The brick archway on Old Town Road

Sat, 01/28/2017 - 7:30am
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The old watermill on Old Town Road, from the original 1870s painting by Charles Lanman. This famous American artist was notable for his accuracy; this image appeared as a nearly identical etching, seen by readers across America, in Harper's Magazine, July 1876. The view looks southwest, with today's Town Hall on the opposite side of the road (out of view to the left). The mill building disappeared by the early 1890s, but the old brick archway under Old Town Road, forming the millrace shown above, still exists intact, as does the original Mill Pond.

To call the brick archway on Old Town Road a culvert is like calling a rocket ship a tube.

But so it is, that the bricks are designated as a mere “culvert” in a plan submitted to the Town Council by engineer Jim Geremia.

That brick archway is important in history and should not be destroyed. It is a millrace, all that remains of a watermill first built alongside Old Town Road in the 1660s, shortly after the island’s European settlers arrived in 1661.

The brick millrace was depicted in a fine photograph, itself over 135 years old, in The Block Island Times earlier this month.

The original watermill of the 1660s was built by the island’s most prominent settler, Capt. James Sands (1622-1695). His large, well-preserved, horizontal gravestone is a preeminent feature of the Island Cemetery.

James Sands’ grandfather, Edwin Sandys (1519-1588, spelled with an extra “y”), was Archbishop of York during the reign of Elizabeth I. He also helped translate the “Bishop’s Bible,” which was used several years later as the basis for the more famous, and still current, “King James Bible” — basically linking the Archbishop to all of English history and Western Civilization. Some Block Islanders are descended from that Archbishop of York, and today’s islanders may most readily read about the Archbishop and his sons on the Wikipedia Internet site.

One of the Archbishop’s sons — an uncle of Block Island settler James Sands — was Edwin Sandys (1561-1629), a founder of the first successful English colony in America, in Virginia in 1607. Edwin Sandys also drew up the charter for the Mayflower Company, which led to the Pilgrims founding Plymouth in 1620.

Another of the Archbishop’s sons, and uncle of Block Island settler James Sands, was the poet and traveler George Sandys (1577-1644), who happened to build the first watermill in America. That watermill was built in Virginia, and it is plain to see how his nephew, island settler James Sands, would be influenced to build his own watermill on Old Town Road.

The father of James Sands — Rev. Henry Sandys (1572-1626) of Groton, Connecticut — had been the “dean of Shoreham” a town in the county of Kent, near London, England. Thus a reason why in 1672 a Rhode Island committee authorized that “New Shoreham” be an alternative name for Block Island, at the islanders’ request, as a reminder of their roots in England. A member of that committee was Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and good friend of James Sands, Block Island’s leader.

The watermill built on Old Town Road was first used as a grist mill, for grinding corn, and is mentioned in writing in town records that I can find as early as 1671. At that time the water stream powering the mill was often referred to as “the Mill River.”

The history of the watermill is well covered in a book written in 1877 by the island’s Baptist minister, Rev. Samuel Livermore. 

The book is actually a “report” about the island’s history and residents, commissioned by the Block Island Town Council in 1876 for America's 100th anniversary. The book’s “dedication” is prominent, on page one, reading: “Dedicated to the Memory of The Early Settlers of the Island ... and to the Inhabitants now Living.”

However, although commissioned by the Town Council, Livermore’s book was not made required reading by either those or subsequent Town Council members. It should have been.

Livermore’s “History of Block Island” is still in print now, 140 years later, and is easily obtainable. James Sands’ family is discussed on pages 268-274; his descendants on pages 275-280. 

James Sands’ wife, Sarah Sands, is given her own section by Livermore, notable for being the only doctor on the island, in this near wilderness of the late-1600s; for healing Indians who then lived here; for outliving her husband, and inheriting 400 acres of land; and for arranging in her will, dated 1703, for the slaves she had inherited to be freed — a forward-thinking concept. Sarah Sands also inherited the watermill, kept it running, and passed it down to the future.

The Sands family’s watermill is described in Livermore’s “History of Block Island” on pages 202-203. 

By the 1870s, when Livermore wrote, the mill was no longer used for grinding corn; that task was taken over by two large windmills erected on the island in the early 1800s.

Instead, the watermill was converted to process wool, in particular for the step called “carding,” in which a wire brush is run through the tangled fibers clipped from sheep, making the straightened fibers suitable for the next step, spinning into yarn. 

When the ancient watermill on Old Town Road was converted to use as a carding mill, it was part of a popular trend in America that, according to the Federal census of 1810, led to a carding mill being installed, on average, in nearly every town in America. A carding mill would accomplish in a few minutes what would take a farmer’s wife a few hours.

Of the hundreds of water-powered carding mills that existed in the United States, only one is left, at Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts — well appreciated there, as is evident from the museum’s website.

If a watermill is considered to have five basic components: (1) building structure, (2) internal mechanism, (3) external waterwheel, (4) mill pond that provides the water, and (5) millrace that compresses the flow of water and directs it to the waterwheel — then Block Island has two-fifths of a watermill.

The Block Island watermill was painted in the 1870s by Charles Lanman, a famous American artist whose home stood two hundred yards away, near the intersection with Connecticut Ave. His paintings were notable for their accuracy, this one appearing as a nearly identical etching in Harper's Magazine, in July 1876, distributed to readers across America. This is the only known view of the waterwheel and the north and east sides of the building.

Quite appropriately then, for Block Island, a modern carding mill was brought here in 2009, installed on Spring Street by Sven and Laura Risom, and operated by electricity at their complete yarn mill, North Light Fibers.

By the early 1890s, the wooden structure visible in the 1870s painting, that housed the watermill, disappeared.

In the 1940s, the Block Island Historical Society erected several stone monuments at prominent places about the island. One granite stone was placed on Old Town Road, nearly directly across from the Town Hall. 

The Historical Society made it easy to read the text, stating in just 13 words: “Site of Old Mill and Garrison Stone House of James and Sarah Sands 1661.” 

Note that the town fathers of the 1940s chose to include as part of the ancient home’s name, the wife’s name — not just the husband’s name, as is more common.

As it has for 350 years, water from “Mill River” still flows to the sea: from Mill Pond, through the brick millrace, through the fields, under the “new” Ocean Avenue (built in 1895), emptying into Harbor Pond.

From Harbor Pond the brackish water flows westerly, through Great Salt Pond into the sea. 

Diluting itself further in the currents, some of the water washes — it really does — against steel girders protruding from the sea, brushing against America’s first ocean windmill farm, which generates electricity to run the Risom’s modern carding mill.

That’s more than 350 years of manmade mills, of nature’s free power, of history worth maintaining, all at Block Island.