By Becky Lee
The western edge of San Francisco is built on a foundation of sand dunes. When the city broke ground on Golden Gate Park 150 years ago, park commissioners realized it would require a lot of water to turn those dunes into a lush urban forest. Even then, water was a precious commodity, and the Spring Valley Water Company was charging the park accordingly.
In 1903, park commissioners built a windmill in the northwest corner to serve as a homegrown irrigation system. The Dutch Windmill was able to pump 40,000 gallons per hour, reducing reliance on the water company and turning the western end of the park into a destination for tourists and locals alike.
A few years later, the commissioners added a second windmill a half-mile south, at the corner of Lincoln Way and the Great Highway. The Murphy Windmill was named after its primary benefactor, banker Samuel G. Murphy, who donated $20,000 to its construction. At the time, it was the largest windmill in the world.
Flash back to the 11th century, halfway around the globe. Communities along the coast of the Netherlands were regularly threatened by flooding, due to similarly sandy shores. To stay dry, they erected windmills that used the power of the coastal breeze to pump water up and away from the shoreline.
Windmills became prevalent across the Netherlands and eventually evolved to grind grain, saw lumber, and produce electricity in countries around the world. Modern technology has brought us wind turbines, sleeker and more efficient versions of the picturesque Dutch windmill, with its wide sails and thick base.
Modeled after the traditional Dutch design, the Golden Gate Park windmills churned for less than a decade before electric pumps were built, eliminating the need for wind-powered irrigation. The windmills entered a long era of disrepair. While they no longer served a functional purpose, they remained popular postcard images and cultural icons of the City by the Bay.
According to Atlas Obscura, in 1921 local stuntwoman Velma Tilden bet a box of chocolates for every rotation she was able to hang onto the sails of the Murphy Windmill as it lifted her over a hundred feet into the air. She managed to hang on for 25 rotations, setting a record that no one since has publicly tried to beat.
The windmills have undergone multiple restoration efforts over the years, some more successful than others. In the 1960s, Eleanor Crabtree Rossi, daughter of then-Mayor Angelo Rossi, started a campaign to restore the windmills to their prior glory. It wasn’t until 1980 that the restoration finally took place, and only of the Dutch Windmill. The Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden was also added to revive and bring color to what had since become a seedy corner of the Park.
The restoration turned the Dutch Windmill into an attraction worth trekking to and helped revive the park’s seaside edge. In the early 2000s, local citizens started a grassroots effort to revitalize the now dilapidated Murphy Windmill. They brought on a Dutch construction firm to assess the damage and lead the restoration, a nod to the windmill as a symbol of Dutch ethnic heritage. The repairs were completed in 2012, about a decade after the campaign began. Today, the windmills run on most Saturdays for mechanical purposes, and on special occasions, like King’s Day, a national holiday in the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
In recent years, the Bay Area Dutch community has held an annual King’s Day Festival at the Murphy Windmill to celebrate the April 25 birthday of the Dutch King, Willem Alexander van Oranje. Festival-goers wear orange in honor of the Dutch royal family and enjoy stroopwafels and schnitzel on the windmill grounds.
As with all major gatherings, this month’s festival has been canceled. San Franciscans can still celebrate by taking a stroll – at least six feet apart from each other – through the tulip garden, or from the comfort of home, by breaking out the City’s home team baseball jerseys. In the Netherlands, the San Francisco windmills are affectionately known as the “SF Giants,” whose uniforms conveniently share the orange color of the royal family.
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