Friday, February 13, 2015

The Barker Mill Site

Barker Sawmill race, 1895
I fully and freely admit that I'm an amateur at this history thing. I'm not writing academic papers here, and for the most part my biggest contribution is in compiling the work of others and gathering information together from scattered sources, hopefully putting it into a coherent story. Like you, I'm just a guy who finds this stuff interesting. Maybe my biggest asset is that I have a high tolerance for wading through lots of junk to find the widely-scattered jewels.

But now that I've spent more than five years just combing through Mill Creek Hundred related history, there's one other thing I can add. I have a fairly decent memory, and once in a while as I'm researching a particular topic I'll stumble upon something related to a subject I'd covered in the past. A name, place or word will jump out at me, and I'll have to go back and see if it's truly new information. It may even be something I had seen before, but had failed to recognize the significance of until after I had done an investigation.

I know this was the long way around of getting to it, but that last scenario happened to me just recently. As I was looking back over information while working on my upcoming Wooddale talk (March 2), I came across two old photos in the Hagley Museum online archives. I know I've seen them before, but since they don't seem to show very much and their description is pretty vague, I had always dismissed them as not being very important. However, after having just recently completed my investigation into the Barker family, I now see these 120 year old pictures very differently. And with some assistance from the ever-helpful Walt Chiquoine, I think we now know what these were pictures of. I highly doubt that many people over the last century could say that.

There are two things that make identifying these pictures difficult. First, they don't seem to show much at first glance -- just a field and a fence line. Secondly, their descriptions aren't very specific. One is labeled "Site of old saw mill at Wooddale, Delaware, on Red Clay Creek", while the other says "Old saw mill race below Wooddale, New Castle County". When I had seen these before, I just assumed that it was some sort of mill that predated the iron mills at Wooddale. It wasn't until after having researched the Barkers that I realized that what was being show was the remnants of their saw mill race!

If you'll recall from the Barker post, although most of their tract was north of Lancaster Pike, part of it, including the saw mill site, lay on the south side. From an old document, Walt Chiquoine determined that it stood on the west side of the creek, very near where the Wilmington & Western later laid its track. With his knowledge of the layout, after I forwarded the pictures to him Walt was able to determine pretty much exactly where these photos must have been taken from, way back in 1895.

The photo at the top of the page is "Photo 2" on the diagram.
"Photo 1" is of the tail race. WWRR tracks in yellow.
We'll start with the one at the top of the post (Photo 2 in the diagram above). The slightly darker, more overgrown area just to the right of center is the remnant of the mill race. Walt figured out that the photographer was facing north northwest, probably standing on the railroad tracks at the point at which the race and the tracks intersected. The fence likely ran along the edge of the railroad's right-of-way, and Lancaster Pike would be just out of view in the distance.

The shot above (Photo 1 in the diagram) is a bit trickier to pin down, but again Walt has an idea. He thinks this photo is also looking NNW, with the railroad's right-of-way fencing visible. He places the photographer in the area of the tail race (the section after the mill). Since the caption of this picture is "Site of Old Saw Mill at Wooddale", I think that's a pretty good guess. The darker area in the foreground may be the mill site, with the end of the race coming through the trees. That would place us in the tail race, looking back through where the mill stood.

I realize that on the grounds of pure content, these photographs are not particularly exciting. It would have been really nice if the mill itself were still standing, but even in 1895 it had been abandoned for about 50 years. I would assume that any part of it that had survived was eventually torn down when the railroad came through in the early 1870's. By the time the photographer got there 120 years ago, there were probably only a few people around who remembered the old Barker mill. Likely even fewer could have identified these pictures over the last century. Now at last, though, we can finally place these two little shots into their proper historical context. A small victory, but I'll take it.


  1. Scott, those recent pictures I sent you were close to this location. Dave Z

    1. Interesting. Once Delawareasotta thaws out here, we'll have to get over there and take a look.

  2. Scott, I have noticed a mill race type depression on the opposite side of the tracks in the same area that you show on your diagram. Heading towards Wooddale on the train, the depression that I see, that to me had to have been a mill race, is on the right side of the train (engineers side). It is extremely overgrown, but there are breaks in the vegetation here and there that you can see into this depression. I've commented many times that there had to have been a mill in that area prior to Hercules. Could it be that what I am seeing is this mill race?
    Mary Simons