Chapman’s Mill and the Traces of Energy’s Past

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?).

Chapmans Mill      Chapmans Mill 6

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.

Chapmans Mill 3    Chapmans Mill 2

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.

Chapmans Mill 1      Chapmans Mill 8

L: In the old millrace; R: Daffodils someone planted long ago

Chapmans Mill 4      Chapmans Mill 9

L: A pulley on the side of Chapman’s Mill; R: Ruins of nearby Meadowland, where the Chapman family lived

Chapmans Mill 7      Chapmans MIll 10

L: Meadowland’s Icehouse; R: The train tracks go through Thoroughfare Gap

About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at benswenson@cox.net
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8 Responses to Chapman’s Mill and the Traces of Energy’s Past

  1. Jamie says:

    Growing up in Warrenton nearby, this was known to me as Old Busthead Mill. Though I’ve relocated, I happened to visit the mill today for the first time in 15+ years. It was an entirely different experience than I remember. Currently, it’s mildly maintained and well visited. It was beautiful. It’s not often that you get to access a national landmark completely uninterrupted. You can wander anywhere you like. (Get a tetanus shot.) There were a good number of cars in the parking area, though likely mostly hikers. Last I was there in the late 90s, it was dilapidated, an area you weren’t meant to trespass, and I accessed it by walking on the railroad. The Chatham and Beverly titles surprised me. Is there any lore behind why residents of Fauquier County would have called this Old Busthead Mill? (The road across 66 shared the name.) I checked with several other residents today, and they all were equally surprised that the mill had different historical names.

    • Ben Swenson says:

      Jamie,

      Thanks for reading and for sharing your recollections of the mill in the 90s. Other than a road nearby being named Bust Head Road, I never came across that name when I was researching this post. I bet if you were able to ask some of the volunteers who work there they might know a little more. Thanks again.

      Ben

  2. Greg Martin says:

    I lived a little north of this spot in the Hopewell Gap (part of the Thoroughfare Gap battle which was critical to Second Manasas). A very interesting area around Chapman’s Mill are the Bull Run Mountains—there is a conservancy I think called Bull Run Mountain Conservancy at http://www.brmconservancy.org/ —- this is a neat area with old overgrown grave sites, old abandoned shacks (probably early 20th century), and generally well marked trails that are easily accessible. Also, you can visit some of the battle site area and defensive confederate positions among others. I really like the railroad through this area and I used to hear the trains roll through late at night—also have many photographs of the area with one very similar to the train track posted— I hope the area stays in good shape and I think locally funded conservancies like this are a big help—cheers, Greg

  3. Robert Crowder says:

    If you’re going to do another piece on a mill come to Madison Heights in Amherst County. Brightwell’s Mill has been rebuilt and the Brightwell family would be glad for you to write a story on it.

  4. Pingback: Mills and Renewable Energy | Milling Minutes

  5. Callie Marie says:

    Thanks for sharing such and interesting article. It’s true that we pass old historic mills everyday and forget that they once ran on renewable energy. I agree that the modern milling process could benefit from returning to it’s past and finding new ways of becoming energy efficient. With the technology we have now, I’m sure there will be a way to do so without sacrificing productivity.

  6. brian magurn says:

    Thanks for sharing! I drove by this on 66 on thanksgiving day and I couldn’t quite remember the name.

  7. Simon Stevenson says:

    Its sad to see that people these days don’t even care about our history it just hurts to see that they just leave these incredible things to die and sit lonely in abandonment like this why not restore these beautiful pieces of history and show them a little more love

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