The Ghosts of Playland at the Beach

great highway

Former site of Playland at the Beach- Photo by William Duke

There is an expanse of land facing the mighty Pacific Ocean that reveals itself as you journey past the Cliff House Restaurant along the Great Highway in San Francisco. Observing the area directly across from Ocean Beach that surrounds the rusty old Safeway and soulless condominiums, one gets the impression that there must be more of a history to this curious segment of the city.

Playland at the Beach, which had been dubbed the “Coney Island of the West Coast,” certainly didn’t start out that way. In 1884, a steam railroad was constructed to make Ocean Beach easily accessible as a recreation spot. In 1913, Arthur Looff and John Friedle established Concessions on the Beach, with shooting galleries and carnival games. This was an expansion of the existing Hippodrome, which was a building that contained a carousel that was built by Looff and his family. Looff and Friedle became partners, and by 1921 they had acquired several rides and attractions. They renamed the area Chutes at the Beach after one of the rides, the Shoot-The-Chutes. They were open from noon to midnight, every day.

The wives of Friedle and Looff never got along, and by 1923 they were quarreling more than ever. Due to the open hostility between their families, John Friedle decided the only remedy to the situation was to buy Looff out of his share of Chutes at the Beach. In order to avoid infighting within his own family, Friedle saw the need to hire an outside party to oversee operations at Chutes. Enter George Whitney.

In 1926, George Whitney was made general manager of Playland. Along with his brother Leo, George started to see a bright future for the seaside location, and when the opportunity arose they decided to go in as partners in hopes of owning it all. The Great Depression came at the right time for the Whitneys. Property values waned and America was hesitant to spend money on recreation, creating the perfect opportunity to buy the property on the cheap as it became available. In 1929, George and Leo Whitney purchased many of the attractions and renamed it Playland at the Beach.

Playland was initially looked at as a diversion for adults, but the Whitneys wanted to make it a fun place for families. The golden age of Playland followed, boasting 14 rides, 25 concessions, and 4 restaurants. A large wooden roller coaster named the Big Dipper was built, and families from all over the world flocked to San Francisco to see Playland.

However, the park had its share of quirks. Like many coasters of the day, The Big Dipper roller coaster had no restraints, and riders were urged to hold on tight as it whirled around creaky turns in the thick ocean air. In 1945, a sailor on shore leave stood up at the wrong time, hit his head on a beam, and died later that afternoon. An urban legend grew around the incident, with the sailor’s head coming completely off and landing in a car full of park revelers who happened to be eating lunch.

Laffing Sal was a large, matronly, animatronic woman that was placed in front of the Fun House in an effort to lure folks in. True to her name, she guffawed incessantly at visitors as they entered. Sal’s gaping mouth and continuous cackling unintentionally scared children. Coupled with screams from the roller coaster, she could be heard from several blocks away.


Laffing Sal– Photo by James R Smith

The Fun House was described as an amusement park within an amusement park. Fifteen cents would get you in. Once through the mirror maze, the fun- seeker would have to contend with the likes of the precarious Joy Wheel, moving bridges, shaky staircases and crazy catwalks. Throw in a 200-foot indoor slide, and the funhouse became the template for carnival horror flicks for the remainder of the 20th Century. Young boys would often line up near the air jets hoping for a salacious peek as unsuspecting women would walk through and have their skirts blown up around their head.

The marine layer on Great Highway is usually thick with a gray, noir fog most of the year, creating a forbidding atmosphere that was perfect for popular spook rides that stayed open until midnight every day of the year. Attractions like Limbo and Dark Mystery thrilled park goers, who were swept away in carts through surrealistic facades around twisting, nightmarish turns as creepy plywood characters did what they could to scare them. Dark Mystery originally had an African theme, but was changed to a more surreal theme in the 1950s. Spook rides became a staple of 1940s-50s carny America.

By 1955, the luster of Playland at the Beach began to tarnish. Despite its rigid construction, some were now viewing the Big Dipper as a wooden death trap, but most locals still loved it. Sadly, for reasons known only to George Whitney, the Big Dipper was torn down. The ride was replaced with a smaller coaster called the Alpine Racer, but it failed to recapture the magic of the Dipper. The people who worked on the midway during this time thought that the removal of the Big Dipper was the first nail in the coffin for Playland.

In 1958, George Whitney died. George Jr. ran Playland for a while, but eventually sold it. The cost of keeping the park open was high, and the magic was gone.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a shift in the zeitgeist of the San Francisco youth movement, as hippie idealism and peace and love gave way to speed, heroin, and violence. Two teens were killed in a fight at nearby Skateland, which resulted in Playland being viewed by many as dangerous and uncool. The hip kids had better things to do, and adults got tired of looking over their shoulders and fearing for the safety of their children. The end was near.

On September 4, 1972, Playland at the Beach was officially closed. It was demolished the following month. The land that Playland occupied became a sandpit, owned by millionaire developers to make way for the condominiums that remain there today. Where the Diving Bell once stood is now a crusty Safeway. Laffing Sal was shipped to Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. The city of San Francisco wanted people to forget about Playland.

The only attraction from the days of Playland at the Beach that remains on Great Highway is the Camera Obscura, which is located next to the Cliff House Restaurant. The Camera Obscura is an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings, in this case the Pacific Ocean, onto a large, flat surface using only sunlight. The Camera Obscura was placed next to the Cliff House in 1946, and has remained in continuous operation to this day.


The Camera Obscura- Photo by William Duke

A couple of other interesting tidbits related to Playland at the Beach:

  • Down the Peninsula in Burlingame sits the It’s-It ice-cream factory. The yummy ice cream cookie sandwich was created by George Whitney, and was first served at Playland. They don’t do tours, but Its-It cookie sandwiches are easy to find in grocery stores all over California.
  • The original Looff carousel can be found beautifully restored south of Market at Yerba Buena Gardens.

I recommend learning a little more about Playland, then head on up to the top of Sutro Heights Park, preferably at night, and look out over the plot of land that Playland once occupied. As corny as it may seem, use your imagination, and with the ocean wind blowing in your face, listen for Laffing Sal, the Fun House, and the screams and smells of Playland at the Beach.


Terror by the Bay: The Trailside Killer, Glen Park, and Apartment 304

David Carpenter

David Carpenter–photo by

Who can forget the Trailside Killer?

David Carpenter was born on May 6, 1930 to Elwood and Francis Hart Carpenter. Elwood was a mean-spirited, physically and mentally abusive alcoholic. Francis was also abusive, but seemed to be more engaged in David’s life.

Carpenter spent most of his childhood at 152 Sussex Street in San Francisco’s Glen Park district. Glen Park is located south of Diamond Heights and Noe Valley, west of Bernal Heights, and east of Glen Canyon Park. The neighborhood is known for having a village-like atmosphere, with mom-and-pop shops, quality schools, and sheltered homes on hilly, narrow streets. Families that resided in Glen Park usually knew each other and their children often played together. It was in this idyllic environment that the Trailside Killer came into being.

152 Sussex Street

152 Sussex Street–Photo by William Duke

Carpenter described his childhood as “hellish.” He took violin and ballet lessons, which made him the target of bullies. There were also rumors at school that David’s parents beat him, and classmates often noticed bruises on his body. He had a severe stutter and was a chronic bed-wetter. He also discovered early on that he had a ravenous, unhealthy sexual appetite that would often lend itself to compulsive, deviant behavior.

As an outlet for his inner turmoil, Carpenter tortured animals. When his father deserted the family for a year when he was 14, his erratic behavior escalated. He lured two sisters into a restroom in Diamond Heights Park, threatened them with a knife and began to get grabby. He was charged with molestation, and committed to Napa State Hospital for 90 days.

As a result of the Diamond Heights incident, David made an important discovery: During the attack, when he was in complete control, his stutter disappeared. This revelation into his inner-workings gave him confidence, and would shape the rest of his creep career.

In the mid 1950s, Carpenter joined the U.S. Coast Guard and eventually landed a job with Pacific Far East Lines as a purser on a long freighter named the Fleetwood. During this time he met and courted Ellen. The couple married on November 5, 1955, and settled down at 380 Mina Lane in the sleepy seaside town of Pacifica, just south of San Francisco. They had three children. At first life seemed stable, but eventually the union became fraught with tension. David was sexually demanding and prone to enraged outbursts.

380 Mina Lane

380 Mina Lane–Photo by William Duke

The couple had a mutual friend, Lois DeAndrade, who also did accounting work for David’s father, Elwood. One day, Carpenter offered Lois a ride to work. He had been circling the block like a shark waiting for her to arrive at her bus stop. At first, she politely declined, but at his insistence, eventually accepted. She always got weird vibes from David, but assured herself he was just trying to be nice. What harm could possibly come from accepting a ride from a friend?

A sweaty, rapey Carpenter insisted on taking a detour so that Lois could see his newborn baby. Oddly, Carpenter then claimed he was having trouble locating his wife and child. As they drove into the Presidio, things began to take a bizarre turn. David parked and began making sexual advances toward Lois. When she rebuffed him, he exclaimed, “I have this fuming quirk that’s got to be satisfied!” He attacked her with a hammer as she screamed for help. A military policeman, Jewell Wayne Hicks, heard the commotion and recued Lois. She was critically injured but alive.

On April 2, 1961, David Carpenter was sentenced to 14 years at McNeil Island Prison in Washington, near Puget Sound. Back in San Francisco, Ellen Carpenter filed for divorce.

Nine years later, Carpenter was released from prison. As part of his parole, he began attending a group therapy class where he met Helen. The two dated for a short time before marrying and moving into apartment 304, at 1140 Sutter Street in San Francisco.

1140 Sutter Street

1140 Sutter Street. -Photo by William Duke

By 1970, exasperated with David’s persistent need for sex, Helen took a vacation. Unable to control his compulsive sexual proclivities, Carpenter attacked a 19-year-old girl near Boulder Creek in the Santa Cruz Mountains. David was familiar with the area; his relatives had a cabin nearby that he used to visit as a child. The girl was able to escape, but her injuries required a stay in the hospital. She remembered his license plate number and physical description, and quickly gave the information to local police.

Meanwhile, David Carpenter continued his lustful, violent indulgences. He returned to 1140 Sutter Street, where he ditched his car, quickly changed clothes, slipped out the back door, and thumbed it to Santa Cruz.

In Santa Cruz, he promptly abducted two women, raped one, and insisted they drop him off outside Oakdale, which was nearly 100 miles away. Police eventually caught him buying a ticket at the Greyhound bus station in downtown Modesto. He was booked into the Stanislaus County jail.

The drama continued as Carpenter escaped jail with four other inmates, but was captured soon after. Eager for notoriety, Carpenter reportedly told his newfound jail homies that he just might be the Zodiac Killer.

He was transferred to Vacaville State Prison later that year, where it was determined that he had a 125 IQ, which is notably high. Prison doctors also diagnosed a behavioral disorder that manifested itself as a deep hostility and resentment toward women. Big surprise. He was released from prison in 1977, only to return to serve two more years for a parole violation.

On May 21, 1979, David Carpenter was once again released from prison. He settled into Reality House West, a halfway house in the ramshackle Tenderloin district.

He made an attempt at a normal life by attending a vocational rehabilitation program and securing a job with Gems of the Golden West, a company that sold key chains and trinkets. In retrospect, this probably wasn’t the best occupation for him – it allowed unsupervised, long-distance travel in the company van in the still somewhat carefree seventies. But David was determined to change. He began going to a speech therapist to work on his stutter, and joined the Sierra Club, which regularly hiked the trails of neighboring Mount Tamalpais.

Unfortunately, his compulsions resurfaced and he found it difficult to resist his overwhelming urges. The accountability factor of living at the halfway house started to cramp his style, so he moved in with his parents at 38 Sussex Street in old, familiar Glen Park. He enjoyed the privacy of living alone on the first floor of the house, where he could discreetly come and go without his pesky parents spoiling all the fun.

38 Sussex Street

38 Sussex Street–Photo by William Duke

Thus began a six-week period that resulted in one of the most prolific killing sprees in California history.

After many days of death and carnage, things finally began to unravel for Carpenter when he killed Ellen Hanson, 29, a U.C. Davis graduate, and attempted to kill her friend Steven Haertle. Steven survived after being shot four times. He later positively identified Carpenter as the triggerman.

David Carpenter’s final known act of savagery involved his friend Heather Skaggs, a 20-year-old blonde who attended the same trade school as Carpenter. She found him a bit awkward, but that didn’t stop her from accepting the occasional ride home. She needed a car of her own, if for no other reason than to thwart Carpenter’s clumsy efforts to make sure she got home safely. David informed Heather he had a car hook-up with a friend in Santa Cruz. Excited by the prospect of owning a car, she agreed to accompany him.

Friday, May 2, 1981 was the last time anyone saw Heather Skaggs. Her badly decomposed body was found with a gunshot wound to the head on May 24 in Big Basin Redwoods Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The trial of David Carpenter was moved to San Diego County in order to avoid unnecessary media attention. He was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to death row in San Quentin, where he remains to this day. Investigators speculate that he may be responsible for several other murders, but he isn’t talking. He has appealed his convictions and asserts his innocence, of course.