Posts Tagged ‘city guides’

Windmill spins at Golden Gate Park

November 12th, 2018


 

Yesterday I went on the SF City Guides Golden Gate Park: West End tour. Among other points of interest the tour stops at the park’s two windmills — the Dutch Windmill to at the northwestern corner of the park, and the Murphy Windmill a block or two south.

Most of the time the windmills are completely still — not due to a lack of wind, but the potential for too much of it. If they were allowed to spin freely they could break apart and become a safety hazard, so they’re typically latched in place.

For whatever reason the Murphy Windmill was spinning yesterday morning, as you can see in the video above. I’d never seen either windmill spinning in person before; the motion makes the windmill look even larger and more majestic than when it’s sitting stationary.

Why does Golden Gate Park have windmills? They were built in the late 19th and early 20th century as the park’s irrigation system, pumping water out of wells up into lakes in the park. Unfortunately for the windmills, electric pumps became available shortly after they were built. No longer needed, the windmills began to decay and the metal in the internal mechanisms was salvaged for scrap.

But San Francisco’s love for antiques meant there was interest in preserving the windmills, similar to how the cable cars avoided destruction. The Dutch Windmill was restored in 1981 and the Murphy Windmill much more recently in 2012. For more details on the history of the windmills and the preservation efforts, read this 2007 paper from University of Vermont student Sarah LeVaun Graulty, which also includes historic photos and illustrations.

My favorite bit of trivia I learned from the City Guides tour is also mentioned in the paper. Golden Gate Park’s windmills are Dutch-style, but are far larger than those in the Netherlands. So what do Dutch windmill enthusiasts call this pair of unique windmills? What else could they be called — the “San Francisco Giants.”

Paris of the Pacific tour

February 26th, 2018


Photo of ships in San Francisco’s harbor circa 1850 from Wikipedia. Used under public domain.
 

Yesterday afternoon I took a San Francisco City Guides tour I’d never heard of before titled 1850′s San Francisco: Paris of the Pacific. This relatively new tour meets at the same place as the Gold Rush City tour, and compliments it in an unexpected way. Like all City Guides tours it’s 100% free and led by volunteer guides.

Whereas the Gold Rush City tour largely focuses on the crowd of Americans coming west in search of gold, the Paris of the Pacific tour highlights a parallel story. When a French spy in Monterey got wind of the discovery of gold in California he tipped off folks in his home country.

Why was there a French spy in Monterey? Turns out New Spain/Mexico’s weak grip on California was an open secret, and France had an interest in colonizing the territory. While French troops never invaded, French citizens invaded with the most American pastime of them all: business.

Thanks to the tenuous political situation in France at the time with Napoleon III as well as food shortages all over Europe, a number of wealthy French aristocrats and savvy business types chartered a ship and sailed to San Francisco. Unlike their peers from the US, the French immigrants to California weren’t interested in seeking out gold directly. Instead they operated businesses catering to gold seekers including bars, casinos, and brothels.

If you’d arrived via ship in San Francisco in the 1850′s you probably would have disembarked at or near the Commercial Street pier, which led directly to San Francisco’s French Quarter, meeting French-speaking people and their businesses in the area.

While little remains of the French Quarter, the direct French influence in San Francisco continues to this day. Isidore Boudin started his Boudin Bakery during the Gold Rush. The Notre Dame Des Victoires church near Chinatown began shortly after the Gold Rush as well.

But the influence of those early French settlers in San Francisco goes deeper. Importers bought in goods from France including clothing and alcohol, and the first restaurants in the area were operated by French chefs. To this day if you want to dine out lavishly in San Francisco there’s a good chance you’ll visit a French restaurant, if not a French-inspired one.

Department stores selling imported French goods lasted from the mid 19th century up until the mid to late 20th century in San Francisco. Some relics of these stores still exist if you know where to look. And where would those be? You’ll have to take the tour yourself to find out.

City Guides tour of Lands End: Sutro Heights

September 6th, 2016

I’m no good at planning, so it comes as no surprise that I’d neglected to make plans for Labor Day and had to find something interesting to do at the last minute. I figured I’d go on another City Guides tour — I’ve been on dozens of these — and somehow managed to pick one of the most interesting tours with spectacular views on a day that was shockingly not foggy. I’d highly recommend this particular tour.

If you’ve never been on a City Guides tour, here’s the briefing: they have many 100% free walking tours in San Francisco led by volunteers every day. The program is run by SF Public Library and paid for through the hotel tax and donations by people like you and me. At the end of each tour they pass around envelopes and you can put in a few bucks if you like, but there’s no obligation. The tour groups range in size greatly depending on a number of factors; sometimes there’s only a couple people, other times — like today’s tour — there’s over forty.

As the title suggests I went on the Lands End: Sutro Heights tour. I’m writing this to entice you to go on it yourself so I’m keeping the “spoilers” to a minimum. But I’m going to bait you with some photos of the views and a few neat tidbits you probably haven’t heard about.

The tour starts at the Sutro Heights park, which is just up the hill from Sutro Baths and across the street at 48th Ave; look for the big lion head statues.

Like many things in San Francisco, Sutro Heights is named after a certain local businessman and former mayor Adolph Sutro. The area is now a park, but was originally where his own home once stood. Sutro made the area into a garden with flowers and statues, but the flowers died out long ago and most of the statues mysteriously disappeared. Someone even removed the antlers on this remaining deer statue; now people occasionally replace what’s left of the antlers with tree branches.

 
Sutro Heights
 

Back in Sutro’s day there were a number of observation decks open to the public with a spectacular view of Ocean Beach. The only remaining one was built in stone, and once had an area (now sealed off) that acted as the wine cellar for Sutro’s home.

Not pictured, but just to the right and below is the Cliff House, which Sutro bought and turned it into a restaurant; one factoid the City Guides tour mentions but is strangely absent from most tourist literature is what the Cliff House was used for before it was a restaurant. (Hint: it involved sex.) After Sutro bought the place it was infamously blown up by accident, rebuilt, burned down, then rebuilt as a small cement building that still stands to this very day.

As with other photos in this post, click on the panorama below for a larger version.

 
Sutro Heights
 

Another interesting story is Sutro’s long, expensive battle against Southern Pacific Railway, which he felt was gouging travelers coming to spend money at his attractions. After all, how can you squeeze money out of someone when their pockets are empty? But that’s a story too long for this post, so either go on the tour yourself or read about it online or in a history book.

Which takes us to Sutro’s other attraction, Sutro Baths. Before people had showers and bathtubs in their homes, your average Joes would head over to a public bathhouse to clean themselves. Without getting into how fucking gross this is, the project was a severe miscalculation by ol’ Adolph; by the time he’d built the thing it was already obsolete as most homes in the area had modern bathrooms. Whoops.

The building stood there until the mid 1960′s when it was burned down, probably on purpose. Now it’s this strange modern ruin that attracts tourists for some weird reason that I’m not sure I fully understand.

 
Sutro Baths
 

The City Guides tour itself ended before we walked down to the baths, presumably for liability reasons. But I headed down anyway and have a couple more photos to share.

First, here’s the ruins of Sutro Baths from the walking path just above it:

 
Sutro Baths
 

Next up: until this afternoon I’d somehow never walked through the cave next to Sutro Baths. I couldn’t get any great photos because a) it’s way too dark and b) it was filled with people. Also I was too busy trying not to trip on the rocks inside the cave to get my phone out.

The cave is completely terrifying — you can hear the echo of waves crashing against the rocks and the entire thing feels like it’s going to probably collapse at any second, and one day it inevitably will. Until then, you can see the ocean waves in a couple of spots where it’s already eroded a hole away. Incidentally, these waves were also what fed into the Sutro Baths. The ocean water went through a natural aquifer, then into a steam-powered heater.

 
Sutro Baths
 

On my walk home I decided to head past the beach and through Golden Gate Park, so here’s one final shot of Ocean Beach. It was such a sunny day there were nine (nine!) beach volleyball games going on at once, and that’s only at this end of the beach.

If you look carefully at the photo you can see both of the windmills in Golden Gate Park. But did you know? Those windmills both served an important function in the park back in the day, and there was once a third windmill in Sutro Heights. What where they used for and why? You’ll have to go take the tour yourself to find out.

 
Ocean Beach