Lower Merion Historical Society

The Lower Merion Historical Society

« David J. Schmidt Collection

Falling Waters: Growth depends on power, and its source is water.

By David Schmidt
Special to the Main Line Life

As the nation expanded westward, civilization became America’s East Coast. That was where the factories were, where it was possible to manufacture the items needed to conquer the continent. It was also where the necessary components needed to conquer the Welsh Tract were found as well.

Beginning in the early eighteenth century and lasting until the steam engine finally replaced waterpower as the energy of choice in the middle of the nineteenth century. “Not all the mills were on Mill Creek — there were many along the Schuylkill and even Cobb and Chester Creeks says Ted Goldsborough, a past president of the Lower Merion Historical Society. But for this area, the primary location was Mill Creek, which falls 250 feet in four miles as it heads towards the Schuylkill River.

Mill wrights and millers helped this falling water along by building dams which created control of the water on its way, and re-raised the height. This was an early version of energy conservation: the flow of the water used its own energy to fill the man-made dams to a maximum level of what it had been at the previous mill. Then, all the recovered kinetic energy in that pond could be transferred through the water wheel into mechanical power.

“The first mills were probably for grinding flour,” says Mary Wood, a local Quaker historian. “Before anything else people had to have food, and the ability to make bread required a grist mill a grindstone which quickly and easily ground wheat and corn into flour,” she says. This wasn’t something a farmer wanted to build for himself, it just didn’t make sense, so millers quickly filled the need by harnessing the water of local creeks and rivers and offering their services to the local farmers and plantations.

Court and official records keep track of the evolution of these mills, as they became businesses rather than pioneer necessities. For example, a mill lying along Mill creek at the Schuylkill was sold by John Johnson to Christopher Robins, a German with an Anglicized name, who is best known as proprietor of the “Three Tuns” tavern in Whitemarsh.

In January, 1758, Robins bought an adjoining tract, with a house and the following June he, with others, “Inhabitants on both Sides of the River Schuylkill,” presented a petition to the Court to get a road built. It set forth: “That your Petitioner hath built a Convenient Saw Mill and Paper Mill on a Stream of Water at Lower Merion and that there is no Road to or from the Said Mills, but what is altogether on Sufferance. May it therefore please the Honourable (sic) justices to take your Petitioners Case into Consideration and grant that they may have a road from Said Mills to the Conestogoe (sic) Road and also another Road from Said Mills over Schuylkill to Norriton Road.”

According to an original draft, which is included in the Norris manuscripts possessed by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, at the September session of the court this road was approved. It was known as “Christopher Robins Mill Road” until 1769, when its proprietor sold the mill to Jacob Hagy, a paper-maker from Whitemarsh. The highway then became “Hagy’s Ford.

Jacob Hagy evidently placed his son William in charge of the mill on Mill Creek, and William evidently became a man prominence in the township. He serving in several township offices, representing his district in the Legislature. In his will, made in 1832, he styles himself “a gentleman.” Forty years later, members of the family still held an interest in the paper on Mill Creek, with part of the original plantation.

In 1760, John Righter, “son of Bartle Righter of Roxborough and brother to Peter, the Schuykill ferryman,” was a yeoman living in Lower Merion. He bought a tract Of 102 acres from the widow of Richard Harrison. This farm, lying across Mill Creek valley, extended from Summit avenue to Gladwyne, and downstream from Murray’s mill to a bridge where, at that time, Righter’s Mill Road crossed. In 1760, this road was a mere horse path.

Just above where path met creek, John Righter built a dam, and created a stone grist and saw mill. On the strength a these improvements, in March, 1763 he petitioned the Court of Quarter Sessions to have the horse path reviewed and opened as a public road. The following September, it was approved.

Righter had, meantime, bought an additional 75 acres, adjoining his mill property to the east. But he evidently overstretched himself, much like some of today’s entrepreneurs. In 1769, handbills advertising tile sale of his personal property were posted at the local taverns by the sheriff. Joseph Redman. Among the effects were “2 wagons and gears, a pair of timber wheels, screw and carriage … a parcel of buckwheat in the mill and a quantity of scantling boards and logs, a crosscut saw, chain millstone etc. Likewise, a Negroe (sic)man about 25 years of age, who understands milling and sawing.”

In the following year, Righter put up for sale all his real estate, comprising 175 acres “in Lower Merion, about 8 miles from Philadelphia,” including “a valuable and well-accustomed grist-mill, with two pair of stones, one French burr, the other country stones, together with two hoisting gear.

Mill work was dangerous, none more so than making gunpowder. More than one mill blew up, killing and maiming its owners and workers. All it took was a slight mistake or inattention while grinding the ingredients which when mixed together, because dangerously unstable. But accidents were frequent as arms, hands and clothing could easily get caught in gears or cut by saws.

While there were Welsh millers, the Germans were also well respected as millers and colonial “industrialists.” Germans had arrived in the colony nearly as early as the Welsh and English, coming because of Penn’s promise to create a haven of religious tolerance. These hard working and serious folk seemed ready made to harness raw energy and create something out of it. And their attention to detail and natural conservatism was the proper mix for running a mill. Consistency and strict procedures were the path to success for millers.

The mills also changed hands frequently, as circumstances waxed and waned. This created many of the names that are still seen today on the Main Line or at least made for a high percentage of roads that include the word mill in it. For example, in 1798 George Helmbold sold his portion of the Henry Kammerer mill to Thomas Amies, a cordwainer, (shoemaker).

Amies becomes a well-known paper manufacturer. This was an industry that had a ready market in Philadelphia, and was an evidence of the ending of the pioneer period of the area.
Because Aimes had been superintendent at the Wilcox Ivy Mills in Chester, where the watermark of a dove and a branch was used in their papermaking, the Amies Mill used the same and became known as the Dove Mill. Much of their product was used by the second Bank of the United States. This was one example of a developing industry that went beyond supporting the local population.

As the farms prospered, there was a ready market for many things just down river in Philadelphia, which, in colonial times, was America’s thriving city. So millers had the opportunity not just to service their neighbors, but to create a thriving industry funded by sales outside the area.

That meant a need for efficient transportation, and created a demand for workers. Mill workers needed places to live and eat, so living areas and taverns sprung up to support them. Livestock required feed and blacksmithing, horses needed harnesses and saddles, every new task seemed to create a need for more industry, and more people to work them. Gladwyne, for instance, wasn’t the genteel suburban paradise it is today. Lying above the Mill Creek Valley, it was an easy climb for mill workers and it was there they came to live. Needless to say, with this large influx of single young men, many of who were new immigrants with no ties and no future but tomorrow, this community was a rowdy area of taverns and halls that appealed to the rough and hard living workers.

There was plenty of work for them, because what you did with the energy coming from the wheel was as varied as the needs of the area. Some powered foundries, making the metal parts that would be found on Conestoga Wagons throughout the frontier. Gunpowder made in eastern Pennsylvania mills helped win the American Revolution, being fired out of cannons also forged along the Schuykill. When the war started, there were already numerous mills located in the Welsh Tract and adjoining areas.

Although water had been used for power for centuries, this was the high-tech sector of American industry. Then, as now, education and information were power. These weren’t simple machines, they were a complex network of interacting functions to create a way to turn energy to use.

For example, millers could borrow books explaining the process of building mills from the Lower Merion township. Oliver Evans wrote a one of them, called The Young Mill Wright and Miller’s Guide. The frontispiece of this book indicates that in contains “28 Descriptive Plates” and includes “Additions and Corrections” by Thomas P. Jones. He was a member of the American Philosophic Society and a correspondent of the Polytechnic Society of Paris, France. More importantly, Jones was editor of the Journal of The Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, and was a professor of mechanics.

A copy of the 10th edition of the book, dated 1840, is in the collection of the Lower Merion Historical Society. The book was published by Lea & Blanchard of Philadelphia. The book is well thumbed, and clearly indicates that area builders took advantage of the complex mathematics and mechanics of building a flour mill.

With technical help such as this mill wrights were designing and constructing complicated machines to harness water power to power many tasks. Shafts and gears transported the power to where it was applied to numerous machines. Bellows created a fire hot enough to smelt metals. Saws were turned a speeds high enough to cut and shape the timber needed to build the Tract’s rapidly expanding towns and farms. Glass could be blown, as stated above paper became a booming industry. Whatever needed power could find it at the falling waters of eastern Pennsylvania’s streams and rivers.

But all this would come to a quick and disastrous end.

In the spring of 1894 the Mill Creek areas was still a healthy manufacturing area, with plenty of work for the mills. But rain started falling on the May 26, soaking the area, it continued the next day, and then the rain turned into a cloudburst. Then it created a flash flood which roared through the valley sweeping through dams, rupturing them. As each dam collapsed, it added its volume of water to the flood, washing away the mills as well as the mill workers, houses, livestock and possessions.

A man named J. Conrad Baker of Righters’ Mill Road in Gladwyne recalled in a newspaper article from the time that the creek was a half mile wide in spots. “Bales of hay from the Murray mill were tossed about like corks,” he says. “The boilers at the Humphrey mill at State Road were washed out of the building. The water rushed in one end, and the boilers came out the other. By the time the upper dams had given out, the stream was a raging torrent,” he says.

The era of the mills was over. With no economic advantage remaining for water power, the mills faded into history. Much of the stones were “harvested” to build other structures. Today, it’s the heritage of the pathways that reminds us there was a time when Mill Creek Valley was its era’s equivalent to today’s Silicon Valley.