How many high-speed commuters drive by the towering shell of Chapman’s Mill—or any old mill, for that matter—and connect the crumbling ruins to the energy that allows them to zoom past? Not many, I’d wager. But as calls mount to make renewable sources a larger portion of our voracious energy diets, noble old ruins such as Chapman’s Mill stand to remind us of a history we’re increasingly considering to power our future.
I’ll be the first to concede that old mills don’t often make for the most compelling historical narratives. They’re not as sexy as urban exploration or as humbling as battlefields. Mills aren’t as perplexing as recently abandoned places. We know why mills fell behind; fossil fuels’ potency long ago trumped mills’ meager output. And there were scads of them (how many places, streams or streets can you think of with “mill” in the name?).
Two views of what’s left of Chapman’s Mill
Mills nevertheless remain worthy of contemplation for the life they afforded our ancestors. Mills furnished day-to-day necessities such as food, shelter and clothing that allowed them to go about life and make us who we are today. Without those rickety old mills—most overgrown ruins or completely vanished now—the standard of living we enjoy would not have come around.
Oh, and sometimes, mills did become part of those larger dramas. Chapman’s Mill was built in 1742 and added onto over the years. The mill was the site of a Civil War battle because it sits in Thoroughfare Gap, a narrow passage through the Bull Run Mountains 35 miles west of Washington, D.C. (Here is a Chapman’s Mill on Google Maps.) U.S. Army soldiers were stationed there during the Spanish American War to keep yellow fever from invading the nation’s capital. The mill ground grain for soldiers fighting in every war from the Civil War to World War I. The Beverly family took over operations along the way and today it’s often referred to as Chapman/Beverly Mill. Sadly, an arsonist burned the mill in 1998. Only the exterior remains, which visitors can tour.
L: Chapman’s Mill’s stone exterior; R: The waterwheel
Mills worked by means of renewable power that humans have been using for millennia. In Chapman’s Mill’s case, water from Broad Run turned a wheel that provided mechanical energy to seven floors of workspace.
Regrettably, we’ve become accustomed to volumes of power that even large mills like this can’t match. In the Summer 2014 issue of the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, I wrote a piece on the green energy 18th century Americans used (although they had no such term or understanding). A single Honda Civic produces nearly thirty times the energy that one eighteenth century water mill does. It’s no wonder why mills make up so much abandoned American infrastructure, but that doesn’t mean that we should allow our humble energy history to become a thing of the past.
L: In the old millrace; R: Daffodils someone planted long ago
L: A pulley on the side of Chapman’s Mill; R: Ruins of nearby Meadowland, where the Chapman family lived
L: Meadowland’s Icehouse; R: The train tracks go through Thoroughfare Gap