High School Students Dig Up Artifacts at San Francisco's Sutro Heights

Adolph Sutro was one of those forward-thinking pioneers. His stunning creations at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach include Sutro Baths, the massive Victorian version of the Cliff House - and a hilltop mansion lined with Greek Statues. Though all those edifices are now gone - curiosity over Sutro’s buildings remains.

And so on a recent day, a group of students from San Francisco’s Ida B. Wells High School dug into the ground at the base of Sutro Heights Park, probing the churned-up soil for any artifacts of Sutro’s reign.

“We know Adolph Sutro was here,” student Mika Henderson said. “But we don’t know none of his employees who worked here.”

The work site was just down the hill from where Sutro’s mansion stood, at a lower site once occupied by his workers’ homes. The budding student archaeologists were guided by National Park Service rangers who are piecing together a collection of artifacts and stories from the land.

“This is us trying to grow a new collection for the park of the people who built this place, rather than the people who owned this place.” said Leo Barker, chief archaeologist of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Students worked in small square plots, shoveling dirt into buckets which they dumped onto wooden sifters. The students shook the dirt - probing through the clumpy remains.

“They’re hoping we can find some of the stuff that the people had who lived here,” Henderson said.

The two-day dig turned-up plenty of artifacts reflecting the many decades since people first turned up at Ocean Beach. Pieces of ceramic dishes and broken glass were among the common take. Barker said the area had once been picnic grounds. There were chunks of concrete, most likely part of the foundation of the homes that stood there. Henderson and another student also hit upon what became the expedition’s most celebrated find.

“I picked it up and gave it to the lady,” said Henderson, “and she said this might be a coin. And it was a coin.”

The tiny coin, no bigger than a dime, turned out to be a Japanese coin from 1877, sparking multiple theories of its travels.

“It immediately raises the question of who was out here in 1877,” Barker said. “There’s also the possibility the people who worked these area - they were Japanese or Chinese.”

There was also plenty of evidence of who came to the site after 1877 - or at least what they were up to. The dig revealed plenty of beer bottles, buttons and a tubes lipstick - which were also recorded as artifacts.

“One student who found the lipstick, her name is on that archaeological record now,” said teacher Holly Friel. “I just think that’s so cool, our students found that.”

While the outing was intended as a field trip - the results go down as legitimate archaeology which will become part of the permanent story of Sutro Heights.

“For the students it’s exciting,” said ranger Benny Batom.” “Because it uncovers a story that happened here, and it’s really hands-on history.”

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