Articles,  Features

Windmills at Park Brought McLaren Joy (Part 7)

Wednesday, January 20, 1943

The Call-Bulletin presents, herewith, the seventh in a series of articles on the life of Uncle John McLaren “father” of  Golden Gate Park, who died here last week. The articles were written by the late J. Lawrence Toole, noted San Francisco newspaperman.

By J. Lawrence Toole

“From out of wastes of windswept sand, little by little there grew into existence what is generally conceded to be the most artistically conceived and the best planted park in the world… The innumerable steps in its splendid process of evolution are plainly evidenced to the beholder today in the great stretches of meadowy playgrounds, densely forested hillsides and swales, the almost numberless miles of roadways and the many beautiful lakes, all of which are artificial and fed by subterranean water brought to the surface and united in a great system, perfected by Superintendent John McLaren.”

No, that was not modest, genial John McLaren speaking. The paragraph is lifted bodily from the 1929 annual report of the Park Commission, consisting at that time of Herbert Fleishhacker, William Sproul, A.B. Spreckels, William F. Humphrey and M. Earl Cummings. 

“Aye, “McLaren said, when reminded of that report, “except that I only helped the engineers who were paid by the park commissioners, and every one of them helped in making that water system what it is now. Take Herbert Fleishhacker, president of the board, who has done more for the public parks of San Francisco, including Golden Gate Park, than I’ve been able to do. You’ve only got to run over to Fleishhacker Playground to see just one of the things he’s done. 

You’ll find a lot more to the story of getting enough water for the park than’s in that report

“And,” he added, “you’ll find a lot more to the story of getting enough water for the park than’s in that report, if you look it up.”

Here’s Real Story

That was done. Here, briefly, is the story of the park’s water supply and the park windmills, practically all of which McLaren saw come into being during his years as park superintendent. 

From the beginning of work on the park, until 1885, two years before John McLaren became superintendent, the bulk of the water used to irrigate was supplied by the Spring Valley Water Works. Water bills charging 40 cents per 1,000 gallons, averaging $4,800 a year, were reduced by nearly a half about 1877, when the park commissioner started experimental well boring through the Park. The park commissioners then were Frank M. Pixley, John Rosenfeld and General Irwin McDowell, who called in Major Jones, Engineer Corps, U.S.A. to aid in the hunt for cheaper water. Jones reported a large flow of underground water toward the ocean which could be reached and pumped to a reservoir. Soon after a pumping station was built, additional wells bored and the Spring Valley supply was abandoned. 

“But the problem of the water was far from solved,” McLaren added. “When we commenced to make things grow in the middle and west sections of the park, we found we needed more and more water. Not even the sea bent grass that we used to hold the sand could get along without water. When A.B. Spreckels, who did so much for the park, and Reuben H. Lloyd were on the commission they got the idea that water could be lifted from underground by wind instead of pumps. It was from their thought the windmills came. Two of the lakes in the park, the Lloyd Lake and the Spreckels Lake, are named after the commissioners who thought about the windmills.”

Water Supply Found

Finding from a study of meteorological data that wind velocity from May to October would supply power for a windmill, the park commissioners started an investigation to determine the volume and flow of the subterranean streams. Test wells were dug in the sands of the Ocean Beach, above high tide, and at the west end of the park then entirely sand dunes. A sufficient volume of fresh water was found available. 

Convinced finally of the feasibility of a windmill with a pumping capacity of 30,000 gallons of water per hour, the park commission built the first of the two two windmills dominating the western end of the park. The first cost $25,000, and tapped a never failing supply of water. Two years later, in 1905, the second windmill on the south side of the park’s western extremity, the Murphy windmill, was erected. For this windmill, the largest and most powerful in the world, pumping 40,000 gallons an hour when its huge wings are revolving, Samuel G. Murphy gave the park $20,000.

Sites for both windmills were selected by John McLaren who, from his appreciation of the beauty and picturesqueness of windmills he had studied in Holland, urged the adoption of the Dutch windmill type in their construction. After they were built, he nursed their landscape gardening until today the picturesque windmills snuggled away at the west end of the park are among its outstanding beauty spots. 

Board’s Own Report

A lot of folk laughed at the idea

“The windmills,” said John McLaren, “not only gave us all the water we needed, but they added a whole lot of beauty to the park. I remember the fuss that was made when we started after fresh water almost right on the edge of the ocean. A lot of folk laughed at the idea. There was nothing but sand out there, with hardly a living plants to show that any water, except ocean salt water, was near. I think finding that fresh water supply and putting up the windmills was one of the finest things the park commissioners ever did, and they were always doing fine things. 

The Park Commission, in an annual report of nearly thirty years ago, corroborated John McLaren in this paragraph:

“The development of fresh water sources on the ocean beach, where many experts asserted that fresh water so near the ocean was not obtainable, the harnessing of the trade winds to give the power to lift the streams to an attitude of 200 feet, constituted an achievement which will always redound to the credit of the Park Commission.”

Fresh water, pumped by the wind mills through a twelve inch pipe two miles long, to a reservoir 200 feet above ocean level at a cost of about a cent a thousand gallons, is carried today by an elaborate distributing system to practically all of the vast area of the park west of Strawberry Hill. The Chain of Lakes – Metson Lake, Lloyd Lake and Spreckels Lake – and hundreds of acres of arboreal creations are supplied the year round from this fresh water supply. 

Though he called it simply a “job of work,” it was in reality a herculean task that confronted John McLaren when he took over the park in 1887. From Strawberry Hill to the Pacific Ocean was a waste of deep and shifting sand, almost treeless and, of course, laceless, except for a little rainwater that collected in winter in the northern most of the Chain of Lakes. 

Land Reclaimed

“It was like this,” he’d tell you if asked what the park was like when he came, and produce photographs showing an apparently endless waste of sand. “That’s to say, it was like that as far as your eye could reach from a little way west of Strawberry Hill, just sand, almost nothing but sand. It’s changed now, eh?”

Eastward, however from Strawberry Hill to Stanyan Street and the Panhandle, there was a big chunk of beautiful park and not much drifting sand. In 1874, Governor Booth appointed Eugene L. Sullivan, William Alford and S.F. Butterworth park commissioners. 

One of the first acts of this early commission was to negotiate a loan of $40,000 for the purpose of “taking advantage of the coming winter” to reclaim the sand dunes and build a road to the Ocean Beach. It was during this year the board ordered gates and avenues leading to the Park, closed at 8pm. Two years later the commissioners permitted gates to remain open until 11pm on moonlight nights, but ordered that a clear-out curfew bell should ring at 10:30pm.

Just ten years after McLaren’s coming to the Park, the transformation he had effected in the sand dunes turned the businessman park commissioners of 1897 into poets. Their official report to Governor James H. Budd that year was almost poetry.

But that’s getting a bit far away from John McLaren, so we’ll get back to him with a small query.

“Since the McSweeney Panaroma was wrecked in 1906 and the big trees you planted grew up it’s not so easy getting all that view the 1897 park commissioners describe so nicely. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to give the San Francisco of today and the people who’ll coming here next year, a chance to see better that view from Strawberry Hill?”

“Aye, and how would that be done?” Said John, with a queer grin on his face. 

“Oh, some of the trees that obstruct the view might be cut down, and…”

“What?” And you should have felt the wrath he put into the word. 

“Cut down some of those trees? Or any one of them. Why [you] geet oot!”

That ended the reminiscences for the day. But tomorrow McLaren will be over his little mad and smiling again, You’ll see.

(To Be Continued)