The area that was Playland began as a 19th Century squatter’s settlement, “Mooneysville-by-the-Sea”, at the western edge of San Francisco. By 1884, a steam railroad was in place to bring people to the Ocean Beach Pavilion for concerts and dancing. By 1890 there were three streetcar lines to Ocean Beach: the Ferries and Cliff House Railroad, the Park & Ocean Railroad and the Sutro Railroad. The Cliff House opened in 1863 and German immigrant Adolph Sutro opened an outdoor saltwater aquarium with a unique pumping and drainage system utilizing a series of tunnels in 1887.
The Cliff House, which opened in 1863, and Sutro Baths and Museum, which officially opened on March 14, 1896 with an opening day crowd of 7,000 people in attendance, were very popular and they drew many thousands of visitors. Sutro Baths was the “Largest Salt Water Natatorium in the World” and it was built to hold as many as 10,000 bathers and another 15,000 spectators at one time. Sutro Baths was completed in 1894 but a dispute with Southern Pacific over the cost of a streetcar ride to Sutro Heights delayed the official opening until 1896.
To help attract more people to Sutro Baths, the short-lived “Sutro Pleasure Grounds”, also known as Merrie Way, opened with the Firth Wheel (Ferris Wheel) and two indoor attractions: the Mystic Maze house of mirrors and the Haunted Swing that Adolph Sutro had purchased when the Midwinter Fair of 1894 at nearby Golden Gate Park sold off its holdings. By 1898, Sutro’s midway had grown to include a Scenic Railway and several other amusements as well as a cluster of chowder stands.