The image of Peirce Mill, a simple stone structure standing at a key transportation crossroads in Rock Creek Park, is well-known to residents of Washington D.C. and the metro area. Hundreds of bikers, hikers, picnickers, and bird-watchers pass it by on weekend outings, when some of the park roads are closed, and thousands drive by each day in the morning and evening rush hours. Yet few people know either its name or its history. Peirce Mill is a survivor, the last remnant of a 19th century complex of at least eight mills that once operated along Rock Creek in the District of Columbia. Founded by former Quakers who had emigrated from Chester County, Pennsylvania, Peirce Mill was the core of an estate of close to two thousand acres that stretched from Linnaean Hill (near what is now Tilden Street, and was once Peirce Mill Road) in the south, almost to the present Maryland border in the north.
Peirce Mill has been called "a symbol of the nineteenth century, when America was predominantly rural and major industries were devoted to transporting, processing, and selling the produce of the land." It was built in the 1820s, on the site of an earlier mill, by Isaac Peirce, a first cousin to the Peirces who created what became the famous Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania. Constructed with stones quarried from nearby Broad Branch, the complex included, in addition to the mill, a carriage barn, distillery, saw mill, spring house, nursery, and residence.
The mill pioneered early industrial innovations, incorporating labor saving devices developed around 1800 by noted inventor Oliver Evans, including grain elevators, screw augurs, and a hopper boy, all driven by power take-offs from a vertical shaft geared to the water wheel. For much of the time between 1829 and 1900 there was a dam on Rock Creek some 300 feet upstream from the mill. An open trench or "mill race" channeled water to the water wheel which powered the milling machinery.
Business was brisk through the Civil War, but thereafter market forces shifted burgeoning milling operations in the District of Columbia to the more favorably sited George Town waterfront and, later, to the Midwest and its fabled fields of grain. After a major breakdown of the machinery in 1897, the mill closed down for all time as a business enterprise.
Not long after Congress created Rock Creek Park in 1890 as a natural preserve and "pleasuring ground", private lands, including the mill, were incorporated into its boundaries. A busy era of road-building accommodated slow-paced scenic outings in carriages and early automobiles. The mill, surrounded by roadways and isolated from its landscape environs, became a popular picturesque attraction.
Between 1904 and 1935 the mill was leased to a series of concessionaires who operated it as a tearoom. Most of the machinery was removed and disposed of. In 1935, the mill was restored as part of a Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) project using authentic wooden machinery from old mills in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Flour produced in the mill was used in government cafeterias during the 1930s and 1940s. Many local residents still remember childhood visits to the mill during this period and can recall the sounds of the whirring machinery and the smell of freshly milled flour.
Following further restoration work in the late 1960s, the operating mill was open for visitors throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and samples of wheat flour and corn meal were available for sale. But in recent years, Peirce Mill has faced the real threat of irreversible decline. Rot in the water wheel shaft caused damage to the gears and shut down the mill in April, 1993, and the National Park Service lacked funds for repair and restoration. Visitation decreased significantly, and hours of operation were reduced.
Despite changes over time, the sturdy exterior and interior retain the authentic appearance and atmosphere of a 19th century grist mill, with its original 1820s-era stone walls, authentic wooden milling machinery, hand-hewn beams and columns, and heavy oak floor boards.
Copyright ©1999-2004 Friends of Peirce Mill.