A view of the Wax Museum, adjacent to where the Haunted Gold Mine once stood.
It was the summer of 1984, and Fisherman’s Wharf was “every teenager’s dream,” said Mark Walsh, a fourth generation San Franciscan who worked there while he was a student at Mission High School.
The electronic bloops and explosions from “Pac-Man” and “Space Invaders” emanated from a two-story arcade where the Aquarium of the Bay stands today, once replete with pinball machines, bumper cars and a shooting gallery. Then there was the diving pool at the end of the pier, which sometimes featured shows hosted by the performance troupe “the Aqua Maniacs” and culminated in a finale where one brave individual would climb 70 feet to the top of a dizzying platform and somersault into the water below, emerging to the sound of roaring applause. Street performers, magicians and jugglers like the Butterfly Man and The Automatic Human Jukebox entertained tourists and locals alike.
Rainbow kites swooped and soared in the blue sky overhead. Cable cars, which had shut down for restoration two years prior, were back on the turnaround near the entrance of Fisherman’s Wharf, their unmistakable clang-clang ringing out into the salty air.
A production crew was in the area, shooting the James Bond film “A View to a Kill.” Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson and Duran Duran were the artists of the moment, and it was tough to find someone who wasn’t wearing a red leather “Thriller” jacket or a feathery Simon le Bon hairstyle.
Walsh remembers it all — a cacophony of sights and sounds that followed him as he walked to his part-time summer job at the Shell Cellar. One of the most memorable points of nostalgia was the old, robotic prospector with a long gray beard, taunting passersby from his post at 145 Jefferson St. as he sang “Oh My Darling, Clementine” in a raspy voice.
Above the animatronic figure, a wooden sign with lopsided letters beckoned people to the attraction within: the Haunted Gold Mine.
The entrance of the Haunted Gold Mine attraction on Fisherman’s Wharf.
“Once you were inside, he’d come up the mine shaft and tell the story of how the mine had been closed for 150 years, but those ghosts just won’t leave a body to rest. If you could grab the treasure, it was yours to take,” said Walsh, laughing. “It was the perfect funky, cheesy tourist attraction.”
A California Gold Rush-inspired fun house also drawing influence from the likes of Playland-at-the-Beach and Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, the Haunted Gold Mine opened in 1979. Run by Thomas Fong, who also opened the adjacent Wax Museum in 1963 and the Medieval Dungeon in 1989, the walkthrough attraction cost $2 to enter and lasted roughly 12 minutes from start to finish.
Advertisements published in the Chronicle that year for the attraction, which cost $1 million to build, enticed guests into the “whimsical exhibits” with promises of “nocturnal, ghostly figures,” “shivering cowboys,” “confusing mazes,” “a hall of mirrors” and “a mystery house.”
Ross Plesset, a freelance writer and theme park historian from Los Angeles who now runs a Facebook group devoted to the Haunted Gold Mine, said he visited for the first time when he was 11 years old.
“It was one-of-a-kind,” he said. “I loved fun houses as a kid, but I’d never seen one quite like this before.”
Michael Blythe, who grew up in Burlingame and is now the general manager at the Vogue Theatre, remembers feeling equally excited to discover the Haunted Gold Mine as a child.
“The first time I saw it was on a trip into the city with my dad, after we had visited the Wax Museum,” he said. “I begged him to buy us tickets.”
Upon wandering down a flight of stairs and stepping into a rickety old elevator, guests would “descend” into the mine.
A brochure advertising the Haunted Gold Mine.
“A small window had shadows of the many ‘levels’ you were traveling down. When the door opened back up, it was even clear to me as a little kid that we hadn’t traveled anywhere,” said Blythe.
Winding hallways with gold-studded walls gave way to a glass maze with an animated ghost that floated above them. Then, visitors cautiously made their way through a tunnel as the prospector guided them to a graveyard populated with red-eyed vultures, eventually leading them to a nearby outhouse, remembers Plesset.
Much to his surprise, upon opening the door, he found a skeleton waiting inside, seated on the toilet.
“There was a guttural voice that said, ‘What are you doing in here?’” said Plesset. Though the scene was supposed to be funny, he remembers jumping back in fear.
“I was still a little susceptible to being scared,” admitted Plesset. “But I loved it. As a kid, all of the effects were so amazing to me. After all these years, I never forgot that feeling.”
The skeleton in the outhouse.
Though he wouldn’t visit the attraction for another 16 years, he always considered it a “must-do” in San Francisco. When he returned to the city in 1995 at the age of 27, the first thing he did was head over to Pier 39 to see if the Haunted Gold Mine was still there.
It was, but he noticed it had undergone several changes, transforming it from a more kid-oriented fun house to something scarier.
The maze was much darker, with blacklight illuminating some of the gruesome gags that had been included in later years, like a severed mannequin head that fell from the ceiling behind a pane of glass with a shriek. Another entity bearing an uncanny resemblance to one of the ghosts in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion as well as a dragon repurposed from the Enchanted World of Old San Francisco — a dark ride created by Sid and Marty Krofft in the building that now houses the San Francisco Dungeon — rounded out the newer jump scares, lunging at guests as they passed by.
Then, there was the electric chair.
If they were feeling bold, guests could sit down in the chair, staring at their reflection in a mirror across the room while an animatronic executioner prepared to pull a switch. Then, they’d feel a vibrating sensation as a loud zapping sound emanated from an unseen speaker, and a jet of air would burst from the seat of the chair. A visual gag in this part of the attraction also altered the unsuspecting guest’s reflection to appear as that of “a charred corpse,” said Plesset.
“I remember it making me jump and my dad laughing at my reaction to it,” said Blythe. “This was definitely worth the ticket price alone.”
The electric chair scene.
At the end was a “tilt room,” not unlike the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, with distorted angles and a chandelier that appeared to swing from a sideways angle.
However, by the late 1990s, the Haunted Gold Mine was falling apart, and tourists were losing interest. With the attraction no longer commercially viable, Fong’s grandson, Rodney, set his sights on remodeling the space in a $15 million rebuilding plan during the summer of 1999.
The Haunted Gold Mine would be replaced with something newer and shinier: a 30,000-square-foot Rainforest Café with “live birds, a 60,000-gallon aquarium and a three-story indoor waterfall,” according to a story in the Chronicle relaying Fong’s plans.
For nearly two decades, the restaurant maintained a shred, at least, of the Haunted Gold Mine’s relentless kitsch. It closed in 2017, and the San Francisco Chocolate Store stands there today, flanked by a McDonald’s as well as the San Francisco Dungeon and Madame Tussauds wax museum.
The exterior of the San Francisco Chocolate Store, where the building housing the Haunted Gold Mine once stood.
Photos of the Haunted Gold Mine are few and far between as it mostly lives on in distant childhood memories. Over the years, Plesset said that his Facebook group has provided a space for people to share stories about the attraction, and he said he’s even met a few fans who managed to save a handful of relics from the Haunted Gold Mine, including a ghost and the famous old prospector, displaying them in their homes for Halloween.
Plesset believes traces of the forgotten attraction still live on in places like Magowan’s Infinite Mirror Maze on Pier 39 and the retro novelties of the Musée Mécanique. But on a recent visit to Fisherman’s Wharf, he couldn’t help but feel nostalgic as he walked over to the stretch of pavement where the old prospector once stood.
“It’s a weird feeling, to be standing on the same spot where I was in my childhood,” he said. “It’s a sense of timelessness.”
Amanda Bartlett is a culture reporter for SFGATE. Prior to joining the newsroom in 2019, she worked for the Roxie Theater, Noise Pop and Frameline Film Festival. Bartlett graduated from the University of Iowa and lives in San Francisco.
A view of the Wax Museum, adjacent to where the Haunted Gold Mine once stood.