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The Massive Grist Mills at York Haven

Section of 1858 Joshua Scott map of Lancaster County, PA (Annotated by S. H. Smith, 2015)
Section of 1858 Joshua Scott map of Lancaster County, PA (Annotated by S. H. Smith, 2015)

The first working canal in Pennsylvania opened on November 22, 1797. The canal was about one mile long, hugging the York County bank of the Susquehanna River from the top of the Conewago Falls, downriver to two locks at the lower end, near present day York Haven; all required so that river traffic could negotiate the 19-foot drop of the Conewago Falls. The mile long canal not only aided in navigation, but also provided a ready pool of elevated water to supply hydropower for a Grist Mill.

Several prominent Baltimore citizens saw great business potential and purchased much of the land in the area in 1810. The York Haven Company, under whose direction additional Grist Mills were erected, laid out the town of York Haven in 1814. Page 638 of John Gibson’s 1886 History of York County, PA notes:

The conveyance, in 1810, granted to the new company all the “ways, woods, water-courses, water, mill-works, rights, liberties, privileges, hereditaments and appurtenances.” … Three new mills were built, one having a capacity of 150 barrels of flour a day; for that time this mill had the largest capacity of any in the State. Cooper shops, hotels and private residences were soon built. … Keel-boats with immense quantities of wheat came down the Susquehanna; these were run in the canal and unloaded near the mills. Some of these boats carried 1,000 bushels of grain. Wagoning to Baltimore, to haul the flour to market, became an important business.

Ad in The Gazette (York, Pa.) issue of Nov. 27, 1832 (Newspaper Microfilms at York County Heritage Trust)
Ad in The Gazette (York, Pa.) issue of Nov. 27, 1832 (Newspaper Microfilms at York County Heritage Trust)

One of the York Haven Grist Mills burnt in 1826; it was never rebuilt. The other Grist Mills continued to operate as the Merchant Flouring Mills until the Baltimore businessmen divested their direct interest in the operations starting in 1832. This ad, in the November 27, 1832, issue of The Gazette notes the York Haven Grist Mills, Saw Mill, Warehouse and Brick Distillery are for rent.

A few months after I posted the First Working Canal in Pennsylvania was in York Haven, I stopped by The Historical Society of Baltimore County. There I learned two things about the York Haven Grist Mills. In 1832, a divesture started; which provided the proper starting year for me to look through newspaper microfilms at the York County Heritage Trust to find this ad. Secondly, the Burr Stones in the York Haven Grist Mills were claimed to be some of the largest ever used; however nobody was able to quantify how large.

The ad notes the York Haven Grist Mills contain five pairs of 7-feet Burr Stones. I’ve never seen a Burr Stone that large. If any of my readers know where one might still see a 7-feet Burr Stone, please post a comment.

The lower Burr Stone is stationary. The upper runner-stone must be balanced to ensure that it spins true. I can’t imagine the enormity of the task to get such a large runner-stone balanced so precisely to prevent any wobble. For in use, the gap between the stones is on the order of a piece of paper; and one never wants the stones to come into contact.

The York Haven Grist Mills continued to operate, on and off, until 1885. The Grist Mills were repeatedly damaged by build-ups of winter ice and floods on the Susquehanna River; putting them out of commission, sometimes for years at a time. In 1885, the Grist Mills were removed to build the extensively water-powered York Haven Paper Mill.

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