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A Mill in New York

by Jaisy Reyes

[[email protected]]

I: Mills in Middle Ages

Records show that the Romans, who introduced the wheel accompanied with water power, used wheels that were turned by the current of a river, but it was not until the medieval period that the water mills were more commonly used.

The water wheel seems to have been the earliest kind of mechanical energy to replace the work of human beings. The water mill was used to replace the hand mill because it conserved more time and labor.

The first type of water mill is thought to have been the Norse mill; this mill used a horizontal waterwheel which drove the grindstones directly, without the hassle of gearing. Because the waterwheel made it easier to grind, it was preferred by many.

The earliest reference to an English mill was in 762 CE, in a charter issued by Aethelbert.

By 1086, The Domesday Book indicated that there were more than 5,000 mills used throughout England; it has been argued that the majority of these mills were the same as the Norse mill.

There were various types of water wheels:-

  • The Overshot
    Overshot wheels were turned by the weight and speed of water. The breast wheels were turned by water brought to the wheel at axle level in a trough called a millrace. The millrace brought water to a high level, where it shot over the top blades of the wheel
  • The Undershot
    Undershot wheels were turned by water striking their lower paddle wheels that turned with the current of a river.
  • The Breastshot

Each of the different types of mills had their advantages and disadvantages. For example, the horizontal wheel, also known as the Norse mill, was best used for grinding, but the mill could only be used where the water current flow was most appropriate for the grinding.

Here is a plan of a Wheelhouse to can give a clearer idea of how the watermill operated.

[IMG Plan of a Wheel House]

II: Mills and Rivers

The big problem when it came to the construction of the water mill was its location.

[IMG the Bronx River]A water mill had to be built in those particular areas of the country where water resources were available: it had to be constructed where the waterfall was close by the wheel. The millrace could have only be used from upstream or a dam, meaning that there were some restrictions as to where it had to be constructed. The water mill, after all, is a device which uses water power to rotate the wheel; it is the rotation of the wheel that does the grinding The power and force of the water depends on the speed and height of the waterfall. [The picture is of the Bronx River].

Despite its limitations, the water mill served as a model for the way in which technical progress has historically come about. After the early watermill, better and more powerful watermills were built -- for instance, in the mid-1800s a hydraulic turbine was developed. Unlike the earlier waterwheels, the turbines were enclosed and were designed with blades called vanes on the edge of the wheel. Water would then enter the enclosed wheel and flow against these vanes; theses vanes would later rotate the water making the wheel spin by reaction. The watermill stimulated more ideas to create various mills such as the windmill, which led to greater technology for the future.

III: The Snuff Mill in New York

The closest resemblance in form, location and appearance to a watermill in New York is the Snuff Mill, located in New York's Botanical Garden.

The Snuff Mill was part of the Lorillard Estate. In the surrounding area there were the homes or the service buildings of the Lorillard family where peasants worked for them in the manufacturing a of tobacco. They were also famous for their rose gardens.


The Lorillard Snuff Mill dates from 1792-1870.

The Snuff Mill is bordered on the Bronx River, which is close by to a waterfall. Similar to the watermill, the Snuff Mill is located next to a river where one can acknowledge the stream that flows right next to the mill, which comes from the waterfall. Having access to water was very important for mills because it helped with the manufacturing of resources.

The Snuff Mill is a wonderful site to see, it has preserved that farm like quality, which connects to the Middle Ages environment. It produces images that takes us back to the medieval period, images like the trees, the mill, and the river. Its location and the preservation of the mill reflects the time of the watermills, and in this sense it is a reflection of the Middle Ages in New York.



  • Friedman, Ellie. "Personal Interview". 27 November 1996.
  • Holt, Richard. The Mills of Medieval England. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988.
  • "Waterwheel." The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1995 ed.


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This Page is part of the Medieval New York Web Project, a project of students in the Introduction to Medieval History courses taught by Paul Halsall in the History Department of Fordham University in 1996-1997.

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© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 5 June 2023 [CV]