Restoration of an 1842 Water Powered Mill

SUBJECT:   Restoration of an 1842 water powered cotton factory and gristmill near Alexander City, Alabama.

From 1835 to 1837 William Towns and Joshua Strickland received several sections of Patent Land in Tallapoosa county Alabama.  In 1842 they completed construction of the “Fishpond Factory on Elkahatchee Creek;” known most recently as the “old Holloway Gristmill.”  This facility was most unique due to the 50 foot fall of the creek from dam to mill site.

In 2004 a major restoration was begun on this project and has faithfully followed the image preserved by the single surviving photograph.  The site is located adjacent to and southwest of the town limits of Alexander City, Alabama.  The mill is on Elkahatchee Creek, one-quarter mile downstream of the Highway #259 bridge.

Benjamin Russell acquired the property some seventy-five years ago.  Today, Mr. Russell’s grandson, Ben Russell , is the owner and principle force behind the extensive restoration and building program.

The long-range goal of this effort is the creation of a mid 1800s water powered industrial village, as several available locations have potential as additional water powered facilities, such as: a gristmill, sawmill and/or wood working facility.  The ultimate goal sees an evolution toward a not-for-profit, educational program.

During the mid 1800s many small ironworks were being built in the nearby iron and coal region of central Alabama .  With, therefore, a slight stretch of the imagination a period-type, water powered, ironworks has been chosen as the primary function of the facility.  Little to no changes in the physical plant were necessary to allow for this option.

Details of the early history of the original mill were sparse until 2010, when W.R. “Pete” McElrath most kindly offered a wealth of information that had been collected in researching the nearby Bradford woolen mill on Socapatoy Creek. 

The dam and remnants of the Elkahatchee Mill likely survived longer than most of the numerous long gone and forgotten sites due to the success and stability of long time property owner, Benjamin Russell, and the nearby Russell Corporation.  Much additional good fortune certainly aided in the longevity of the sites operational status.  The number one factor here was the fact that the site offered almost 50 feet of fall in the creek level from the mill pond to the wheel race.  A waterwheel of more than 35 feet was quite feasible; this and other most favorable conditions allowed the various operators, in the latter years, to eke out some small profit, up until approximately 1940.

The three story, wood frame mill house was destroyed by fire in the early 1940s, and much of the massive stone foundation later fell in disarray.  The 300 x 12 foot dam had been breached on one side, but the 700 foot headrace was found to be generally intact.

The severe topography accompanying the uncommon elevation change in Elkahatchee Creek rendered the area almost inaccessible.  Today, however, absolutely no wooden artifacts remain and during the years after abandonment, society saw no fault in the scavenging of stone and harvesting of timber.  All, sadly, took their toll.  Evidence of the past days of a once major factor in the settling of this, then, remote region was soon absorbed by time, forest, creek and fire—flames of it all, eagerly fanned by man.

A quantity of fire damaged, square, steel nails and a number of unexplained cast iron fragments, some one to two inches thick, were uncovered deep in the rubble along with the fractured remains of several millstones.  A few dozen wrought iron wedges were recovered, lodged deep in rock crevices along with a few wrought iron bolts and square nuts.  These were the early artifacts—buried at the lowest levels.  The evidence begs the question—Was the mill burned in order to retrieve the remaining iron for a WWII scrap drive?

The primary construction materials were large, naturally occurring, local stones.  The scarce evidence of drilling or any type shaping of the stone appears to indicate that, though huge, this was a primitive and bare bones operation.  Nothing less than life’s offer of continual toil and hardship would have set man to consider such a task—one seemingly impossible today.

The area of the creek and the surrounding forest initially appear to be untouched for centuries.  The extremely rough and hilly terrain is now covered by 12 to 36 inch oaks and dense undergrowth; but closer examination shows evidence of huge, old scars in the hillside.  Undoubtedly, these are the result of the technique of removing the overburden of topsoil to reveal the somewhat weathered and thus unattached remnants of the once glass hard granite substructure named the Elkahatchee formation.

Anyone viewing the huge stones within or atop the massive walls and abutments will invariably ask.  “How did they lift those huge stones?  Finally, it begins to dawn on those of us constantly deliberating the matter—they did not lift any of the larger ones—they were lowered into place.

The old timers evidently unearthed and removed, or broke free, all available stone material far up on the adjacent hillside.  This would have varied from small to massive stones.  All material was apparently dragged downward to the various construction projects.  “Skint pine poles” were likely used as rails for palates of stone or for single objects.  To provide foundations for this temporary conveyance, large areas were filled with the residual soil and clay from the operations above.  All of the material was cajoled along mostly by human power, aided possibly by a few mules or oxen.

The forest and steep terrain along the creek are most attractive but the dam and mill site on Elkahatchee Creek are a stunning picture of the beauty of nature itself.  The water falling over the dam is just the beginning of a wild ride down the 50 foot drop, past the mill, on its way to the headwaters of another unspoiled 100-acre lake built in the 1930s.  The one hundred yards of granite bedrock stretching from side to side of the dam sets up the width of a long stretch of cascading waterfalls, pools and smooth shiny natural water slides as the water descends from the Piedmont Plateaus to the Coastal Plains.  Together these natural formations create one of the most esthetic and unique vistas in the surrounding area of the state.

Restoration of the dam was completed in 2004 and the remaining heavy stonework the next year.  In early 2006 the new 35 foot steel type wheel began metering water down the 38 foot head from the headrace above to the tailrace below.  In all but drought conditions Elkahatchee easily furnishes the average requirement of 2,000 to 4,000 gpm, and the generous reserve held in the top 3.5 feet of the millpond allows part-time production under all but the most severe drought conditions.

The system provides a working head of 38 feet, even with the additional 4 of reserve head behind the dam.  The pond is rather small but approximately 3,000 feet long, forming some five acres of surface area, which provides reserve water capacity for lower flow periods.

In mid 2007 the mill house grew to dwarf the huge rock structure supporting it and an authentic copy of the most common wheel of the day.  The 35 foot black metal waterwheel harkens back memories of the Ferris  wheel.  Fitz, having seen the Frenchman’s apparatus in Paris , employed its unique features in the patented Fitz waterwheel.

The wheel is mounted on the reconstructed stone wheel well, an integral part of the massive 40 x 50 foot stone foundation of the mill house.  This stone work now rising as before some 15 feet above the solid granite bedrock exposed below by the perpetual action of the faithful flow of the creek.  The mill building is entirely wood clad.  The period look of the shiplap cedar exterior conceals most of the modern steel beam construction within.  A steel reinforced concrete floor was poured within the confines of the old stone foundation walls and this working floor has 14 feet of clearance up to the “I” beams above.  The second floor is concrete over steel with 10 foot wall sections and a clear story above.  All practical attempts have been and will be made to present a final appearance of a much older, conventional form of construction within and without.

Due to the unique design of the headrace and gate system, an additional 2,000 gpm or so can now be allowed to pass completely over the wheel—the wheel continuing to run at full tilt.  Also, the supply to the wheel can instantaneously be shut off, allowing all of the four to five thousand gpm to continue in the race, over and past the wheel by tripping the latch on a hinged plate.  The resulting crescendo of this 40 foot avalanche crashing with an unimaginable roar on to the rocks below is, in one sense, even more astounding than the scene of the huge waterwheel at full power.

A huge “segmented ring gear” some 25 feet in diameter is attached to the 35 foot waterwheel.  This gear drives a smaller pinion gear and its shaft.  Power thus enters the mill house to eventually drive the overhead line shaft.  A clutch allows the line shaft to be disengaged instantaneously and the inclined plate in bottom of the headrace can immediately cut off water to the wheel.  Each of these safety devices can be activated at numerous locations by tugging on a small line strung through out the mill.

A 3,000 pound flat belt driven Beaudry power hammer, hafting a 135-pound hammer head, has been acquired and is being prepared for installation.  This workhorse from the past is not quite of the actual period but has the appearance of an “old style device.”  This overhead shaft powered machine will soon be followed by a coal forge and other flat belt-powered blower or bellows.  Ancillary machinery is being sought, and hopefully will soon follow.  The start of a water powered, industrial operation of yore is eagerly anticipated.  Any assistance in locating related type equipment of the “older style” will be much appreciated.

The second floor of the mill house now has a three room, two bath, living quarters opening on to a 50 x 8 foot deck affording an impressive view of the creek directly below, as well as the rocky decent of the water from the dam above.  Two other rustic, period type residences are now up stream, out of sight of the mill but just “beneath” the water falling over the dam.

No electricity will be employed on any portion of the property—dwellings, roads or grounds.  The only exception is a small propane powered generator for sanitation pumps and possible emergency use.  As in bygone days, gas is employed for lighting and light duty use in the mill and related areas.  The dwellings and other buildings employ gas for refrigerators, hot water heaters and small space heaters.

An antique “hydraulic ram” pump furnishes ample water, using only the power of passing creek water.  This amazing and all but forgotten device from the past pumps only a few gallons per minute to storage tanks on a nearby hill.  Pumping tirelessly, however, with no energy cost, the ram pump delivers several thousand gallons every 24 hours.  At an elevation of 80 feet this creek water furnishes a sufficient quantity and pressure for “running water” needs at most locations on the site.

Modern sanitation facilities are in operation through the facility.  The necessary holding tanks, pumps and a drain field for the approved systems were designed into the system initially.  And with meticulous and laborious care little is noticeable beyond the modern bathroom facilities, sinks, faucets and the likes.

The amazing history and the statistics of the old Fishpond Mill on Elkahatchee follow:

1850 Cotton Factory on Elkahatchee Creek