticed chunks falling out of the walls.
“I was nearest to the door and heard a rumbling noise over us,” thirteen-year-old Ron Burton told police. “I hollered, ‘The whole hill’s coming down, hey you guys, get out!’ ” Ron was able to dive for the entrance and roll away from the cave-in. His friend Steve Vealey, also thirteen, was partially buried but managed to dig his way out. Three of their other friends, who had been deeper into the cave, died as tons of sand fell on them.
Then, in January of 1963, two-year-old Jamie Murphy, grandson of sportswriter Jack Murphy, disappeared from his grandparents’ home in Sunset Cliffs. Two thousand volunteers joined police officers in a search that continued for three days. Bloodhounds were brought in and traced Jamie’s scent to a spot where a car had been stolen. The auto turned up in Mexico, and there was talk of possible kidnapping and of extending the search to south of the border. On the third day, however, Jamie’s body was found in the surf beneath a cliff where he had apparently fallen, only a few blocks from his grandparents’ home.
The much-publicized tragedies prompted letters to city councilmen, and City Manager Tom Fletcher was directed to make a study of installing protective devices to prevent future mishaps. As in the Forties, there were official mutterings about the impossibility of making the coastline foolproof. Public outcries for safety were debated against blocking coastal access and spoiling the natural beauty of the cliffs.
In the midst of this, the Army Corps of Engineers issued its recommendations for curbing erosion, in September of 1963. The Corps’ three-year study had found that the cliffs had eroded far more than originally suspected. Belatedly, they noted the damage done by the jetty construction and other human activities. They had entered the caves under Sunset Cliffs Boulevard and found that they extended alarmingly under the street. One, known as Smugglers’ Cave at the foot of Osprey, was 300 feet deep and contained hand-hewn steps leading to a sealed-off area. Rumors still abound that this cave was a hideaway for rum runners during the Thirties, although others say it was part of Spalding’s Park and that the sealed-off area was once a tunnel leading up to the cliff top.
The engineers’ plan was to seal off the caves with dikes, dump heavy boulders at the points of worst erosion, and build a beach from Del Monte Avenue to Osprey Street with sand dredged from the San Diego River. The $1.8 million plan was to be financed with federal, state, and city funds, plus assessments from property owners near the cliffs. Protests to the plan began almost at once, homeowners wanting to know why they should be assessed for a public beach. The engineers’ spokesman explained that the beach would be necessary to obtain federal funding. But residents still resisted the idea of a beach, complaining that they were already getting enough noise from guitars and bongo drums thumping into the night from below the cliffs. This was the Sixties, and it was a fact that young people had invaded the cliff area. They were digging caves for temporary shelter, and it was reported that a baby was born in one of the coves. Perhaps the residents up above were fearful that the transient hippiedom would turn into a permanent encampment.
While protest hearings and legislative red tape dragged on, natural phenomena were accelerating the erosion process. In 1968 an earthquake knocked 1500 tons of cliff material into the sea, bringing a 200-foot section of the cliffs’ edge right up to the guardrail on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. Then in 1969, storm-drenched cliffs in Ocean Beach caved in, toppling forty feet off the end of Del Monte Avenue, including a twelve-unit apartment building. Portions of other streets were also lost. There was no time left to haggle over the project’s provisions, and it finally got under way in 1971, eight years after its proposal and without the beach plan or federal funding. It would take another ten years to complete.
The streets lopped off in Ocean Beach now ended with abrupt drop-offs, surprising visitors to the area. Accidents increased as dangerous footpaths began to appear up and down the near-vertical face. The old argument, to fence or not to fence, was revived. Then a quiet calamity in 1973 tipped the scales in favor of fences.
On the morning of February 11, 1973, police and lifeguards made note of a cave that had collapsed during the night beneath the corner of Coronado Avenue and Bacon Street — the site of the Forties’ fatal cave-in that killed Clytie Purvis. This time there seemed to be no signs of human habitation. Six weeks later, the morning after a rainstorm, a boy walking his dog on the cliff noticed what he thought was a wallet protruding from the sand. He scrambled down the cliff to retrieve it but drew back as the object turned out not to be a wallet but a shoe-clad foot. Excavation uncovered the bodies of four sailors who had been reported missing the month before. They had evidently been sleeping in the cave when the slide occurred.
By the seventies, a real rivalry had developed between the fire department’s and the Lifeguard Association’s rescue squads. The fire department had superior equipment, but the lifeguards had a closer knowledge of the cliffs’ access areas. When a girl was reported injured beneath the cliffs at Sunset Cliffs Park, a fire truck was stationed at the parking area, and a boom and ladder were used to lower a man to the beach below. He was surprised to find a lifeguard, who had known about a stairway access on Ladera Street, already administering first aid to the victim.
The lifeguards decided to close the equipment gap, and Bob Wear came up with the idea of outfitting a special truck, specifically designed for cliff rescue. An outrigger was fastened to an International Harvester utility truck to keep it from tipping, and a twenty-one-foot retractable boom was installed to take the place of a hand winch used previously. Six compartments were devised and furnished with a light system with its own generator, four light sets with tripods, ropes, ladders, and medical supplies. The truck is now stationed at Mission Beach, ready to be dispatched to any cliff rescue call along the coast.
An accident site is no place to be bickering, however, and the two agencies have resolved their annoyances and conflicts fairly well. In fact, they work together and have even drawn up policies and guidelines to be used by both. During daylight hours, the Lifeguard Service has responsibility to answer cliff rescue calls and may call the fire department for assistance. After sunset the fire department is in charge. Both groups’ rescuers are certified in emergency medical training, as well as cliff rescue, a sixteen-hour course, mostly on-site, that rescue team members repeat yearly. Both organizations work with the city’s paramedics, the Coast Guard, and Lifeflight, when those groups are needed.
The hardest rescues to deal with are those involving children, according to Steve Karns, whose thirteen years with the Lifeguard Service have included many at Ocean Beach. His most poignant memory is that of a sixteen-year-old boy named Tony, who visited the cliffs on a school holiday. While his friends explored the area below, Tony followed along at the top of the cliff, glancing over the edge to monitor their whereabouts. The surface of the cliff yields sand and pebbles, which act like ball bearings to a sliding shoe. If you’re near the edge when you slip, you may not have time to regain your balance. Tony fell sixty feet, and though lifeguards were on the scene within minutes, he died before he could be lifted out.
To keep themselves from burning out from such experiences, the lifeguards sometimes invent fantasy rescues between calls. One they came up with was a busload of cheerleaders, hanging over the cliff, waiting to be saved. They thought their dream had come true last December when a call came through, “bus over cliff.” When they responded, however, they found an empty city bus halfway through the guardrail at the bottom of Hill Street. Its parking brakes had failed at the last stop of the run, when the driver stepped out to admire the view. Two tow trucks were needed to extricate it.
Cliff rescue calls have actually decreased in the last two years, according to lifeguard Karns. “We used to average about a hundred calls a year,” he says, “but in 1986 it was down to sixty-nine, and in 1987, there were only forty-three.” These figures include all cliff rescue calls on city beaches, of which accidents on Sunset Cliffs account for roughly one-fifth. Karns attributes the decrease to signs posted along the cliffs: Unstable Cliffs — Stay Back, Frequent Cave-ins, Sheer Drop-off, and False Trail, which were installed about four years ago and which give visitors a description of the trouble they may be getting into if they decide to explore. Previous signs merely listed the lifeguards’ emergency telephone number.
Fences, which were finally installed at the end of some streets with dangerous drop-offs, may also have helped in cutting the accident rate. The green chain-link fence at the end of Coronado Avenue is not beautiful, and people complain that it obscures the view. But it has stopped more than one car from going over the cliff.
The Army Corps of Engineers erosion project, which was finally completed in 1982, has probably had some effect on the number of accidents occurring, since it provides walkways and stairways as alternatives to making your way down a slippery dirt surface to the coves beneath the cliffs. And lifeguards who walk the length of the cliffs once a month to observe changes and danger areas say that the rock revetments and retaining walls have slowed erosion. The project took so long that the original cost estimate of $1.8 million escalated to $3 million. It may still seem like a bargain, considering that this was the amount spent by Spalding and Mills on their Japanese gardens in the days when the dollar had more buying power.
Work is still going on under the direction of Robert Cain, city engineer in charge of erosion control at Sunset Cliffs. New guardrails are due to be installed on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard in June, and stairways are slated for repairs at Orchard and Pescadero streets. A committee composed of park and recreation representatives and other coastal agencies has been studying the stability of the cliffs from Del Mar Street to Ladera and will present its findings to the city within the next few months. One future action could be the closing of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard to automobile traffic.
Some people have been disappointed that the erosion control project provided no final solution. But a battle with the sea can only be a holding action, and erosion will continue way beyond our lifetimes — until the peninsula itself has washed away. It’s already difficult to find traces of Spalding Park, and the messages people carve in the rocky shelf under the cliffs are erased within a few years by wind, sand, and water. All our frenetic involvement with the cliffs during this century will hardly add up to a tick on the geologic time clock.