Swift Waters: The Industrial Environment in the Age of Waterpower

Jamie H. Eves

Also see: Swift-Waters-Hot-Steam, a PowerPoint presentation on the different types of industrial power, including electricity, used by the mills at Willimantic Falls, 1822-2012. 

Like the rest of New England, eastern Connecticut is a land of steep hills, abundant rainfall, and numerous rivers. It was from those rivers – the Willimantic, Natchaug, Quinebaug, Fenton, Little, Moosup, Hop, French, Yantic, and Shetucket – that the region drew the power that fueled its Industrial Revolution. Relatively small, but swift and powerful, foaming and swirling, the rivers tumble out of the flinty hills and join the larger Connecticut and Thames rivers on their journeys to the sea. In Windham, the Willimantic River drops more than 90 feet in less than a mile. The power was there for the taking.

The Willimantic River in Willimantic, Connecticut, a 19th-century mill city in the town of Windham. The dam was constructed in the 1850s to divert water into a head race that flowed under the Willimantic Linen Company’s Mill No. 1, at right. Altogether, the Willimantic River drops more than 90 feet in less than a mile as descends through the narrow, rocky Willimantic gorge. From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.  Photo by Stephanie Conforti.

This head race carried water from the Willimantic River to the Willimantic Linen Company’s Mill No. 1. Sluice gates (shown upper right) controlled the amount of water entering the raceway. The sewer pipe, railroad bridge, and stanchions of today’s Frog Bridge for vehicular traffic were added later. From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum. Photo by Stephanie Conforti.

Connecticut’s first, preindustrial mills appeared along these and other little rivers and millstreams. Small, family-run, and utilizing traditional technologies, preindustrial mills – also known as country mills – were relatively simple affairs.  Constructed by colonial grist millers, sawyers, tanners, and fullers, they met the needs of local, rural communities for flour, boards, leather, and fulled cloth. Their mill houses, constructed mostly of timber, were only one or two stories. Their simple stone-and-earth dams diverted water from rivers and millstreams into small, narrow, ditch-like raceways, which carried it to turn the creaking waterwheels that powered the mills. Their profits were modest. They created only a few jobs. And their impact on the environment was limited. Nevertheless, they featured most of the technologies – although in smaller form – that would later drive the big industrial mills.

In the nineteenth century, newer, larger, and more technologically sophisticated mills suddenly sprang up along the rivers. Beginning in the 1790s with Samuel Slater’s large, new textile mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the Industrial Revolution came to America. Soon, similar mills opened in eastern Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire, southwestern Maine, and eastern Connecticut. These new, industrial mills were much more massive than the old gristmills, sawmills, fulling mills, and tanneries of preindustrial times. They had broader, sturdier dams; wider stone-lined raceways that resembled wide canals more than narrow ditches; and gigantic, powerful, fast-moving waterwheels. Their buildings were usually made of stone or brick rather than wood, and rose as high as four or more stories. Rather than just one or two workers, each of the new mills employed dozens – often hundreds – of men, women, and children. By the end of the century, more than 100 textile mills operated in eastern Connecticut, churning out vast quantities of cotton, wool, linen, and silk thread each year. Connecticut – and America – had entered a new era: the Industrial Age!

Mill pond above the dam at the Wauregan Mills in the mill village of Wauregan, Connecticut, in the town of Plainfield, as it looked in c. 1950. From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.

Raceway at the Wauregan Mills, c. 1950. Raceways were wide and deep and carried large amounts of water to power the mills. From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.

The new mills required faster, more efficient means of transportation. At first, old-fashioned sailing ships brought in raw cotton from the South to seaports like Norwich in Connecticut, and Providence in Rhode Island. Horse-drawn wagons carried it inland to the mills. But transportation by road was expensive, so in the 1840s, the railroad came to Connecticut, and industrialization took off. Coal-fueled steam trains now chugged across the countryside, bringing in raw cotton and wood and carting out finished thread and cloth.

Cities grew up around the mills. In eastern Connecticut the new textile mill cities included Willimantic, Manchester, Baltic, Danielson, Taftville, Jewett City, Putnam, Stafford Springs, South Coventry, Yantic, Moosup, Thompson, and Plainfield. The population surged. Disease, crowding, floods, fires, crime, and other urban problems increased. But at the same time urban services like schools, theaters, post offices, clubs, and newspapers became more widely available. Connecticut moved into the modern age.

By the 1880s, a new industrial ecosystem had emerged in eastern Connecticut. At its center were the rivers, dams, raceways, railroads, and mill buildings of the Industrial Revolution. The dams blocked fish from migrating upstream. The mills dumped industrial dyes directly into the rivers. When the rivers suffered from summertime droughts, the owners responded by erecting massive water-storage dams upstream, creating most of Connecticut’s lakes and ponds. When the mills grew too large and numerous to be powered by the rivers alone, the owners installed coal-fueled steam boilers that joined the railroads in filling the air with smoke. Railroads radiated out from the mills like spokes, linking to booming seaports like Norwich and Providence. As workers flocked to the new jobs, villages and cities sprang up around the mills. Nearby forests were converted to farmland, to feed the villagers and their draft horses, mules, and oxen. Wild plants and animals disappeared. People, crops, weeds, and other domestic plants; and pests and livestock became more numerous.

The mills were located in New England because the waterpower and ready capital were in New England. The cotton, of course, was grown in the South and shipped north by ship and — later — railroad. In this photo, a cotton bale is unloaded in Willimantic at the American Thread Company in c. 1950.   From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.

Raceway at the Wauregan Mills in Wauregan, c. 1950.   From the collections of the Windham Textile and History Museum.