Fifth in our occasional series of Schwamb Shares
A volunteer does not lead many tour groups through the Old Schwamb Mill before hearing the question: “Where is the water wheel?” Youngsters fresh from reading about the mills of old, Arlingtonians puzzled by the distance between the Mill and the Mill Brook, mill enthusiasts visiting from out of state – all want to see the water wheel in action, or at least know where it was.
Short answer: The water wheel has not been in use since the nineteenth century and no remains of the wheel have been found.
Here is a brief survey of the facts:
- 1864 The Schwambs purchased the Mill with a working water wheel. Photographs from the 1860s and 1870s show the channel leading from the pond in front of the Mill to the center of the Mill, suggesting that the wheel was mounted within the building, in the center, at or below cellar level. Water exited the back of the building and into Mill Brook.
- 1872 The Arlington Advocate reported that the Schwamb Mill was using steam power (in some way not specified) instead of water during a winter drought.
- 1873 The Schwambs built the current dry house with its coal boiler and repositioned the barn to house a steam engine.
- 1878 Charles D. Elliot, a civil engineer, created a diagram of the Mill’s privilege, showing all ponds and an 18-foot diameter water wheel.
- 1888 The Mill installed a separate water turbine on the west side of the basement, approximately 8 feet below ground level. Water came to the turbine from Schwamb’s Pond (in the area of Gold’s Gym between Massachusetts Avenue and Lowell Street) through a pipe-like conduit.
- 1904 The small holding pond and channel that were once in front of the Mill are no longer seen in photos from the period; in a picture from 1904, the basement water entrance has been covered with glass windows.
We think there is still more to learn about the fate of the wheel. Understanding the wheel’s use both in the early Schwamb Mill and the Robbins mill that preceded it is one of the challenges of interpreting this industrial site.
The large pond referred to above as Schwamb’s Pond was formed up hill from the Mill by diverting water from the Mill Brook. By means of a channel that crossed Lowell Street, this large pond fed a smaller pond directly in front of the Schwamb Mill.
The site of this smaller pond, recently named Mill Pond Park in memory of Patricia Fitzmaurice, is where the Mill hosts Oktoberfest each fall.
Water entered the building through an opening into the basement …
… and probably ran along a wooden channel to the top of a water wheel mounted near the back of the Mill. We believe the top half of the wheel would have been been visible in current cellar area, with the other half extending down into a large channel beneath the cellar, what we today call “the wheel pit.”
Belts and shafts would have brought the power from the wheel’s turning upstairs to the first floor.
A visit to the Mill’s wheel pit requires a ladder and some dexterity. The less this site is disturbed, the better. We believe that a professional architectural study of the pit could yield information, not only about the wheel, but about the mills that have existed on this site in the past.
Fortunately, director Bob Tanner and Masterworks Conservation principal Melissa Carr together have made the Mill’s nearby water turbine very accessible, safe, and well lit. This turbine, a second-generation of water power technology, was used at the Mill from roughly 1888 to 1904. The turbine and its governor are the focus of our popular behind-the-scenes tours of the Mill’s basement held at different times throughout the year.
We’re happy to share some photos of the wheel pit though. Enjoy!
Massive beams cross the top of the wheel pit, supporting the cellar floor above. The timbers bear markings and some evidence of having served other purposes before being laid across the pit. Clockwise from top left: a large screw eye; hand and foot holds for climbing; a section of a beam painted white; a metal stamp with numbers.
Dermot Whittaker, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.
This period of museum closures due to the COVID-19 is a challenge for non-profits like the Old Schwamb Mill. Your contribution in support of the Mill, however modest, is much appreciated at this time. We look forward to reopening soon!