The Case of the Tilted Clubhouse: A Geographical Detective Story

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apartment buildings now obscure both ends. (There’s a brief scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant 1974 film The Conversation where you can see Gene Hackman walking across the still-extant Western Pacific tracks near 15th Street; the plug at the tunnel’s north end is visible in the distance. Check out this amazing image on Flickr.)

What’s interesting to me is that long after the Western Pacific rails were torn up or paved over, the streets and buildings of Potrero Hill still follow their contours. And the longer you spend staring at maps, the more examples like this you find. At least in San Francisco, the urban landscape is like a palimpsest or a leathery skin, crisscrossed with scars that have healed but never quite disappeared.

At first I wondered whether the tilted clubhouse on Third Street might have grown up atop some other abandoned rail line. But there aren’t any traces of such a line on adjacent blocks. I asked a few people in the neighborhood about the oddity, but no one seemed to know the story.

A Google Earth mosaic of aerial images of San Francisco captured by Harrison Ryker in 1938.

And that’s where my puzzle stood, until one evening a month or two ago when I was browsing Google’s Lat Long Blog and found a guest article by my friend David Rumsey, one of the country’s leading collectors of historical maps. I’ve known David since 2005, when I wrote a short feature about him for Technology Review. His blog post was about an amazing set of high-resolution aerial images of San Francisco, captured in 1938 by aerial photographer Harrison Ryker. The 164 prints in the collection cover the entire city at 1-meter resolution—higher than most satellite surveys even today. Rumsey’s team had just finished digitizing, cataloguing, and “geo-referencing” the prints—that is, matching control points on the ground with objects of known latitudes and longitude, so that the digital versions of the photos could be assembled into an accurate mosaic and displayed inside GIS software such as Google Earth.

In fact, in the blog post Rumsey informed readers that the 1938 imagery had just been added to historical imagery layers of Google Earth. I immediately thought of my Third Street buildings. I fired up Google Earth on my Mac, turned on the Rumsey Historical Maps layer, navigated to my neighborhood, and set the time slider back to 1938. Here’s what I found:

1938 aerial photo of the industrial compound between Iowa Street and Third Street

From this astonishing photograph, it appears that there was some sort of industrial compound covering the entire area bounded by Iowa Street, Third Street, 22nd Street, and 23rd Street. The dominant feature was a long building that sliced across what are now four city blocks, at the same angle as the current-day Hells Angels Clubhouse. In fact the clubhouse is visible in the 1938 image, just to the north of the tilted lot, on the Third Street end.

This was a major step forward. But I still had no idea what the structure was; there was no convenient label on the … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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10 responses to “The Case of the Tilted Clubhouse: A Geographical Detective Story”

  1. Tim the yooper says:

    Nice article, Wade. Much more interesting than VC stories.
    Any self-respecting seafaring town of the 19th century had a cordage company – we had one here in Hingham, MA, and there was a relatively famous one in Plymouth, MA that was also operating into the 1960’s. Some of those buildings are still extant.

    • Bill Tubbs says:

      Interestingly enough, the Tubbs brothers came from Duxbury, right next to Plymouth, and it’s likely that their knowledge of the shipping/whaling/cordage industry in that area prompted the oldest brother (Alfred) to start a similar chandlery business in San Francisco (with Captain Folger).

  2. p_chazz says:

    Good sleuthing! You can make out the old SP ROW in the Mission from the Bernal Cut (San Jose Avenue south of 30th Street) to 16th and Harrison by looking for angled buildings. Juri Commons park is part of the old ROW.

  3. dogpatch33 says:

    really interesting…i’ve lived in dogpatch since 2007 and was curious about the angling also…and the history of our neighborhood. thanks for your efforts.

  4. NelsonMinar says:

    Excellent research, thanks for sharing it. Your investigation into railroad tracks reminds me of this old image Mike Migurski stitched together out of Google aerial imagery:

  5. cosmic dense says:

    Thank you for sharing your discovery of this fossil of the early industrial use of this area!

    A minor quibble: the railroad tunnel beneath Potrero Hill was actually built by Western Pacific. The Ocean Shore RR line ran to the west of Potrero Hill then east of Bernal Hill. Some of the OSRR property was later purchased by WP.

    Tubbs Cordage may well have had their own siding; the entire area had lots of industrial trackage with WP, Santa Fe, and Southern Pacific operating on each other’s tracks. More to research!

  6. Will Turner says:

    Googling “Tubbs Cordage Company” got me to a Wikipedia page that says its rope factory was the first commercial manufacture of rope on the Pacific Coast.

    BTW, I own a Southern Pacific trailer used in 1947 to haul bananas from the San Francisco docks.

    • Wade Roush says:

      Thanks for adding that interesting fact, Will. What do you do with the banana trailer these days?

      • Will Turner says:

        The trailer has been sitting in a Public Storage yard for …forever, holding my junk from the ’70s. Instead of storing that stuff, I should have used all that rent money to invest in Public Storage stock. I’d be rich now.

  7. Bill Tubbs says:

    Neat detective work, Wade. I knew about the location of the ropewalk and have that same print that depicts the “birds-eye” view of the area, but didn’t know about the RR connections. The family history I know never got into that area and it’s cool to read. Thanks!