Bridge Builders Stumble into Lewis Mill

A pre-Civil War gristmill featuring what appears to be a walnut water turbine wheel has been uncoverd almost by accident during new bridge construction on the Grand River west of Jameson, MO.

A pre-Civil War gristmill featuring what appears to be a walnut water turbine wheel has been uncovered almost by accident during new bridge construction on the Grand River west of Jameson, MO.

The archaeological find qualifies the site for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. Work is expected to continue for the next three weeks. The unusual water wheel and mounting will be removed and could eventually be available for public display.

Originally, no extraordinary archaeological work seemed to be needed. A site survey was completed as required by the bridge construction contract. Nothing of note was revealed. At first no written confirmation of the Lewis Mill either by local sources or at the State Historical Society in Columbia were known to exist.

But when construction began to set new bridge supports, artifacts obviously from a grist mill turned up. The new construction work damaged a portion of the mill. But by damaging it, work crews saved it.

Renewed archaeological work indicated the historical integrity of the site. State Archaeologist Michael Weichman came from Jefferson City to assess the situation. His recommendation went to Don Newman of the Federal Highway Commission. It was obvious that something significant was being uncovered but funding for such work was already approaching the $10,000 lid which was part of the new bridge contract.

A consensus between the Federal Highway Commission, state officials, the Daviess County Commission, and the bridge contractors (Cooke, Flatt & Strobel) allows the archaeologica work to continue. An additional $10,000 (following the 80/20 split between federal and local revenue sources) was approved. The paperwork, which normally precedes approval of such additional work, will be completed later.

“We didn’t anticipate this at all,” said Archaeologist Dr. Gary Rex Walters of Triad Research Services, Columbia. “Even when the state archaeologist called and I reviewed our initial survey once again, there was nothing to indicate what we’re finding now. It’s like unraveling a catastrophe backwards. Each day’s work may put an entirely new perspective on what we find. So, the story changes and will continue to change until we have completed our work.”

From four to nine feet of earth and debris covered the site. The excavation floor is now about five feet below the river channel. A cofferdam diverts water away from the work although water seepage requires the area to be pumped at least once daily.

Lewis Mill Exposed (1989)

Archaeologists have discovered evidence of a wooden building 15’x40′ located on the downstream (south) side of the dam to house the gears and power mechanism. A stone wall built along the river bank measures 66 feet in length and is of typical pre-Civil War construction: parallel walls filled solid with rubble. The dam itself is now readily apparent; the cut once anchored a timber walled spillway. The stone dam probably extended the width of the river. Old timers of the area recall the dam’s use as a horse or foot crossing for years after any trace of the actual mill structure was evident.

The excavators believe the Lewis Mill was two or three stories tall with the grinding performed on the upper floor. Stone walls indicate the store being the full 66-foot length with some evidence of interior stone walls still evident. Additional use of stone was used for retaining walls. Most unusual is the water turbine wheel. Apparently the wheel was powered by centrifugal force. The water was channeled into the center of the wheel and forced outward through the open ended water wheel paddles. There may also have been a flywheel apparatus designed to assist the centrifugal forces involved.

The wheel had no spokes. What served as its spindle won’t be known until the wheel is removed. Apparently the wheel balanced on a center upright spindle and wear is evident on the encompassing timbers. The wheel sets clear of the shale bedrock, resting three feet below the top of the walnut floor joists.

“The wheel is tapered from center to outside perimeter,” Dr. Walters points out. “The wheel is made of two layers of wood and is cross-pegged, so we’re fairly sure it was designed to add power to the water turbine wheel.”

A 16-foot walnut shaft was among the first artifacts uncovered. Archaeologists think it may have been originally positioned vertically from the water turbine’s hub. An opening in the shaft may have allowed for re-positioning of the steel and wooden flywheel as needed. Gears and shafts then transferred the power for various uses elsewhere in the 2-story stone building.

Dr. Walters says this may be the only authentic water wheel from a mill in the Midwest. How the mill was constructed is of greater interest to the archaeologists than how the milling mechanism worked. The builders of this mill chose this particular location west of Jameson because of the advantages of a rock ledge and flowing river. “They sculptured their mill in the slate shelf,” he said. “It’s most evident at the dam where the slate is cut deeper on the downstream south side.”

Large walnut beams were positioned as floor joists. They are notched, indicating bracing and wall works. The stone wall rises from the level of these walnut beams up the bank, indicating at least a 2-story structure. A natural dam of slate was left under the floor joists to divert water back into the river channel. “The walnut beams we’ve uncovered are hand hewn, suggesting a building period of the 1830s,” says Dr. Walters. “We still have much to uncover. We’ve found some mill blocks that have been sawed. We know it wasn’t unusual for a mill to grind grain as well as to cut lumber.”

All the walnut beams have been trimmed. If bark or portions of the exterior were intact, age verification within one to three years could be made by tree ring analysis. There is much left to speculation at this point — the exact age, many details of building construction, the work mechanism, and even the style of water wheel (overshot, undershot or breast design). Two sets of grinding stones have been uncovered. The smaller stones are Bhur stones, originating from France. The larger stones are native granite but not necessarily from this immediate area.

The Lewis Mill may have been constructed according to a design by Benoit Fourneyron (1827). This metal tirl, with wooden hub, was descovered during site excavation. The tirl spun as water poured downward at a precise angle from a stationary wooden wheel positioned above. The shaft turned by the tirl was probably geared to mill stones in the milling room atop the entire mechanism. This action (reversing the direction of rotation of the water in a downward flow) could generate as much as 125 revolutions per minutes, compared to about 60 revolutions of the older wooden water wheel powered by direct stream source.

Initial research of historical sources offered no verification that the Lewis Mill ever existed. Local historian David Stark says the Lewis Mill wasn’t even built by the brothers Lewis.

Records at the Daviess County courthouse (Book L, page 384) indicate an October, 1864, land transaction which includes the gristmill. The land with the mill sold for $1,000 from the estate of Beder Marshall Butler to Erasmus Lewis of Cravensville. B.M. Butler acquired the property from Nathan Butler and wife, and Nelson Butler and wife, in September, 1856. There is no mention of the mill on this ledger entry.

In 1875 William H. and John C. Lewis and wives conveyed the property with the mill for $2,400 to James L. Lewis and wife, James C. Lewis and wife. On this record the mill was specifically identified as the Lewis Mill.

Dr. Walters did an extensive search through genealogical records and accounts located at the State Historical Society in Columbia. The only written account appears in the most recent Daviess County history book (1985), penned by Jack Tingler. Otherwise, written accounts of the Lewis Mill are not known.

“Given what we know about the fate of other pre-Civil War mills, the market which kept this commercial venture operating diminished with the arrival of railroads into the area,” Dr. Walters says. “A mill operation like this would go broke within a couple of years of rail service. Since the Jameson railroad spur arrived in the early 1870s, we think this mill was abandoned.

State Archaeologist Michael Weichman speculates a different fate for the mill. While on site Thursday, he suggested that some catastrophe must have occurred. “Why else weren’t these iron works and millstones salvaged?” he asks. “There is no evidence of a fire. So, perhaps a flood occurred, or driftwood knocked away a part of the building and caused a collapse. But why wasn’t there any mention of this mill in the 1882 History of Daviess County?”

State records show that navigation ceased by 1870 as the lower reaches of the Grand River choked with silt. Some old timers recall stories of an 1883 flood. This combination, flood water and silt, most probably buried the mill intact. Pilings from the old bridge now being replaced helped to divert water away from the mill site. The river channel today is higher than it was at the time of the mill’s operation — more evidence of the plow’s effect on the rolling prairie. Soil erosion and the possibility of high water makes the archaeological work underway now a bit more urgent.

“If we should get a big rain to cause the river to rise, our work here is probably ended,” Dr. Walters said. “The old bridge pipelings are gone. Most of what is exposed now would wash away or silt would simply bury what we’ve uncovered. That’s why we are removing these artifacts now. Normally, a removal after excavation would occur only after reports (and time delays) to Washington, D.C. were reviewed. But all parties involved agreed to expedite the work here.”

Another concern involves the completion of the new Lewis Mill Bridge project. The bridge crew plans to reshape the cofferdam today. It will be used to station a pump truck to supply water for the new bridge construction overhead. Completion of the new bridge is not expected to be delayed by the archaeological work.

Construction of the new Lewis Mill Bridge is a federal grand project. Costs of the excavation, up to $10,000, is included in the bridge contract. Arguably, 80% of the artifacts may be federal property since federal tax dollars are funding 80% of the bridge project. Dr. Walters expects that almost everything uncovered will ultimately go back to the county. Whether this means a historical marker on site, a community museum or material going to the dump will depend on what people living here want to do. In the meantime, the artifacts will be stored at the Leland Stitt farm adjacent to the mill site.

Nobody really knows what a pre-Civil War grist mill built in north Missouri looked like, according to Dr. Walters. “Today there is quite a bit of interest in historical archaeology. Ten to 15 years ago on a project like this, these remains may have simply been pushed aside. Some wood preservation will be performed on the wheel and accompanying mount pieces. All pieces recovered from the excavated portion of the site will be recorded. Although the walnut beams look sturdy, they have no structural strength. Careful measurements will be taken so that if any reconstruction occurs for a display, the reconstruction will be accurate.

— written by Darryl Wilkinson, editor & publisher of the Gallatin North Missourian