Dorchester Tide Mills
Dorchester has been home to at least three tide mills. Tide mills are water-powered mills that use the tide to fill or help fill the reservoir behind the mill dam. These mills are located on tidal inlets and river estuaries where gates in the dam may be opened as the tide is rising and closed when the tide is full. Then as the tide recedes, there will be a period of time when the level of the mill pond will be enough higher than the ocean water to allow the mill wheel to operate. When the tide rises again to the point where it impedes the wheel, the miller must wait for next tide cycle.
The earliest mill in Dorchester was a river mill at Lower Mills. In 1634 Israel Stoughton obtained permission from the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay to erect a grist mill there above the head of the tide. That mill is remembered by the illustration of the rude mill, with its large wheel, which is seen upon the left bank of the Neponset River in the Dorchester town seal.
The next known mill is a tide mill, however it is not known which of the following two 17th century tide mills is the earlier.
Mill Brook Creek
Clap Mill 17th century
Before the South Bay was filled in, it was connected to the ocean by a passage between Boston and South Boston. Roger Clap was among the first to arrive in Dorchester as passengers in the Mary and John, and some of his siblings and cousins arrived a few years later. They acquired land in the north part of the town fronting on the South Bay and extending to Boston Street, and they owned a tide mill known as Claps Mill. It stood on Mill Brook Creek, a creek that entered the Brook that separates Roxbury and Dorchester, sometimes called Dorchester Brook or Roxbury Brook depending on perspective. It is mentioned in the Clapp Memorial, the family genealogy, that the mill was built for them by a Mr. Bate. This was probably James Bate or Bates, a millwright who arrived in Dorchester in 1635. He lived from 1582 until his death in Dorchester in 1655.
Edward Clapp, brother to Roger, owned half of the mill. Following his death in January, 1664, his will passed one quarter each to his sons Nehemiah and Ezra. The estate inventory describes it as a tidal mill. Half the mill was then valued at 50 pounds. Ezra moved to Milton where he had received other lands from his father and built a mill for grinding corn on the Milton side of the Neponset River. He may have sold his quarter of the South Bay mill back to the family since it is not mentioned in his will. Nehemiah stayed in Dorchester and died at age 38. In his will, probated in 1684, he left his quarter of the mill to his son Edward, who is characterized as probably rather a shiftless man who had a good estate left him, which he disposed of before he removed to Sudbury about 1722.
Elizabeth Clap, daughter of Edward married James Blake in 1651, and they moved to the house now known as the Blake House or Blake-Clap House. The inventory of James’ estate includes a significant entry for mealbags.
Roger Clap in his will written in November of 1690 mentions the tide-mill although it is not conclusive that he owned a portion of the mill. "My son Hopstill shall have that part of the home lot that is below the fence, and all the medow at the end of the home lot, and at the tide mill, and at the end of cornelias lot, as fare as the salt creek, but not over the creek."
Nicholas Clap, cousin to Edward and Roger, owned a quarter of the mill. It is unclear how the mill ownership passed down, but John granson of Nicholas, son of Nathaniel, was an enterprising man and owned much real estate. He was proprietor of three fourths of the grist mill called Clap’s Mill which stood as described before and not far from where in 1889 the New York & New England Railroad reached the upland after crossing the waters of the South Bay. The mill was rebuilt by Jonathan Clap and Humphrey Atherton in 1712. Humphrey Atherton who was a descendant of an early settler, Major General Humphrey Atherton, seems to have owned ¼ of the mill. According to the articles of agreement for rebuilding it, Joseph Parsons, of Northampton, was to build a corn or grist mill at a place called Claps Mill where the former mill stood, for which he was to have 50 pounds, the mill to be finished by Sept. 12, 1712. When Jonathan died, his estate included an entry for ¾ of a grist mill and the meadow belonging thereto valued at 80 pounds, when he died in Jan. 1723/4, but due to the young age of two of his sons, his estate seems not to have been settled until 1746. The mill probably continued operation into the 19th century.
There seems to be no further recorded mention of the mill other than reference to fragments found. A newspaper article from 1910 mentions the existence of a dike built to keep the tide from a meadow above the dike. For the operation of the mill, a dam was built running nearly parallel to the existing structure some 250 or 300 feet, crossing mill brook a little down-stream. 200 years previously, the spring tide would have been high enough to cover all the marshes and two peninsulas of upland would be seen projecting into the watery areas, one on the Roxbury side and the other on the Dorchester side of the brook. The hill of the peninsula was later taken down to the level of Willow Court. The mill dam would have been constructed of “sheet piling” – that is planks set edge to edge and driven endwise in the marsh, against which earth was filled. Above the dam, the waters of each inflowing tide were held and with the steady accretions of Mill Brook, a mill pond was created that extended south to Cottage Street and westward as far as the borders of the Governor Eustis estate in Roxbury. The mill house remained on the premises until July 4, 1855, when it was destroyed by fire while the rest of Dorchester celebrated the 225th anniversary of the settlement of the town. Later during the excavation of the South Bay, pieces of old planks, which had been used in the construction of the dam, were taken out.
The mill stood in the marshes at the backyard of the Clapp family houses, approximately at the current entrance from Massachusetts Avenue to the South Bay Shopping Center.
Breck Mill/William Robinson/Tileston Mill 17th century
The other 17th century tide mill was located on the part of Mill Street that is now called Victory Road. The armory on Victory Road sits on the former Tenean Creek, now filled in, and the tide mill was located to the west side of the armory on the former bank of the creek.
The tide-mill at Tenean was built by Edward Breck who probably came to Dorchester in the second migration in 1635, and he purchased land of Mr. Burr land in 1642. Breck lived on Adams Street. Clap cites town records for December 17, 1645, saying, “There was given to Edward Breck, by the hands of most of the inhabitants of the town, Smelt Brook Creek, on the condition that he doth set a mill there.” He built the mill, and the street on which it stood was later called Mill Street. William Robinson acquired the mill, probably from his widow and son, after he died in 1662, and Robinson sold it to Tileston in 1664 for 96 pounds. The description at that time was: a “little house” and ten acres of land on “Tide-Mill Creeke, and half a corn water-mill standing on the tide in the creeke, commonly called Salt Creeke or Brooke, near Captaines Neck.” In 1668 Robinson, the second owner, died when he was “drawn through by ye cogwheel of his mill, and was torn in pieces and slain.” Since he died after the sale of the mill, he may have been working at the mill after he sold it, or he may have still owned a half-interest in the mill. The compiler of the Breck genealogy in 1889 said that the mill continued to belong at that time to the Tileston family.
John Goff has offered this analysis: We can conclude that Tileston’s Dorchester tide-mill was powered by a large vertical waterwheel, running on a horizontal axis. Only then would it have required the cog wheels that cut up the unfortunate Mr. Robinson. If Tileston’s, like the Souther Mill in Quincy, in its final days, was powered directly by a vertical shaft running up from a horizontal tub-wheel mechanism, there would have been no cog gearing at all. The gearing was typically required to change direction of power shaft and change speeds—all of which suggests Tileston’s had a picturesque vertical waterwheel.
The following is from Memoirs of a Many-Sided Man: The Personal Record of a Civil War Veteran, Montana Territorial Editor, Attorney, Jurist. Memoirs of Henry N. Blake written in 1916. Edited by Vivian A. Paladin and published in Montana, the Magazine of Western History, Autumn, 1964.
I was born in a one-story building of wood on the southwestern side of Mill Street in Dorchester, (now Boston), Massachusetts, on the fifth day of June, 1838. On the opposite side of the street was a grist mill of the old style, owned by Ebenezer Tileston and my father. A story was added to the building, which is standing in good repair, but the mill and creek flowing into it have been filled recently with rubbish by the city of Boston. This was an ancient privilege, granted by the Massachusetts Colony in 1645; the grantee and his successors were authorized to construct and maintain a dam across an arm of the sea from Massachusetts Bay. The power was furnished by the incoming tide which flowed into the pond and closed the gate when it receded.
My father was the miller and worked in the night or daytime according to the ebb and flow of the tide. The payment for grinding corn and grain was fixed by law and the miller had the right to take for his services a certain portion of each grist call “tolls,” but the parties agreed sometimes upon a sum of money. When I was young I enjoyed many hours playing about the mill, caught fish and learned to swim in the pond and dug clams at low tide in the creek.
Asa Robinson Tide Mill - Late 19th Century on the Neponset River Estuary
In selling one of the lots along the Canal in 1884, Asa Robinson specified in the deed that the lot whose westerly line (i.e. the line along the canal passageway) was 45 feet distant from the Neponset Turnpike would be conveyed with restrictions.
The lot “is a portion of the Canal leading to Robinsons Tide Mill and is conveyed subject to the restriction that so long as said Tide Mill is maintained, no structure shall be erected upon the premises hereby conveyed, except on piles or posts and in such manner as not to interrupt and obstruct free passage and flow of the water to said Mill.”
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Created: February 5, 2017 Modified: February 5, 2017