Monday, October 3, 2016

The first floating mill in America

A flour mill on boats on the Ohio River was built in 1791 by early settlers in the "Northwest Territory" due to low water and fear of attacks by Native Americans.
The image above, is an early European sketch showing two floating mills accessible to land by a wharf. Boat mills had existed for centuries, used by the Romans, and in use in Europe until fairly recently . Attached to land, the two floating mills pictured are more like the floating mill constructed 5 years later near Marrietta, Ohio on the Muskingum River (opposite fort Campus Martius) with "a substantial timber wharf for the landing of goods, and buildings for the convenience of the mill." [Hildreth, 1848]
In both cases the larger boat and structure were on the shore side for easier access by boats.  The larger boat was 45 feet long, 10 feet wide and held the grinding stones and equipment.  The smaller 5 foot boat or canoe held up the wheel.  The two were joined by the wheel and by heavy cross beams at 8 feet apart. Depending upon the water current the mill was able to grind 25-50 bushels in 24 hours.
The anchor to keep the boats in place was made of logs and filled with stones, connected to the main boat by a chain, and a grape vine held the smaller boat to the anchor.

The builders, and mill owners were interesting men.  The floating mills (and later stationary ones) were built by Capt. Jonathan Devoll (1756-1824) a ship's carpenter from RI who also constructed the fort "Farmer's Castle" barges and ships.  Griffin Greene (1749-1804) also from RI had seen some boat mills working in Holland; he was appointed to help his cousin Gen Nathaniel Greene with the Quartermaster corps during the RevWar and later became a director in the Ohio Company.

That year,1791, Chief Little Turtle led 1,000 Native American troops to defeat the cavalry, one reason the mill on boats was set in the middle of the Ohio River with an anchor of logs and stones. Chief Little Turtle would visit his friend George Ellicott - cousin of the surveyor Andrew Ellicott (who wrote about the floating mill in 1796, below) - at his home in Ellicott's mills in 1807.  Mad Anthony Wayne would defeat the confederation.

Belpre mill 1791 -
"The mill was erected on two boats; one of them being five, the other ten feet wide and forty-five feet long. The smaller one was a pirogue made of the trunk of a large hollow sycamore tree, and the larger of timber and plank like a fiat-boat. The boats were placed eight feet apart and fastened firmly together by heavy cross beams covered with oak planks. The smaller boat on the outside supported one end of the waterwheel, and the larger boat the other, in which was placed the millstones and running gear covered with a light frame building or mill-house for the protection of machinery, meal, and miller. The space between the boats was covered with planks, forming a deck fore and aft of the waterwheel. This wheel was turned by the natural current of the water and was put in motion or stopped by pulling up or pushing down a set of boards, similar to a gate in front of the wheel. It could grind, according to the strength of the current, from twenty-five to fifty bushels of grain in twenty-four hours. The larger boat was fastened by a chain cable to an anchor made of timbers and filled with stones, and the smaller one was fastened by a grapevine to the same anchor, and thus independent of the shore could the mill operate. It was placed in a rapid portion of the Ohio about the middle of Backus, now Blennerhassett Island, a few rods from the shore and in sight of the castle [a fort named Farmer's Castle, below]. The current here was strong and the position safe from the Indians. With the aid of a bolting-cloth [to sift] in the garrison [fort] very good flour was made." [History]

Andrew Ellicott-
Five years later, the 1791 floating mill was described by one of the miller sons who founded Ellicott City: Andrew Ellicott.  He was selected by President George Washington to survey the southern boundary of the new United States from the Mississippi to the Atlantic Ocean. Ellicott left the settlement of Marietta, Ohio on the Ohio River going 12 miles south to Belle Prae (Belle Prairie, now Belpre) where he saw the floating mill.
From Ellicott's Journal:
"Nov. 11th 1796 Passed the little Kanhawa, and afterwards a miserable village by the name of Belle Prae, next a floating mill, and lastly, the mouth of little Hockhocking.
The ordinary streams of water in that part of the western country, so universally fail in the summer, and beginning of autumn, that the inhabitants are under the necessity of having recourse to floating mills, or to others driven by the wind, or worked by horses to grind their corn.  Those floating mills are erected upon two, or more, large canoes or boats, and anchored out in a strong current. The float-boards of the water wheels, dip their whole breadth into the stream; by which they are propelled forward, and give motion to the whole machinery. 

When the waters rise, and set the other mills to work, the floating ones are towed into a safe harbour, where they remain till the next season. Although floating mills are far inferior nevertheless more to be depended upon than wind mills, and may be considered as preferable to those worked by horses. ... Encamped opposite to a miserable village called Belle Ville : made 24 miles this day. Fog in the morning, and smoky all day. — Thermometer rose from 37° to 66" — Water in the river 45°."

The Farmer's Magazine  Britain 1866 -
"The Romans had also floating mills. These carried paddlewheels, so that, when moored in the rapids of rivers, or at bridges, the wheels were forced round by the current, and the millstones driven in the ordinary way, as in canal mills. In examples of this kind the millstones were most probably below the axles of the water-wheels, the bottom of the Darges serving; for the floor of the mills. A number of these barges, or floating mills, moored across a river, would make a rapid anywhere, by damming back the water, so that the head-current would stand lighter than the tail-water, just as we see at bridges and the like.

The old tide-mills of this country were, doubtless, copies of the floating mills of the ancient Romans, at least in principle, if not in the details of much special mechanism."

Image at start by Joannes Stadanus, c1600  HERE
Image of mill house from HERE
Ellicott, Andrew.  The journal of Andrew Ellicott, late commissioner on behalf of the United States during part of the year 1796, the years 1797, 1798, 1799, and part of the year 1800 for determining the boundary between the United States and the possessions of His Catholic Majesty...  map, quote
Hildreth, Samuel Prescott. Biographical and historical memoirs of the early Pioneer Settlers of Ohio .. 1850   fort image
Hildreth, Samuel Prescott. Pioneer History…Ohio Valley…early settlement of The Northwest Territory.  Cincinnati: 1848 
History of Washington County, Ohio: With Illustrations and Biographical Sketches 1881
Historical Collections of Ohio: An Encyclopedia of the State  1891
Dawes, Ephraim Cutler. The Beginning of the Ohio Company 1881
Weisbach, Julius.  Principles of the Mechanics of Machinery and Engineering, 1848   2d image  
Boat mills: water powered, floating factories (ship mills, bridge mills, hanging mills) lots of images, from Europe HERE

©2016 Patricia Bixler Reber
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