Back in November, at the Fairfax County Historical Conference, a lady approached my table. Eyeballing my book, she looked up and asked if there were any markers on mills. Our brief discussion centered on Pioneer Mill, Alexandria’s most famous one.
Unsatisfied with the answer I gave her, I checked my database for other mills with markers. There are three brief mentions.
Pioneer Mills: View From Pioneer Mill, Looking Up the Wharf. May 1865 (Courtesy of Library of Congress)Pioneer Mill once stood at the end of Duke Street.
Cameron Mills: Several archaeological investigations have been conducted in advance of new construction in West End. Archaeologists have discovered the remnants of homes which once lined Duke Street, the West End Brewery, the Virginia Glass Company, Cameron Mills…
Grist Mills on the Waterfront: By 1810 the wharves were well stocked and Alexandria boasted five bake houses, several breweries and three grist mills.
Given that flour production was such a vital component of Alexandria’s economy for many years, we need to take a look and see if we can find out more about the mills in and around the city.
As Harold W. Hurst notes in his book, “Alexandria on the Potomac,” flour became the major source of wealth after the decline of tobacco. Northern Virginia was the principal provider. After Baltimore grabbed the majority of the trade, Alexandria’s flour production bounced back with the advent of railroads.
Flour production goes back even further than the 19th century. Arthur G. Peterson penned an article (“Flour and Grist Milling in Virginia”) for Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. He points out that Governor Yeardley built a windmill in 1621. It was “first building of this character erected in North America.”
Robert and Marjorie Lundegard, members of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of “SPOOM,” have written about mills in Alexandria and the region. Marjorie Lundegard writes that as early as 1620, England directed the colonies to build corn mills. The mother country initially supplied the ironwork and millstones. By the 1700’s mills were regulated as a public utility. In northern Virginia there were more than 100 mills.
Robert Lundegard (“Flour and the Port of Alexandria Around 1810”) points out that from 1801 to 1815, Alexandria shipped over 1,000,000 barrels of flour to markets in Europe and the West Indies. The flour came largely from the mills of Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties.
By 1822, Alexandria was the fourth largest flour exporter in America (“Alexandria Master Plan for Historic Preservation.”) In 1834, the seaport city had a dozen flour merchants.
Mills at Cameron
Cameron Mills were located where Taylor Run enters Cameron Run. There was a complex of two mills located at this site. The mills were built around 1752 and might have been built by William Bird. By 1799 John Vowell and Thomas Vowell were the owners.
In her book, “Walk and Bike the Alexandria Heritage Trail,” Pamela Cressey provides brief, but excellent information on mills that were located along Cameron Run (Her book was my first introduction to mills in Alexandria). An interpretive marker by the Eisenhower Metro Station also gives info and photos. Shirley Scalley wrote “Cameron Mills,” a report summary of an archaeological dig (44AX112) made in the 1990s.
There were two mills (possibly built earlier) at Cameron in the 1790s. William Bird, John Stump and John Ricketts were the owners. Scalley notes that other mills might have existed, owned by either John Colville or John Carlyle.
Robert F. Roberts bought the mills and property in 1848. He was one of many Quakers who brought their work ethic and farming principles to Alexandria and the region.
In 1851, the eastern mill served Alexandrians by becoming a pumping station. Led by Benjamin Hallowell, the Alexandria Water Company pumped the water into a reservoir by Shuter’s Hill. This workhouse lasted for over a century.
The remaining mill operated until around 1919. They produced flour, meal, and feed. Walter Roberts owned the mill at one point, as well as a grain and feed store on Union Street and Wales Alley. His name lives on at Virtue Feed and Grain Restaurant. The owners kept intact the store name stenciled on the wall of the two-story brick building which was completely renovated in 2012. Archaeologists discovered the mill race, remains of the Roberts family home and the West family burial vault. The western mill building was destroyed by fire in 1928.
This mill on Wheeler Avenue produced 10,000 barrel of flour a year, but the post War of 1812 economy prevented Hartshorne from keeping it.
One of Marjorie Lundegard’s articles, “Mills and Mill Sites in Fairfax County, Virginia and Washington, D.C.,” documents the history of this mill. Used now by a small business firm, it is the only remaining mill structure in Alexandria. For lovers of 18th Century buildings, they will be excited to know there’s a possibility this water grist mill can be added to the list. Current research shows it was built between 1776 and 1811. Lundegard notes the roof is in the “Dutch Colonial" form.
Like some others, this mill had various owners and names, including Brown's Mill, Watkin’s Mill, Phoenix Mill and Dominion Mill.
Lundegard was given a brief tour by an employee who knew about construction of buildings. She makes the following observations:
In walking around the building one can see the arch where the wheel axle entered the building. Today Holmes Run flows under the building.
The head race was probably covered up by the parking lot. As one looks toward the mill from the parking lot, the Fitz overshot water wheel would have been on the right hand side of the mill. The tail race, which is now underground, is also covered with paving at the back side of the mill.
Mr. Rizer, who had explored the upper two levels, said that in his opinion this was the original roof line judging from the old beams and flooring at this level.
About a mile and a half upstream from the Cameron Mills site, near the Beatley Library on Duke Street, Cameron Run gets fed by Backlick Run and Holmes Run. Further up the latter, not far from the Landmark Mall on North Paxton Street, you will find a remnant of millrace, a small historical marker and an old stone mill.
Jean Biero researched the history of the mill. Going by several names including “Triadelphia,” the mill, built around 1813, is historically known as “Cloud’s Mill.” Quaker Phineas Jenney was an early owner. James Cloud owned it from 1835 to 1863. Biero notes he may have ran the mill prior to that. The flour was poured into barrels and sent along Little River Turnpike to the waterfront.
The story of Cloud’s Run Mill doesn’t end with its grinding and flour production. During the first year of the Civil War, the Balloon Corps launched aerial reconnaissance missions from the mill. Tim Dunnee’s research found the fascinating story of John La Mountain, an aeronaut and ballooning pioneer who established his headquarters at the mill. He competed with Thaddeus Lowe for the Chief Aeronaut job. A sketch map Dunne found (Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division) shows the mill located near the Little River turnpike tollgate. Dunnee also found a photograph of Cloud’s Mill, circa 1865 (U.S. Army Military Institute). La Mountain made the first recorded flight from Alexandria and a handful of others.
In the 1980s, when Alexandria Archaeology contacted the developer, he agreed to help save the remnant of the race. The condominiums there were named Mill Race. Cloude’s Mill Drive and Cloude’s Mill Way (apparently misspelled) also pay tribute, as does the marker and the mill stone.
We leave the Cameron Valley now and head south towards Mount Vernon. Before reaching Fort Belvoir, we turn left off Route 1 on to Mount Vernon Memorial Highway. Coming in sight is George Washington’s Grist Mill. Our beloved first President is long gone, but part of his life lives on at this (reconstructed) stone gristmill he built in 1771.
Our founding father had big plans for the republic. He once told his friend Marquis de Lafayette, “I hope someday or another, we shall become a store house and granary for the world.”
As a marker on the site points out, Washington, by the mid-1760s, had converted from tobacco to wheat as his main cash crop. His mill produced flour and corn meal and was shipped to Europe and the West Indies.
According to the Mount Vernon website, a 16-foot waterwheel powered this operation. The patented Oliver Evans Automated Milling System is the only one still in use in the United States.
A man with very high standards, Washington also used a French millstone that produced “superfine” flour. Superfine sold for 20% more than average grade. Washington used enslaved humans to dig the trenches, work the milling and ship product.
In addition to the mill, Washington built a cottage for his two millers, a cooperage to construct the wooden barrels, a distillery, and a wharf by Dogue Run.
The mill fell into a sorry state and was dismantled in the 1850s. The state of Virginia came to the rescue and built a replica in 1932, as part of the bicentennial of Washington’s birthday. The mill and campus are closed for the season, and re-open in April.
T. Michael’s Miller’s “Fireside Sentinel” (November/December 1993) talks briefly about some mills along the waterfront. Henry Wattles Corn and Feed Mill was located at 204 S. Union. Forbes Milling Company was situated at the southeast corner of Prince and S. Union. Walter Roberts gristmill stood on the Strand between King, Prince and Union. A fire on March 28, 1926 destroyed the latter two.
Perhaps the biggest mill on the waterfront north of King Street was Globe Mill. It went by other names such Lawrence’s Mill and Ladd’s Mill.
Standing tall as a proud symbol of Alexandria’s antebellum strength and prosperity, Pioneer Mill rose six stories high at the foot of Duke Street (Robinson Terminal). The plant was one of largest flour mills in the United States. Smith and Miller note it was powered by a 250-horsepower steam engine that turned a dozen run-of-burr millstones.
Owned by the wealthy magnate William Fowle, the Alexandria Steam Flour Company built the facility in 1852. Grain came in via both ships and train. When machine and man worked at their peak, 800 barrels rolled out each day.
In his research, T. Michael Miller found an article in The Washington Union that described the mill as “being probably unsurpassed in solid beauty of exterior architecture and exquisite style.”
By the 1880s, Pioneer Mill had seen better days. In the summer of 1890, a fire destroyed most of the building and others on the block.
Milling shifted westward in the middle of the 19th Century, and by the 1880s few mills were operating near Alexandria. Today, a handful are still grinding away for local consumption and are open to the public in the D.C. region, including Pierce’s Mill along Rock Creek Parkway, Washington’s Grist Mill, Colvin Mill in Great Falls, and ones in Aldie and Millwood.
Occoquan’s Mill House Museum contains artifacts and looks back to what may have been the first automated gristmill in the country. Adelphi’s Mill in P.G. County and Black Rock Mill in Montgomery County are still standing, and I’m sure others are too.
It’s great the City of Alexandria has done a wonderful job with historical markers, including the ones mentioned here. Going forward, we hope Pioneer Mill will be included in the historical interpretation of the waterfront. We also hope the City will consider replacing the damaged one for Cloud’s Mill, and perhaps moving it to the park by the creek.
And, of course, thanks to the lady at the conference for the question!