Boy’s Diary Tells of Water Wheels in the Early 1800s

For centuries, water wheels provided power for a variety of uses. Eric Sloane’s book "Diary of an Early American Boy" looks at the impact of a mill powered by an overshot water wheel in the early 1800s.
By Sam Moore
November 2012
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Eric Sloane’s book about Noah Blake.
Illustration Courtesy Sam Moore
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I recently found a book titled Diary of an Early American Boy by Eric Sloane. Published in 1962, it’s based on an old diary with leather-covered wooden covers that, along with a hand-fashioned stone inkwell bearing the carved initials N.B., was found by Sloane in an old, old house in Connecticut.

The original owner of the diary, a 15-year-old boy named Noah Blake, was given the diary by his parents on his 15th birthday, and he began to make entries in the little book immediately, with his first being: “Noah Blake, my book. March the twenty-fifth, Year of Our Lord 1805. Given to me by my Father Isaak Blake and my Mother Rachel upon the fifteenth year of my Life.” 

Noah’s parents settled on a stream called Red Man Brook somewhere in New England in 1789 and Noah was born the following year. A crude log cabin with pounded dirt floor and bark roof, along with a temporary barn and a shed to house the forge, were constructed first.

Over the years, as Noah grew more able to help, buildings were improved and a proper barn was built. The house received a wooden shingle roof and two expensive glass windows imported from England. At last, during 1805, the year of the diary, Isaak realized his twin dreams of building a proper bridge across the creek on the road to the nearby village, for the use of which the Blakes charged a toll, and diverting part of the creek into a mill pond, with a sluice or millrace leading to an overshot water wheel powering a new mill. Water power would run a sawmill, a small gristmill, the forge bellows, a trip hammer for the anvil and a lifting winch.

Sloane fleshes out Noah’s brief diary entries with an imagined narrative based on his vast knowledge of early American tools and machinery, and illustrates it with exquisite pen and ink drawings. The book particularly piqued my interest in early water wheels. I found that water wheels have been around since the ancient Greeks.

Overshot water wheels

In an overshot water wheel, water was led by a sluice or trough from a water supply to a point just past the top center of the wheel where it fell onto paddles or into buckets between the two wheel rims. The force of the falling water and its weight in the buckets caused the wheel to turn in the same direction as the water flow, providing power to turn the mill machinery. For an overshot water wheel, the height of the water’s fall must be greater than the wheel’s diameter. The overshot wheel’s efficiency (how much of the energy in the moving water was used) was rated at 65 to 70 percent.

Breastshot water wheels

If the elevation was not great enough for the water to be brought over the top, a breast wheel was used. With a breast wheel, water was channeled to strike the wheel above the center. Again, the impact of the water flow and the water’s weight caused the wheel to turn, in this case toward the flow. Efficiency varied from 50 to 70 percent, depending upon the height at which the water struck.

Undershot water wheels

If the only source of moving water available was a fast-moving stream with little change in elevation, the undershot wheel was used. Early wheels were often built so that the wheel was submerged in the stream itself, although a dam and a narrowed channel could be built to increase the force of the current. This type of wheel relied upon the impact of the current striking upright paddles to turn the wheel in the opposite direction of the stream’s flow. It was rated at 15 to 30 percent efficient.

The big drawback of early undershot wheels was their susceptibility to being damaged, or even swept away, by spring floods. When a sluice was used, there was usually a gate to allow diversion of high water from the wheel.

Building a water wheel in 1805

To get back to the Blakes, Isaak and Noah had already diverted part of the stream from above a waterfall beside the house to form a millpond and built a gated wooden sluice to carry water to the mill site. Isaak had contracted with a Mr. Beach, a skilled carpenter and joiner in the nearby village, to build a water wheel, and he had been working on it for nearly a year. The wheel was made mostly of wood, although the axle was probably made of iron. Finally the wheel was finished:

May 17: Father and I took Daniel (the Blakes’ only ox) and the wagon to Mr. Beach’s to collect our mill-wheel. It is beautiful. It weighs over two tons! May 18: We rolled the mill-wheel over the new bridge, which did not sag an inch!     

May 23: Father and Mr. Beach started on the mill. This consisted of constructing a stone foundation, which took a couple of days. Then, on May 25, Noah writes: Father and Mr. Beach at sawing. They were fashioning, by hand of course, the timbers and boards necessary to construct the mill’s frame. This work continued for about 10 days.

June 3: Helped Father build rope hoist to move the water wheel. 

June 4: Father and Mr. Adams (a neighbor) worked at putting the water wheel in place. 

June 5: Tried the wheel: it is quite true and has great force. Father will begin fashioning the cogwheel (of wood, of course). 

June 12: Mr. Beach is fitting the mill machinery while father frames the mill house.  

June 19: The mill wheel has been set … Cogs will work both a hammer and the bellows, so some of my forge work shall be eliminated. It is all very wonderful. 

“Our first business!”

During July, the mill house was completed, except for a roof. Mr. Beach made a saw frame that held a straight saw blade vertically. As the blade was moved up and down by a crank on a shaft driven by the water wheel, a log was guided through the frame and cut into boards.

Finally: Nov. 7: Finished the mill roof in time for a rain. During October and early November, wooden shingles or shakes were split by hand with a froe and mallet and the mill was covered by a roof. Isaak sawed some boards with the new sawmill and decided the gear ratio wasn’t quite right.

Nov. 27: Father is making a smaller pinion wheel for the saw machinery. 

Dec. 5: The sawmill machinery is complete. Father and I have begun to (build) walls and start a brick chimney in preparation for a stove (and) the forge fire.  

Dec. 11: Our first business at the mill! An order for sawing some pine floor boards, for Mr. Thoms. 

This is a great book for students of early American life. New and used copies are available online from AbeBooks and Alibris Books. FC 

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net. 


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