Restoration of an 1842 water
powered cotton factory and gristmill near Alexander City, Alabama.
1835 to 1837
2004 a major restoration was begun on this project and has faithfully
followed the image preserved by the single surviving photograph.
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.
Russell acquired the property some seventy-five years ago. Today,
Mr. Russell’s grandson,
, is the owner and principle force behind the extensive restoration and
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
the mid 1800s many small ironworks were being built in the nearby iron and
coal region of central
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
seen the Frenchman’s apparatus in
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: