Before Now – Riding Golden Gate Park’s Dutch Windmill

Golden Gate Park windmillI have a friend who climbed a cable of the Golden Gate Bridge from mid-span to tower top. This was a late night a couple of decades ago, before the heightened state of security – and yes, alcohol was involved. Another friend, also under the influence of beer and blustering peers, scaled the Mount Davidson cross. There are other stories I could tell. (Assign me to Camp Timidity, because two beers only embolden me to take a nap.)

After finding this old newsreel footage from the 1920s, I imagined stupid people like my young friends (who are now older and wiser) might have made life-endangering trespass on the Dutch Windmill in Golden Gate Park.

The video depiction of “annual cleaning” of the 50-foot-long blades seems to be farcical, but the prancing around with a hanky a hundred feet off the ground is no joke.

The windmills were erected not as picturesque curiosities, but as working apparatus to pump up aquifer water for irrigation purposes. A city-paid windmill keeper had to furl and unfurl sails on the wings, often in high winds or stormy weather. It was a dangerous job. On April 5, 1906, windmill keeper John L. Hansen was carrying out his duty of securing the great blades for the night when he fell off the upper platform.

Hansen died from a fractured skull after landing on the lower platform 50 feet below.

Beyond accidents, the windmill attracted suicides. Hansen’s successor as keeper, Heliodor Hammerstrom, reported in 1920 that in his tenure no less than 25 people had climbed and leaped off the Dutch Windmill.

None of this history stopped Miss Velma Tilden from taking a bet to ride the blades. A resident of 528 25th Ave., Tilden was known as “a taker of dares for many a thrilling stunt on sea or land.” As part of a publicity campaign by the American Legion for former servicemen out of work, Tilden agreed in November 1921 to get a box of candy for every rotation she hung on. Strapped to a blade, the young lady did 25 rotations in a stylish hat and stole.

Stay on the ground, people.


Trivia answer: A number of people remembered that the Beach Chalet was used by the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization before the building was transformed into a brewpub and restaurant. A future column will delve into the building’s early days.

New trivia question: By what name is Golden Gate Park’s south windmill (currently under renovation) also known?

Woody LaBounty is the founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the history of western San Francisco, and the author of “Carville-by-the-Sea: San Francisco’s Streetcar Suburb.”

Photo: Flickr user mediafury.

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  1. Samuel G. Murphy, banker and leading citizen, decided he wanted to build a second windmill — and have his name attached. Reassembled, it’s even bigger than the North (Dutch) Windmill — 90′ tall with spars 112′ or so.

    There are some interesting historic photos of it around, and even at least on appearance in film. When Charlie Chaplin was working for Essanay Pictures, out of their studio in Niles in 1915, he made a short called “A Jitney Elopement.” The climax is a car chase scene down the dirt road that was then the Great Highway — and in one scene of the chase Charlie, Edna and the car zip under the old rustic stone bridge that took #7 street car from Lincoln Ave. up through the park. The Murphy Windmill, in full sail and rotating, is clearly visible in that scene.

    Rory O’Connor,
    San Francisco City Guides/Golden Gate Park West End tour, which starts at the Dutch Windmill four times a month.

  2. Heliodor Hammerstrom!

    You just don’t get names like that any more.

  3. The south one is the Murphy Windmill.


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