The story | Kinderdijk History
The story

Kinderdijk History

Of windmills, steam pumps and the Dutch struggle with water

When you visit Kinderdijk, you step right into the middle of Dutch history. Everything here lies below sea level, so to keep our feet dry, we have been cooperating with the wind and water for centuries. Our windmills and waterways tell the tale of the Low Countries. Travel back in time and experience the story of windmills, water, and willpower in Kinderdijk!!

Learning how to live with water

The famous windmills of Kinderdijk rise high above the polder landscape of Alblasserwaard, their mighty sails proudly facing the wind. Still, these historical giants are just a small part of an enormous joint venture of people, nature, and technology. A thousand years ago, this whole area was one big peat bog, trapped between raging rivers and the fury of the sea. Hunters and fishermen came here only in summer, if the water levels were low enough..

The old Elshout sluices were able to discharge water into the river, but only if water levels were low enough

How do we stay dry?

As the first permanent settlers arrived, they built their homes on local sand dunes to keep their heads above water in case of floods. Over time, greater numbers of people wanted to try their luck on these fertile soils surrounding the fast growing trade cities of the Western Netherlands. To this end, dykes were raised to keep the water out, but this gave rise to a new problem instead. Groundwater and rainwater had to be drained from the land within the dykes, and discharged into the river beyond, or the polders would be flooded all over again. A plan was needed to keep the water out..

Pumping polders dry

Pumping polders dry

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Pumping windmills of the Overwaard. In the foreground the windmill of the Blokweer polder.

From steam to electric

From steam to electric

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Aerial image of the adaption of the Wisboom Pump Station. From the power of steam to the power of electricity.

Water Boards, basins, and sluices

In the thirteenth century, count Floris V of Holland ordered the founding of District Water Boards. Water Boards were innovative organisations; cooperative efforts in which all residents contributed to keeping these lands dry. Three Water Boards were founded here: Alblasserwaard, Overwaard and Nederwaard, which were later merged into the Rivierenland Water Board. A system of ditches and watercourses was used to lead the water from the polder to the low point at the western tip of the area. That point is Kinderdijk. Here a set of four sluices – two for each Water Board – let the water flow out into the river at low tide. These Elshoutsluizen were the first technological leap in the water management system you can still see at work today.

Background

Water Boards at the root of our democracy

When Count Floris V ordered the establishment of the Water Borads here, he made an important step towards the modern democracy of the Netherlands. Since we could only oppose the power of the water if we worked together, Floris united the local residents in these organisations. The Water Board directorship was elected by voting: a political tradition that still determines how the Netherlands is governed today.

Water Boards at the root of our democracy

The Legend of Kinderdijk

The water kept fighting back. The continued drainage caused the peat soil to keep subsiding, allowing the ground level to drop as the river water level kept rising. Then, on a stormy November night in 1421, disaster struck. The infamous Saint Elisabeth’s flood swept away the poorly maintained dykes protecting the polder, causing thousands of people to drown. Legend has it that this is where Kinderdijk, meaning Children’s Dyke, got its name. After the flood, once the survivors dared to leave their houses to survey the damage, they saw a cradle bob up and down on the water, carrying the sound of a crying baby. The floating cradle was kept in balance by a cat, jumping up and down to keep the basket from sinking. The baby was saved: perhaps this is how the name Children’s Dyke was born!!

New weapons for an old struggle

The Elisabeth’s Flood was a disaster, but meanwhile, soil subsidence was becoming an ever more urgent problem. Every year, more power was needed to keep draining the water from the polders out into the river. Various techniques were used to keep the water out, but eventually, the Water Boards decided that the best way to tackle the water problem was by using… you guessed it: windmills!

Map of the province of South-Holland (1696)

Map of the province of South-Holland (1696)

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Map from yesteryears. The windmills of Kinderdijk are not built yet. The Alblasserwaard is mentioned as Alblasserwaert and Nieuw-Lekkerland is called Nieu Leckerland. Look up Rotterdam, Gouda and Dordrecht. Or Gorinchem and Schoonhoven.

The power of windmills

Over the following centuries, trial and error leads to continued improvement of a system using windmills and pumping stations. The basins serve as buffers to contain the surplus water. The water in the lower basin can be lifted up into the upper basin in the event of excess water, but it can also be redirected back into the polder canals in times of drought. This is how the wind was harnessed in the service of the people, the land, and the water around the Kinderdijk area. Eventually, the Water Boards of Overwaard and Nederwaard had twenty windmills up and running between them,  of which nineteen remain for you to admire and experience here today.

In 1868, the steam engine came to give the windmills a hand. Two steam-powered pumping stations were built to boost the windpower.

Technological marvels

With the invention of the steam engine, Kinderdijk gained access to a new and powerful technology to continue the struggle. From 1868, two steam-powered pumping stations were built to help the windmills carry out their difficult job, as the old giants of Kinderdijk bravely kept to the task at hand. In 1924, the steam pumps were replaced by a diesel-powered pumping station, with even greater power and capacity. Still, the windmills remained vitally important: in the Second World War, the German occupiers claimed all diesel reserves for their own war efforts, forcing the Dutch to drain their polders by windmills once more. Even today, the mills have to be kept in working order, in the event of a power outage or calamities that put the pumping stations out of action.

The struggle and cooperation continue

These days, the old Wisboom pumping station is on display in our visitors centre, because in 1995,  these machines were replaced by an even more powerful invention: the Overwaard pumping plant, which uses impressive Archimedean screws to expel the water from the basin. This is how even today, both the struggle and the cooperation with the water continue into the future. The giant Archimedean screws keep on doing their tough duty, to protect what Count Floris of Holland started so long ago: a dry place to live on the fertile soils around the windmills of Kinderdijk.

Miller Jan Boele of Windmill number 8 of the Overwaard.

Miller Jan Boele of Windmill number 8 of the Overwaard.

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