Around the middle to the late eighteen hundreds, there were around five hundred sawmills in the state of New Hampshire. By the early nineteen hundreds, the number had decreased drastically. Today there is about one hundred mills left in the state. I recently took a trip to see a real water-powered sawmill. The mill was Cheney's Mill, and is located in Kingston, NH.
Cheney's Mill has been around since the early seventeen hundreds. It was originally a land grant from the king. Although the actual mill building burnt down in 1944, the mill site and some foundation still stand. The mill was rebuilt and stills stands today. This was only one of many mills in the area.
The generous land grant was given to a naval officer, who had five sons. He built each son his own sawmill, and built his own gristmill, which stood directly across the river from this mill. Only two of the six still stand today, while some remnants of the others foundations still stand hidden in the dense brush surrounding the river.
The mill is still run today predominantly by waterpower. The peak times of the year for the waterpower are usually year round, with the exception of August through the beginning of November. When the water levels drop in these select months, the owners of the mill had to put in two gas powered engines to do the work of the water. These engines were put in the mill around 1956. Before the installment of the engines, the people would use the dry spell to their advantage and they would harvest their gardens.
To help regulate the water flow, there are two dams. When they need to use more water, they simply slip out a wooden plank in the dam. When there's too much water, they just slip the plank back in. These dams help to keep the reservoir full, so that the gas engines do not have to be used as often. The water is far more cost efficient and less expensive maintenance wise than just the common gasoline engine.
(Located in the rock wall is one dam to help regulate the amount of water in the reservoir.)
The environmental benefits of remaining with waterpower are that there are no harmful side effects. The mill produces nothing that can contaminate the water, or will not use a large amount of fuel that can put out harmful exhaust. Another great factor to the operators is that there is a very low operating cost to run the mill. The waterpower is cheap and easy. Despite what people may think, not much yearly maintenance is required to run the mill. One main object is to keep the dam from leaking, and make sure the belts that turn the saw are in good condition.
The waterpower doesn't come from the conventional water wheel. The wheel used in this mill is turned sideways, and used as a turbine. The water first passes through a wooden canal that runs down under the mill. As the water runs further down the canal, the canal begins to get smaller and smaller. As the water is forced through a smaller canal, the pressure of the flow is increased. Then the water exits the canal, and hits the turbine, which causes the turbine to spin. As the turbine spins, it turns the snakelike leather belts that turn the saw. All the energy used to run this mill starts from the same place - gravity. The gravity pulls the water down the river, and down onto the inclined canal.
The saw blade in this mill is fifty-six inches high. The blades are all the same style, but there are back-up blades in case of the occasional rock, nail, or horseshoe that may break the teeth of the blade. The blade doesn't need to be lubricated or cooled down because there is enough moisture in the logs to help keep the friction down. The logs sawed at this mill are mostly pine, with the occasional hemlock and red oak. Customers use the wood for up to everything except residential housing. This is the result of the building codes forbidding unstamped lumber to be used for housing.
The Cheneys cut their own lumber from their land. There's enough land so each summer they can move around to different areas and cut selectively. This insures that there will be an abundant supply of wood for the future of the mill. There were many other sawmills around the Kingston area. Plaistow had 2 sawmills, while Exeter had four, and Newton had one. Most of these mills have long since vanished. But if you look hard enough in the right places, you may just stumble upon an old mill foundation hidden in the New Hampshire Woods.
Article written by: Ryan N.