San Francisco’s forgotten amusement park, Playland, is the theme of the fourth annual “Garden Railway” at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park.
Playland’s beginnings are linked to the building of the steam railroad of 1884, which made affordable the six-mile trip from downtown San Francisco to Ocean Beach. Before the existence of the railroad, this journey to the shore could only be made in two ways. Travelers could either trek over sand dunes or pay for a $1.00 roundtrip bus ticket on the Point Lobos Toll Road. By 1890 three additional street car lines also fed into the area, making it even more accessible. At the time, Ocean Beach was a popular spot to take in the shore views, watch the seals and get some fresh air.
Known as Mooneysville-by-the-Sea, the Ocean Beach area that would become Playland was originally a squatters’ settlement dating back to 1883. As the railroads brought more and more traffic to the area, enterprising gentlemen built a gravity railroad (roller coaster) and Ocean Beach Pavilion for dancing and concerts. Over time concessionaires began installing additional amusement park attractions and collectively called them Chutes at the Beach. In 1926 George Whitney became general manager of the area and renamed it Playland. Each concession was still owned and operated individually, but during the Great Depression, as their owners fell on hard times, George and his brother Leo began to buy up the various enterprises.
By 1934, Playland took up three city blocks and had 14 rides, a midway, 25 concessions and four restaurants, including Topsy’s Roost.
Playland was owned and operated by the Whitney family until it was sold to a developer for a condominium project in 1971 and torn down.
Ocean Beach was not only the home of Playland, but also Sutro Baths, the largest saltwater natatorium in the world, and The Cliff House Restaurant, which still operates today.
The Garden Railway diorama is made of recycled and repurposed material. If you look closely, you can see that the carousel is made from a discarded light fixture, a slide carousel and a record player. The Playland sign is an original.
The exhibit runs through April 15. For more information, visit the Conservatory of Flowers website.