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History in Motion

Golden Gate Park’s Old Streetcar and “Life-Saving Station”

Thursday, June 16, 2016

At over 140 years old, Golden Gate Park has a long history that’s full of surprises. Here's a little slice of history that might especially be a treat for those who got to explore the park and the Great Highway during Sunday Streets last weekend.

Circa October of 1903, a man hangs off the side of an old-fashioned streetcar on an unpaved trackway in the outskirts of Golden Gate Park. To the right, a low wooden fence separates the trackway from two small house-like buildings that served as the U.S. Life-Saving Station. To the left is a partial view of trees, shrubbery and the “Dutch” Windmill.
A streetcar pauses in front of the Golden Gate Park U.S. Life-Saving Station (right) and the North Windmill (left), also known as the “Dutch” Windmill, a designated San Francisco Landmark. Photo taken circa October 1903.

The Life-Saving Station on the right side of the photo, built in 1878, pre-dates the creation of the Coast Guard, and was run by an organization known as the U.S. Life-Saving Service. The salty lads who staffed these stations, known as “surfmen,” often lived in them full-time with their families. These 19th-century Hasselhoffs would monitor the coastline and dive into the surf to save floundering seamen in the event of a shipwreck.



In the early 1900s, this part of San Francisco's coastline was remote and treacherous, with just a handful of bawdy beachfront attractions north of the park. The streetcar line pictured here was one of the only ways surfmen and their families could travel into town. The car in this photo notably resembles Streetcar 578, which is the oldest operating member of Muni's historic fleet (built in 1896).

Today, there is no longer a Life-Saving Service or Coast Guard station adjacent to the Dutch Windmill, which hosts the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden. However, the building can be found nearby on the corner of 47th Avenue and Cabrillo Street, in the Outer Richmond District. According to SF Planning Department records, it was relocated in 1923 by a former Coast Guard surfman and preserved as a private residence, with much of the Swiss chalet-style architecture still intact.

Check out more photos of this Life Saving Station on the Western Neighborhoods Project website and find more transit history on the SFMTA Photo Archive website, Twitter and Instagram pages.