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If ending the Indian Wars is what allowed the Southern Plains to be the last settlement in the nation, then the windmill is what allowed settlers to stay on the vast, seemingly uninhabitable wilderness.

The availability of affordable, durable windmills altered the entire structure of ranching when adoption of the windmill swept across the ranching empire in the 1870s and ‘80s. The historic XIT Ranch, the largest fenced ranch in the world in 1887, had 325 windmills spread over 3 million acres of the Texas Panhandle. Because the mechanisms required frequent attention, the ranch employed 14 full-time windmill workers.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Eclipse windmill was one of the top two brands in the United States. A Presbyterian minister working among the Ojibwe on the south shore of Lake Superior perfected this particular windmill to pump water out of a deep ravine up to his missionary homestead. It was two decades before the rest of the technological world knew about his invention.

This 1984 photo shows the Railroad Eclipse Windmill as it looked on the Canon Ranch in Pecos County, Texas. (Photo by I.G. Holmes – Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph Division HAER: TEX,186-SHEF.V,1-6, Public Domain)

Leonard Wheeler continued to improve his windmill design over time until final obtaining a patent in 1867. The Eclipse, which could have a diameter of 8.5 to 14 feet, was not the first windmill on the market but it was the first to have a regulating mechanism to keep the wooden wheel pointed at an optimum angle based on both the wind speed and direction. Old-timers used to say the big, 14-foot wheel was “the only one that could get deep water.” The bigger the wheel, the deeper the well.

The NRHC located an 1898 Eclipse in Sherman, Texas, and moved it to the historic park in 1970 to top a well on a berm and supply water to the nearby JA Milk and Meat House. The main design problem for any windmill is to capture as much power as possible in light wind, but not be damaged or destroyed by high-speed winds. Avoiding damage isn’t always possible.

For more than a year, the NRHC was without its iconic 1898 Eclipse wheel that most tourists photographed during a visit to the historic park. Sixty of its 96 wooden blades had to be replaced meticulously and precisely according to an old 19th-century pattern. The large wheel was removed at the end of 2019 just in time to sit unattended through the Covid lockdown. The wheel finally was repaired and resurrected to its former glory in October 2021.

In late January of 2022,  the 124-year-old Eclipse was joined by its big brother, the 1898 Railroad Eclipse Windmill with a fan 22.5 feet in diameter—the size of four average-sized people lying on the ground in a straight line. This windmill was the third largest produced by the Eclipse Co.

The Railroad Eclipse Windmill is new to the NRHC, but in the world of windmills, it is a rare old find and one of only four known to exist. Railroad Eclipse Windmills were the largest commercially produced windmills in the United States and were used along railway routes in the Southwest to replenish the water supply for steam locomotives.

The Railroad Eclipse windmill served as the primary source of water at the headquarters of the Canon Ranch in Pecos County, Texas, near the town of Sheffield. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 and restored in 2001 by the nationally renowned windmill expert Jim Collums of Poteet, Texas, and his nephew, Woldhagen James.

The windmill and money for repairs was donated to the NRHC by the George M. Canon family, descendants of William Canon. Additional financial support was provided by Dr. Andy Gray and James E. (Jim) White. The massive windmill was placed in the historic park beside the 1923 Baldwin locomotive in a location where it can easily be seen from the freeway adjacent to the park.