As the weather in Croton gets warmer and we rejoice that the snow and ice are finally melting, let’s look back to a time when the Croton River ran wild and spring thaws would often bring massive freshets—river floods caused by heavy rain and/or melted snow and ice.
On Tuesday, March 10, 1818—exactly 197 years ago today—the Westchester Herald published a story about a freshet and the great damage it caused to “two Merchant Mills owned by Gen. Cortlandt.” 1
“Croton River.—The rapid thaw on Saturday . . . and the succeeding day, attended with heavy rain, occasioned the Croton river to rise to a considerable height, and floated down ponderous shoals of ice. Among the disasters it has occasioned we have to regret the damage done to the two Merchant Mills owned by Gen. Cortlandt, situated on that river. One of them was removed some feet from its base, the water-wheel destroyed, and some hundreds of barrels stove in; the floor of the second story was carried away, and upwards of one thousand bushels of feed destroyed. A saw-mill on the same race way was also swept away. The other mill, we are happy to learn, received but little damage. The whole loss is estimated at upwards of $3,000.”
Although the article is short it gives us a wealth of information about the flour mills on the lower Croton River.
- There were two separate mills operating on the lower Croton River in 1818. As shown in the map above, they were both on the south side of the river.
- The “race” that diverted water from the Croton River also powered a sawmill.
- The mills are called “merchant mills” because they were large commercial operations that purchased unprocessed wheat from farmers and sold the flour themselves or through agents. 2
- We get a sense of the size of the operation from the description of the damage—hundreds of barrels crushed, a thousand bushels of feed destroyed—and the estimated cost, roughly $55,000 in today’s dollars.
The mills were then owned and operated by Philip Van Cortlandt, (who was often referred to as “General Van Cortlandt” due to his rank at the end of the Revolutionary War) but they had been built by the Underhills in 1792 and operated by them until their lease with the Van Cortlandt’s ended acrimoniously in 1813.
It’s unlikely this was the first freshet to damage the mill complex and it was certainly not the last. Indeed, the Great Freshet of 1841—which caused the partial collapse of the earthen embankment of the old Croton Dam—destroyed the Van Cortlandt mills, along with all the bridges and buildings on the banks of the lower Croton River.3
What’s remarkable is that the water power produced at the site was so valuable that despite the continued destruction something was always rebuilt there. The site was used for more than 80 years and by the 1840s iron had replaced wheat as the material processed at the location.
Sadly, little remains of the mill complex remain today. If you paddle up the river—and you should—when you get near Fireman’s Island you’ll see a graceful brick archway, marking the end of the long race. Drilled into a boulder at the edge of the river there’s a large iron bolt where boats tied up. On the shore you can search for chunks of slag metal among the leaves, explore what’s left of the mill building foundation, walk along the top of the overgrown wall of the race and imagine what the mills must have been like in their heyday.
Multistory mill buildings towering over the river, the constant sound of millstones grinding together, the creaking waterwheels, hammering sounds of barrels of flour being sealed, then the clattering of heavy barrels being rolled on planks into the hold of a waiting ship.
One hundred ninety seven years ago today the sounds would have been very different, as a huge flood of water and “ponderous shoals of ice”—high enough and powerful enough to move a two-story building off its foundation—swept down the Croton River to the Hudson.