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A Brief History of Wave and Tidal Energy Experiments in San Francisco and Santa Cruz

Page One -- Page Two -- Page Three -- Notes

by Christine Miller
Copyright © August 2004

Practical Engineers and Imaginative Inventors: 1890 -1900

Holland Wave Motor

Wave energy and tidal energy projects in California enjoyed success, popularity and funding in the 1890's. It was a decade that saw the construction of California's largest tidal energy project and it's only successful wave motor.

In San Francisco there were numerous experiments ranging from small models to large scale construction projects. Most of these projects were near the Cliff House but not all. In November of 1896, J.M. Dwyer had a working model of his invention at the foot of Powell St. and hoped to build another model at Baker Beach. In February of 1897 Henry Shomberg of Los Gatos had a working model of his machine on 20th St. in San Francisco. A larger version was planned for a spot near Santa Cruz.

The Wave Power & Compressing Company, Hercules Wave Motor Company, and Pacific Wave Motor Company all incorporated in San Francisco in the 1890's.

In 1895 the San Francisco Examiner newspaper held a contest asking people to write in with their best ideas for improving the city and increasing the number of residents. The winning entry included the idea to "offer fifty thousand dollars 'bonus' to any inventor of a practical mechanism capable of commercially utilizing ocean 'wave power'. 5

Holland's Wave Motor and the Legend of Ralph Starr

The 1890's saw several new wave motors near the Cliff House. In 1891 a wave motor was constructed by a man named Mr. Henry P. Holland and his financier J.A. Fischer on a large rock close to the site of Mr. Stern's machine. Unlike Mr. Stern's machine, which operated in a pushing-pulling motion, this wave motor worked from the rise and fall of the waves moving a large buoy. From this movement a pump was activated which raised water through a pipe up the side of a cliff nearby. From the top of the cliff the water would be run through a series of water wheels that they hoped would generate electricity. The inventors intended to sell this electricity to manufacturers. This was probably the first wave motor built in California for a commercial purpose but it does not appear to have worked as it was intended.

Holland's wave motor was abandoned in the early 1890's but the machine remained attached to its rock for another 59 years before it was finally blown away in a storm. In that time it became a familiar local landmark and the subject of a legend about a wave motor inventor named Ralph Starr that is still told today. Various forms of the Ralph Starr story have been put in print over the years. The details and names in the story aren't always consistent. The name of Starr was taken from another wave motor inventor in Redondo Beach.

In its essence, the tale of Ralph Starr is the story of an inventor who develops a breakthrough in wave motor technology. He takes over the family bathtub to construct a demonstration model and then sells the idea to a group of investors who think he is brilliant. Starr begins construction on his machine out at Land's End but is secretive about it and won't let anyone near it. Finally, the day comes when the machine is supposed to begin operation. A big ceremony is planned and everyone goes to Land's End to see the new machine make electricity from the waves. At the appointed hour, however, Ralph Starr is nowhere to be found. The investors become concerned. They go to Starr's house and find the occupants and their possessions gone. They don't know whether Starr had swindled them on purpose or if he was just too embarrassed to face the humiliating truth that his machine didn't work. Regardless, no one really knows how Starr's wave motor is supposed to operate and it is abandoned.

Sometimes the story includes Adolph Sutro as the swindled investor but that may stem from an actual news story in 1893 about an inventor named Joseph Serb who claimed that Sutro had already promised use of some of his land.

The story may also have drawn from another true news story in 1898 reported in the Los Angeles Times about a San Franciscan named Burr whose wave motor "supplied only enough energy for the promoter's gilt tongue". 6 He used the mail to swindle Los Angeles investors into his imaginary wave motor project. Also making news that year was the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company in Portland, Maine which promised to extract gold from sea salt water until its general manager, the Rev. P.F. Jernegan ran away to Europe with the investors' money.

In 1891 Holland's wave motor was sketched and articles were written about it, but it really wasn't until it was abandoned that this wave motor seemed to find its true purpose. Immortalized by the legend of Ralph Starr, it was a long standing monument to the idea of electricity from the ocean. The legend, although simple, was passed down for generations. It was photographed more than any other wave motor in California and given a mention in tourist guidebook done by WPA writers in the 1930's. The freighter Ohioan wrecked itself along side the wave motor in 1936 and the two ended up on a postcard. In 1950 it was given an obituary in the Chronicle when it finally washed away in a storm. Surviving radio transcripts from KCBS show that the Ralph Starr legend was told on the air in 1951 and again in 1975.

The other wave motor built at Land's End in the early 1890's was completely overshadowed by its flamboyant neighbor, the Holland wave motor. This bridge-shaped wave motor was built into a crevice in the rocks of Parallel Point and survived into the 1950's but who built it and when is not currently known.

In 1893 a small-scale project, known as the Surf Power Pump had a successful test near the Cliff House. This project came and went without any further fanfare and its inventor is not known.

The Sutro Baths and Adolph Sutro

When Adolph Sutro finished the Aquarium he had successfully built California's first tidal energy project.

Between 1887 and 1890 the plans for expanding the Aquarium became increasingly elaborate. In 1891 the cement foundation for the new building was finally laid after the first four attempts had disappeared into the sand. The six salt-water swimming tanks were operational in 1892. The largest of the swimming tanks was an L-shaped tank 275 feet long by 150 feet wide. The canalworks of the Aquarium filled them with 1,800,000 gallons of ocean water which was heated to various temperatures by a device invented by Sutro. To fill the tanks by the power of the tides took one hour. During the times of the year when the tide was too low to be effective, a pumping system was used that took five hours to fill the tanks. The seventh tank was a fresh water tank in a separate room on the east side of the building.

In 1892 an architect's competition for Sutro's new bathhouse was won by C.J. Colley and E.S. Lemme and a powerhouse was built at the north end of the building. As construction continued the Aquarium transformed into the Sutro Baths, the largest natatorium in the world. The spectator seating held 10,000 people. There were 517 private dressing rooms and 9 club rooms. There were restaurants and a museum.

When it was finished, the building was 254 feet wide and 499.5 feet long. The roof and columns required 600 tons of iron. Construction of the building required 270,000 cubic feet of concrete, 3,000,000 feet of lumber and the ceiling that enclosed the building contained 100,000 square feet of glass. The Sutro Baths officially opened on March 14, 1896. It remains to this day California's largest tidal energy project.

The Sutro Baths was a one-of-a-kind tourist attraction for San Francisco. There was nothing else like it in the world.

Two years after the Baths were completed Adolph Sutro passed away. His family struggled over his will in the following years and the lack of sound management of his estate contributed to the decline of the Baths. The enormous structure never seemed to have a guiding force after Sutro died.

In a 1912 election San Franciscans voted down a bond measure that would have provided funds for the City of San Francisco to purchase the Baths. Although 28,845 voted "yes" and 17,480 voted "no", the bond measure needed over 31,492 votes to carry. In 1919 the Sutro family offered San Francisco the chance to buy the Sutro Baths at its assessed value but they were turned down. In 1952, San Francisco had another chance to purchase the Baths but again did not. The Sutro family instead sold the Baths to George Whitney, owner of Playland-by-the-Beach. The Sutro Baths operated as a bath house until the mid-1950's when the tanks were closed and an ice-rink was built over the pools. In 1964 George Whitney's mother sold her share of the family company to Robert D. Fraser of the Alexander Land Company for $2 million. By early 1966 the dilapidated building was closed for good. In March the plans for an apartment building and shopping center on the site were announced by Fraser who claimed that it was not possible to incorporate the aged building into the proposed new structures. He had already sold 3.5 acres of the site to developers.

Demolition of the Baths began in June of that year but an enormous fire finally brought down the Sutro Baths on June 26th. After the fire, only the cement foundation and the canalworks of the Aquarium remained.

In January 1967 the City again rejected purchasing the site due to lack of funds. In October of that year, the San Francisco Planning Commission published a Cliff House-Sutro Baths acquisition study that recommended the purchase. The area then consisted of four land parcels with four different owners. In 1968 the Sutro Baths parcel was sold to the Palal Corporation.

In 1980, after years of negotiations, the Sutro Baths cove was sold by its then owner, Cliffside Properties, to the National Park Service for $5.5 million and was incorporated into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

The Gerlach Wave Motor of Capitola: 1895

Gerlach Wave Motor

In 1894, the Los Angeles Times ran an article about a wave motor in Long Beach that was being tested by Emil Gerlach of Santa Monica. The machine was, thus far, a success but it remained to be seen if it could pump water with sufficient force to pipe it up a hill to a basin where the water would then be run back down through electric dynamos.

Mr. Gerlach wanted to build a larger version of his invention in Santa Monica but in July of 1895 it was announced that the small resort town of Capitola near Santa Cruz had been selected as the site of the Gerlach wave motor, the first large scale wave motor project for generating electricity for commercial purposes.

A positive outcome for the Gerlach wave motor was important to the community. Santa Cruz county needed not only a unique attraction to make tourists visit their city but they needed power. The project was followed with anticipation by locals and their newspaper, the Santa Cruz Daily Sentinel.

In January of 1896 the Sentinel published an article about the lack of manufacturing in the area that shows the importance that was attached to the success of this wave motor and the hydroelectric plant was also being constructed at the falls of Big Creek 18 miles away.

"Before Santa Cruz can hope to do much in the line of manufacturing she must have cheap power because she does labor under the disadvantage of being 80 miles from San Francisco, the center of business gravity. To obtain this necessary power should be the effort of every well-wisher of this community, and as we sit in our office we are thinking of the waves of the sea as they are being harnessed at Capitola and Big Creek, with its thousand feet of water fall and which power F.W. Swanton and associates are laboring to bring to our doors on wires of copper." 7

In January and in March newspapers reported successful tests of the Gerlach wave motor but on June 3rd the project was announced to be a failure in a brief, sad paragraph in the Sentinel.

"The Gerlach Wave Motor at Capitola does not allow itself to be disturbed by the waves. This we regret... Its success meant cheap power and an electric railroad from Capitola to Santa Cruz and from this city to the metropolis. It meant more --- a mechanical revolution so vast as to be beyond the powers of comprehension." 8

In the end, the wave motor project was a disappointment but the hydroelectric project was a success. Thirteen days later the Sentinel happily announced: "Power Furnished by Big Creek Miles Away--Water Harnessed for Electrical Purposes". 9

The Armstrong Brothers and the Santa Cruz Wave Motor: 1898

Two years after the Gerlach wave motor failed, the Santa Cruz Sentinel was finally able to run a headline about a wave motor that worked. On June 25, 1898 it announced, "The Ocean Harnessed. A Wave Motor Has Finally Proved A Success". 10

The wave motor was not built to supply electricity but to supply ocean water for sprinkling the streets and keeping down the dust. At the time, it was mentioned that the wave motor had the potential for producing power but the idea was not followed.

This time Santa Cruz had invested in the right project. The wave motor was a novelty that made their city unique and it provided water for 12 years. It was photographed and put onto postcards. The wave motor's tall tower also provided an excellent place for photographers to take panoramic pictures of the surrounding area.

The inventors were a pair of brothers named William and John E. Armstrong. They had originally built a small model of their wave motor in the cliffs off Black Point and the city officials who came to see it were impressed. The Armstrongs made an agreement with the City of Santa Cruz to install their device in the rocky bluffs on the shores of the beach below West Cliff Drive.

The Armstrongs' wave motor, an oscillating water column, was built inside the cliff. They had dug a thirty-five by six foot hole into the side of the cliff that ran to a level below low tide. From there another tunnel connected it with the ocean. Inside of the thirty-five-foot well was a pump, and attached to that a 600-pound float. When the waves crashed on the shore, they forced water through the tunnel and up the well, lifting the float, opening the valve and filling the pump. As the water receded, the well water would fall, dropping the pump and the float. The valve would close and the piston, under the weight of the float, forced the water through a pipe to a tank on the hill.

Armstrong Motor Well

The wave motor was dismantled in 1910 because of improved street paving that made it unnecessary to water down the roads.

Santa Cruz is the only city in California that has taken pride in being a pioneer of wave power as an alternative energy source. Articles about the Armstrongs' wave motor and its practicability were written long after it was gone.

The only part of the wave motor that remains today is the thirty-five-foot deep well in the cliff.

(Continued on Page Three...)

Page One -- Page Two -- Page Three -- Notes

Images: 1) Stereoview of the Holland wave motor by B.W. Kilburn, 1895. (Courtesy of Christine Miller collection) 2) Gerlach Wave Motor in Capitola. (San Francisco Examiner, January 19, 1896, pg. 28). 3) The well of the Armstrong motor in Santa Cruz, 2004. (Christine Miller photo).

Notes: (Click here if you'd like the article's complete notes listed in a new window).

5. "The Best Idea of All", San Francisco Examiner, May 5, 1895, pg. 22, col. 2.

6. "A Wave Motor", Los Angeles Times, July 30, 1898, pg. 8.

7. "Is Santa Cruz to be a Great Manufacturing Centre?", Santa Cruz Daily Sentinel, January 17, 1896, pg. 2, col. 2.

8. Santa Cruz Daily Sentinel, June 3, 1896, pg. 2, col. 1

9. "Brilliant Illumination", Santa Cruz Daily Sentinel, pg. 1, col. 1

10. "The Ocean Harnessed", Santa Cruz Daily Sentinel, June 25, 1898, pg. 1, col. 1.

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