The Golden Gate Park Windmills
This online exhibition is derived from “The Golden Gate Park Windmills,” an exhibition on display in the front windows of Western Neighborhoods Project, at 1617 Balboa Street, from April-August 2023. Developed by San Francisco State University graduate student Lindsey Hanson, the exhibit coincides with the Dutch windmill’s 120th anniversary. “Old Dutch” resides on Golden Gate Park’s most northwestern corner, situated on John F. Kennedy Drive and Great Highway.
When civil engineer William Hammond Hall designed Golden Gate Park, he was told repeatedly that there was absolutely no way the desolate sand dunes could ever be suited for Victorians’ Sunday strolls. Hall had learned various methods of taming sand dunes from his experience with the Army Corps of Engineers, and was convinced otherwise. He first planted barley, then small native plants like lupine, and finally trees. To prevent the park from being reclaimed by the sand and sea, he needed an irrigation system. Soon after, Hall was appointed Golden Gate Park’s first superintendent in 1871.
The first irrigation system was supplied with water from Spring Valley Water Company, which was overcharging the city for water. However, there is a natural aquifer, or water source, at the edge of Golden Gate Park, where the Great Highway now runs. Park commissioners eventually decided to discontinue their contract with Spring Valley. In 1902, they began taking bids from contractors to build a windmill to pump water from the aquifer throughout the park.
View east from Great Highway near Fulton to Golden Gate Park Lifesaving Station and Dutch Windmill, circa 1907. (wnp26.695; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
South Drive (Martin Luther King Jr. Drive) near 48th Avenue; Market Street Railway 20-line streetcar on rustic bridge overpass near Murphy Windmill, circa 1910s. (wnp5.50841; Courtesy of Jack Tillmany)
Old Dutch Windmill
The Dutch windmill was completed in 1903, its sails spinning magnificently in the winds off the Pacific. The summer winds, however, proved too strong, and the vanes had to be shortened by a quarter of their length soon after their inauguration. Old Dutch, as it has been affectionately dubbed over the years, supplied water for the entire western end of the park beyond the Chain of Lakes. By 1907, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Old Dutch was pumping over 890,000 gallons of water each day.
The windmills required constant supervision and maintenance. The Park Commissioners had small brick cottages built to house millwrights, who tended to the daily upkeep of the windmills. The first cottage was built for the Dutch windmill’s millwright in 1903, and the second was built behind Murphy windmill in 1909.
In 1913, the city installed an electric motor which assisted the water pump on the days when Old Dutch was not visited by westerly gales. By 1935, both Old Dutch and Murphy windmill were rendered obsolete by electric motors. Metal and other parts of the windmills were later used for scrap to assist in the World War II effort. Old Dutch stood in disrepair for decades before the efforts of dedicated locals restored it to its former glory.
View of Old Dutch Windmill from Great Highway; the sailing ship Gjoa can be seen to the right of the windmill, circa 1910s. (wnp27.0458; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
Millwright & Artist
The Murphy windmill saw millwrights come and go, but Old Dutch had the same millwright for 20 years. Carl Augustus Heliodor Hammarstrom, who preferred to be called Heliodor or “Hammie,” was the son of a sea captain and a Swedish immigrant. He studied art at the Mark Hopkins Institute and privately with Gottardo Piazzoni. Hammarstrom’s first job in San Francisco was as a streetcar conductor. He would discreetly sketch his riders in between taking tickets and making change.
Hammarstrom was friends and neighbors with sculptor Arthur Putnam, until the 1906 earthquake demolished his studio and home. For a short while, he lived in a tent near the Cliff House. When he accepted the position as millwright that same year, he moved into the millwright’s cottage at the foot of Old Dutch.
Hammarstrom raised seven children in the little stone cottage. When his daughter Winifred’s engagement was announced in the San Francisco Chronicle, Hammarstrom said, “It isn’t many children that have the Pacific ocean for a front yard and a 1000-acre park for their back yard…I’ve raised seven of ‘em out here at the windmill, and I’ve gotten rid of all of ‘em except this one [Winifred] and another girl. And she’ll probably be leaving me soon, too, but that’s the way it goes. Life’s just like that old windmill there.”
Hammarstrom’s forte was marine paintings, and his work was exhibited throughout the nation, including at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. In 1912 the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that Hammarstrom’s work was helping to further establish California on the artistic map.
In 1936 Hammarstrom put in his notice to retire after electric engines took over the functions of the windmills. After his 20-year tenure as Old Dutch’s millwright, Hammarstrom told the Chronicle that he planned on spending more time with his grandchildren.
Millwright's cottage, at the foot of Old Dutch, where Hammarstrom raised seven children, circa 1910. (wnp37.03871; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
Artist and millwright Carl August Heliodor Hammarstrom painting at the foot of Old Dutch. (Courtesy of David Lewis Hammarstrom)
Old Dutch, n.d. Oil painting on canvas by Carl August Heliodor Hammarstrom. (Courtesy of David Lewis Hammarstrom)
The Golden Gate Park Lifesaving Station was built in 1878 at the corner of Fulton Street and Great Highway, just west of the Old Dutch windmill. The first lifesaving station in California, its purpose was to save shipwrecked mariners and passengers. The Golden Gate saw constant nautical traffic headed for San Francisco’s bustling port.
The men of the Lifesaving Station practiced intense drills in order to keep prepared for disasters at sea. When they hauled their lifesaving boat and equipment to the beach, huge crowds would gather to watch their feats. The work was incredibly dangerous, and some of the lifesavers lost their own lives in heroic efforts to save others.
In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson created the United States Coast Guard by merging the Lifesaving Service with the Revenue Cutter Service. By the 1920s, many of the charming Victorian structures that housed lifesaving stations were replaced with plain municipal buildings. That decade, former lifesaver Carvel Torlakson purchased the Golden Gate Park Lifesaving Station for $75. He moved it to a vacant lot at the corner of 47th Avenue and Cabrillo Street, where it stands today as the oldest house in the Richmond District.
Golden Gate Park Lifesaving Station crew posing in front of surf boat 'Golden Gate' on wheeled cart in surf at Ocean Beach. Lurline Pier and Seal Rocks in background, circa 1920s. (wnp66.024; Laurie Hollings Photo Album / James R. Smith Collection)
Golden Gate Park Lifesaving Station and crewmen with their rescue boat on a horse-drawn carriage. Cycler's Rest (Humboldt County Building from 1894 Midwinter Fair) in background, circa 1900. (wnp70.0243; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of Molly Blaisdell)
Former Golden Gate Park Lifesaving Station building, now the Torlakson House at 47th Avenue and Cabrillo Street, 2023. (Courtesy of Lindsey Hanson)
The Windmill Lady
Born the same year as the completion of Old Dutch, Eleanor Rossi Crabtree became its savior later in life. She had polio as a child, and couldn’t walk for seven years. Her father, Mayor Angelo Rossi, would take her in his “horseless carriage” through the park, and stop to watch the windmills. Crabtree later recalled to the San Francisco Chronicle: “Oh, those windmills, moving so effortlessly in the wind, were my special joy…It’s such a disgrace that we’ve let these noble structures, built at the turn of the century, come to this sorry state.”
Crabtree’s quest to save the windmills began around 1960. She started by asking for small donations, collecting $1 and $5 bills to put toward a restoration fund. By 1970, she became the chairman of the Windmill Restoration Committee. She was known as “The Windmill Lady” at City Hall, because of her tireless efforts to persuade city officials to fund the restoration.
By 1976, Crabtree recruited U.S. Navy Seabee Mobile Battalion no 2 Reserve Unit, from Treasure Island, to volunteer time and labor to Old Dutch’s restoration. The Seabees soon began to call the project “their baby,” and in total volunteered one week a month for three years.
During the energy crisis of the 1970s, Crabtree promoted the use of wind energy in the city. She told the Chronicle, “In time, the windmills could start pumping water again. Why, it would more than pay for itself in new energy…I’ll never rest until I see them going again…I’m just afraid I won’t live long enough.”
As luck would have it, Crabtree did indeed live long enough to see Old Dutch’s vanes spin again. With the funds and years of labor that the Seabees donated, the sails on Old Dutch were released on November 14, 1981, in a ceremony to honor the windmill’s restoration and Crabtree’s perseverance.
Press photo of Eleanor Crabtree in front of Old Dutch windmill, December 15, 1980. (Los Angeles Times, Photo by Martha Harnett)
Old Dutch windmill in disrepair, July 18, 1960. (wnp27.0958; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
The success of Golden Gate Park’s first windmill prompted Samuel Green Murphy, San Francisco’s First National Bank president, to donate $20,000 for the construction of a second windmill. Construction began in 1905 at the southwestern end of Golden Gate Park.
By 1907, the Park Commission decided to name the new windmill after its donor. Murphy windmill was completed that same year, and on April 11, 1908, the Park Commissioners went together to start the great vanes spinning and the water pumping.
Once electric motors took over the job of pumping water, Murphy windmill was no longer needed, and went the same way as Old Dutch. The windmills’ budget had come from money allocated for Golden Gate Park’s maintenance, and funds were no longer set aside to keep the vanes spinning or the structures maintained.
It was not until both windmills were in a sad state of disrepair that concerned San Franciscans took action to restore them. Murphy windmill’s vanes did not turn again until 2011.
Murphy windmill, with the millwright’s cottage to the left, February 17, 1924. (wnp27.2552; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
Kinetic Scale Model of Murphy Windmill, 2022. Mixed media, by Thomas Beutel. (Courtesy of Thomas Beutel)
Daredevil Velma Tilden
In 1921, the American Legion hosted an event at the Murphy windmill to raise money for unemployed veterans, following the Great War. The event called for daredevils willing to strap themselves to the tip of one of the windmill’s massive vanes and go around in a full circle. The prize, for any soul brave enough, was a $1 box of candy.
One adventurous woman, Velma Tilden, took up the challenge. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, she was known to a wide circle of friends as “an expert swimmer and a taker of dares for many a thrilling stunt on sea or land.” Not to be outdone, Tilden spun around the mill 25 times! Tilden said that her fur shawl and hat remained secure throughout her passage. With each turn she went up nearly 200 feet into the air, and around a full circle of more than 660 feet at every turn. She told the Chronicle that it was the dare, and not the 25 boxes of candy, that motivated her.
The brand of candy that Tilden was awarded is unknown. George Haas and Sons had operated confectionary shops throughout San Francisco since 1868. In 1882 they opened a candy shop in the Phelan Building, and it was marketed as the most beautiful candy store in the nation. The shop’s interior was featured on postcards that customers sent to faraway cities. Haas and Sons’ notoriety expanded significantly when a box of their candies was used in a murder case against Cordelia Botkin, who sent arsenic-laced candies to her lover’s wife. The entire nation was suddenly made aware of the San Francisco confectioner.
It is entirely possible that Velma Tilden was awarded 25 boxes of the infamous George Haas and Sons candy after her daring stunt around the windmill. A bold person like Tilden certainly deserved a brand of candy as exciting as herself.
Velma Tilden Headlines, circa 1921; photo on the left shows Tilden holding a Himalayan rabbit; photo on the right shows Tilden on her patented Water Walker. (Syndicated Underwood & Underwood Photographs, New York)
Insert photo of Velma Tilden strapped to Murphy Windmill; in the photo in the background, you can see Tilden on the tip of the top right vane, as she spins around, November 16, 1921. (Syndicated Underwood & Underwood Photographs, New York)
This Buttercup Taffies tin was made by the George Haas & Sons confectioner, which opened in San Francisco in 1868 and went bankrupt in 1940. (Courtesy of Lindsey Hanson)
Don’s Dutch Heritage
Don Propstra grew up in Vancouver, Washington, where his grandfather, a Dutch immigrant, and then his father, owned a butter company called The Holland. Propstra ventured to the Bay Area in the 1970s, and though he left his family behind in Vancouver, he took with him a deep love and appreciation for his Dutch ancestry.
In the late 1990s, Propstra and his three children were in Golden Gate Park when he came upon the run-down Murphy windmill. He thought of his children's investment in their Dutch heritage, and the Salmon Run Belltower and glockenspiel in Vancouver’s Propstra Square (named after his father). Don had designed the tower to honor his father.
Propstra went to the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department to ask about the restoration of the windmill. Learning that it was not a priority, he gathered a team of dedicated volunteers to form the Campaign to Save the Golden Gate Park Windmills. Propstra and a couple others were allowed to go inside Murphy windmill. They had to wear hazmat suits, and it was filled with pigeons, ravens, bats, and their droppings, and holes and rot could be seen throughout. “If you blew on the windmill too hard it would have collapsed!” Propstra said.
During the restoration, Propstra proposed that the dome of Murphy windmill be taken to Holland to have a Dutch restoration company do the work. In 2002, crews shipped the dome and antique machinery overseas to Verbij Hoogmade BV. Propstra took his children to the Netherlands to see the restoration. When the 2008 recession hit, Propstra had to leave the project, but his initial enthusiasm and hard work were the spark for Murphy windmill’s eventual restoration in 2011.
Don Propstra, n.d. (Courtesy of Don Propstra)
Salmon Run Belltower, designed by Don Propstra, which stands in Propstra Square in Vancouver, Washington, 2014. (Photo by Joe Mabel)
Old Dutch windmill color postcard, circa 1910s. (Published by Edward H. Mitchell, S.F.)
Murphy windmill color postcard featuring the millwright’s cottage, which still stands today, circa 1910s. (Published by Edward H. Mitchell, S.F.)
Old Dutch windmill at sunset color postcard, 1925. (Published by Cardinell-Vincent Co., S.F.)
Old Dutch windmill by moonlight color postcard, 1910. (Published by Edward H. Mitchell, S.F.)
Color postcard of Golden Gate Park Lifesaving Station with Old Dutch windmill in the background. The back of the postcard shows that it was purchased at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 1915. (Published by Cardinell-Vincent Co., S.F. and L.A.)
Murphy windmill color postcard, circa 1910s. (Published by National Color Press, S.F.)