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Golden Gate Park's Windmills Were Essential, Then Abandoned for Decades

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A view from the front of a Dutch style windmill, with bright blue sky behind it.
Murphy windmill in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in March 2018. (Gregory Varnum/Wikimedia Commons)

This story is part of the Bay Curious series “A Very Curious Walking Tour of Golden Gate Park.”

The western edge of San Francisco’s sprawling Golden Gate Park might seem like an odd place to find two traditional Dutch-style windmills. It is, after all, some 5,000 miles away from Holland. So thought Bay Curious listener Kai Widera, 12, who lives in Larkspur. Kai was riding bikes with his dad near Ocean Beach when he spotted the towering structures and wondered — are those just for decoration, or do they have a purpose? He brought his question to Bay Curious, and producer Suzie Racho looked into it.

Untapped potential

The origins of the windmills begin back in the late 1800s, when the west end of the park was made up of mostly sand dunes. Transforming the dunes into a lush green park would require lots of water to irrigate plants and keep the sandy topsoil from being blown away. At the time, there was only one water company in town: the Spring Valley Water Company.

When Golden Gate Park was first constructed, the city supposedly struck a deal with Spring Valley Water to provide what the park needed for free. But the water company was notorious for overcharging their customers, and decided they didn’t like that deal. They threatened to turn the water off if the city didn’t pay, and they followed through on that threat several times in the 1880s. San Francisco was forking over $1,000 a month for water. A thousand dollars in 1890 would be over $31,000 today — an outrageous sum given the quantity of water needed.

Sponsored

Park officials needed an alternative, and they found one right under their feet. They discovered aquifers beneath certain sections of the park, if they could only get to them. A windmill was proposed, like the ones in Holland. Ocean winds would turn the large sails, and pump all the water they needed out of the ground.

Building the windmills

Construction on the first windmill began on May 23, 1902, and was finished a year later. Park officials called it the “Dutch” windmill, because it was modeled after the ones in the Netherlands. The San Francisco Chronicle described the windmill as not only “useful, but beautiful.” And it featured cutting-edge technology for the time: a rotating headcap, which allowed the blades of the windmill to be rotated depending on wind direction.

Photographic prints of the original Dutch windmill in Golden Gate Park. (San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Public Library)

The Dutch windmill paid for itself in just a year and a half. According to an article in The San Francisco Call, by June 1903 the windmill was pumping “15,000 to 20,000 gallons of water an hour, every hour of the day.” The water was banked in a reservoir that could hold 200,000 gallons, and soon the park had more than it needed. Park officials were able to sell the surplus water to developing neighborhoods near the park.

Inspired by the Dutch windmill’s success, the president of the First National Bank, S.G. Murphy, donated $20,000 in 1905 to have another one constructed. As a thank-you for his funding, the second windmill was named after him. The Murphy windmill was completed in 1908, and was even larger than the first. It could pump almost four times as much water out of the ground as the original Dutch windmill.

It seemed like the heyday of the windmills was just beginning … but five years after the Murphy was built, both of the windmills would stop.

The Murphy windmill (left) and Dutch windmill (right) after falling into disrepair and being damaged by the elements. (San Francisco History Center/San Francisco Public Library)

In a state of disrepair

By 1913, electric water pumps eliminated the need for the windmills, and maintenance on these once functional giants stopped. Blowing sand and salty ocean air began to damage them, and by the 1950s they were in a sad state of disrepair. Park officials asked the city for funds to either repair or demolish the structures, and were denied. They were left to sit and rot.

It took decades, but preservation groups raised money to restore each of the windmills. The Dutch was cosmetically restored in 1981. The Murphy had a more extensive renovation, which was completed in 2011. Today they’re back to being picturesque monuments. If you’re lucky, you might see them on a day they’re turning for a special event like Bay to Breakers or Outside Lands, or when engineers are doing maintenance. When they are spinning, there’s often a crowd. Even a hundred years after they were built, the Dutch and Murphy windmills are still objects of beauty.

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