Memories, Stories and History from San Francisco's Ocean Beach. - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke.

Have stories and memories of Kelly's Cove? Contact us or share on our message board.

The "Tales from Kelly's Cove" project is based on interviews with men and women who have surfed, sunned, and socialized at the northernmost corner of San Francisco's Ocean Beach, known as Kelly's Cove. The stories gathered, interpreted and retold, will increase public awareness of the cove's nascent role in the history of California's surfing, fitness, and counterculture movements.

Kelly's Cove at Ocean Beach

Fort Kelly's Cove, built in the rocks below the Cliff House, 1943. - Photograph courtesy of Chic Devlin family

Kelly's Cove has been a retreat for fitness-oriented San Franciscans from at least the 1940s. Tucked under the famous Cliff House restaurant, the curve of sand at the north end of Ocean Beach became a meeting place for cold-water swimmers, runners, and practitioners of calisthenics who used rocky outcrops and a nearby iron pier to work out in the years before World War II. One story for the naming of the cove invokes a hermit called "Old Man Kelly," who built a small shack of driftwood beside a carefully tended beach fire, and swam daily around Seal Rocks. (A less colorful origin for the name connects a nearby Kelly's Tires billboard with the site.)

He was referred to as Kelly. He was like a hermit. He lived in a makeshift wooden shelter hard up against the cliffs with a little fireplace and I think he lived there most of the year. Once in a while he’d take pity on us before we had our fire started and let us warm up.
— Patrick F. Cunneen

In 1907, California writer Jack London wrote an article for Woman's Home Companion about Hawaiian surfing, calling it "the royal sport for the natural kings of the earth." He was credited by one biographer for the "successful transplanting of the sport of surfing from Waikiki to the West Coast of America," but it wasn't until the 1950s that "surf riding" became firmly entrenched in California.

To me that was the start of the surfing in California. I felt it started at Kelly’s.
— Shawna McGrew

After World War II, Kelly's Cove became an early body and board surfing spot that attracted both Pacific Islanders and residents of European extract. An ethos of physical development in a natural environment kept company with a companionable party atmosphere. The regular crowd attracted to Kelly's would burn old tires to keep warm between dips in the cold Pacific Ocean. One Kelly's bodysurfer, Jack O'Neill, opened a surf shop at the beach in 1952, and developed the first commercially available wetsuit in response to the frigid water of Ocean Beach. The O'Neill Company is now a leader in beach lifestyle sportswear and sells the majority of the world's wetsuits.

There's no wetsuits in my day... In those days the water was colder. We’d all collect the wood. That was kind of a ritual. We’d get the wood and we wouldn't light the fire until we came out of the water.
Carol Schuldt

Beyond the roots of surf technology and commerce, Kelly's Cove visitors reflected and developed a California surfing ethos with roots in Polynesian culture as well as alternative and counterculture movements developing in postwar San Francisco. Elements of Eastern religions, conservation, and a soulful connection to nature, associated now with poets and writers such as Gary Snyder and Michael McClure, were present in wave rider philosophies espoused and nurtured by many at Kelly's Cove. This athletic spiritualism at Kelly's seemed to evolve as a nature-focused counterpoint to San Francisco's Beat and Summer of Love scenes in the 1950s and 1960s.

They danced to their own drumbeat, right? And anything goes.
— Dennis O'Rorke

The rich recreational and cultural history of Kelly's Cove is in danger of being overlooked as its first surfers age and pass away. In recent years, surfing and surf culture has only increased on Ocean Beach, but most media and public attention has focused on environmental concerns—protecting endangered species, negotiating dog access, and managing erosion and sand build-up issues. In May 2012, the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) released a 212-page master plan for the future of Ocean Beach, partly sponsored and endorsed by the City of San Francisco. The report only mentions Kelly's Cove once by name, and that in a photo caption.

When they built those condos and started getting complaints, all the fires got stopped and the community slowed down and there were no more young kids coming down to stand around the fires to learn from the older guys and become part of the group slowly. That stopped. Without the fire you had no community.
Arne Wong

Our hope is that this project will bring the story of early San Francisco surfing into immediate public consciousness and save first-person accounts for future scholars. The audience for "Tales from Kelly's Cove" will have a greater understanding and knowledge of the role a cold-water cove in San Francisco had in creating the world's view of surfing, and by association, California life.

I hung out a bit at the fire or at the sea wall. I was like a kelp fly. You know those kelp flies that come off Seal Rocks and they land on you? If you blow on 'em, they stand still and then you swat 'em. I hung out and lightly associated with these guys I'd grown up with in the neighborhood or through school. And what attracted me was that it was a very different kind of fraternity. Also, it was nature along with an air of adventure... it was the edge of the world socially and geographically.
Paul Judge
Volleyball game at Kelly's Cove below the Cliff House, Giant Camera, and Seal Rocks, 1970s. - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke.

Kelly's Cove Articles and Interviews