Where’s the Water Wheel?

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. This early steam power is later referenced in passing in the 1881 description of the Mill “Our Home Industries.”
  • 1873 The Schwambs built the current dry house with its coal boiler and repositioned the barn to house a steam engine (see article “Improvements” in the Arlington Advocate and Lexington Minute-man).
  • 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
  • 1881 In the article “Our Home Industries,” published in the Arlington Advocate and Lexington Minute-man, it is stated that the water wheel is still in use at the Schwamb mill and that the power system can be used with water or steam in combination.
  • 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.

Excerpt from “A Plan of the Estate late Purchased by Eli Robbins with the waterfall” (1835)
The flow of water from across Lowell Street to the Robbins Mill in 1835 was essentially the same for the Schwambs when they acquired the new mill built on this site in 1864. The “Reservoir” referred to here is the mill pond, not the much larger body of water that we know today as the Arlington Reservoir.

The site of this smaller pond, recently named Mill Pond Park in memory of Patricia Fitzmaurice, is where the Mill hosts Oktoberfest each fall.

The smaller pond that formed the Mill’s head race. The presence of the Mill’s third story and the dry house at far left date this photo as 1873 or later.

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!

A trap door with leather hinges leads beneath the Mill’s cellar to the wheel pit, the area where we believe the water wheel was mounted and extended downward
The wheel pit facing the south wall, the direction from which water would have enter from above
The wheel pit facing the north wall, where water would have flowed out of the Mill down into Mill Brook. The bricked area may have closed this exit way in the late nineteenth century when it was no longer needed. What may be a large concrete support (lower center) sits abandoned; its origin and purpose are not known.
Iron oxide at this notch in the east wall of the pit suggest it was a place that a mill wheel’s metal axle was mounted. The beam and cellar floor at the top of the picture would not have been here in the days when a wheel occupied this space.
Beams and heavy flooring cover the top of the wheel pit, creating usable floor space across the cellar above. Presumably the pit was covered by the Schwambs in the late nineteenth century when the wheel was out of use.

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!

2 thoughts on “Where’s the Water Wheel?


    What a wonderfully clear account of what is known about this feature. Waterwheels in action are mesmerizing. How I’d love to see the Schwamb waterwheel in action again! How do you suppose it was actually built and installed? 18-feet!


  2. Jill Aszling says:

    This is fascinating! The Mill is doing such a great job with this series. I’m learning so much more than I knew about my happy place! Keep them coming, if you can! Miss you all so much! Jill


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