By Kevin Wright
In an age of waterpower, Swartswood Lake drew attention as a potentially valuable mill seat. Millwrights knowingly searched for a sufficient volume and fall of water in hill country nearest the headwaters of a stream. Since pondage protected against seasonal fluctuations in stream flow, Swartswood Lake provided a natural regulator to ensure sufficient power in all seasons. Its watershed covers 16.3 square miles and was considered “a good example of successful utilization of a small water-shed for power by means of storage.” Drowning the narrow valley at the outlet of the lake created additional storage and a greater fall of water. About 1790, Charles Rhodes, Senior, selected a rocky hollow, where the outlet stream of Swartswood Lake makes a rapid descent, and erected his gristmill on land purchased from John Reading. The milldam raised the lake’s level between 4 and 5.5 feet, creating a 16-foot head to operate three run of millstones.
Charles Rhodes, Senior, died in February 1800, without leaving a will. Else Rhodes, Joseph Rhodes and Charles Rhodes, Jr., were named the administrators of his estate. When his real estate was divided in 1802, the Mill Lot went to son Charles. Charles Rhodes, of Vernon Township, died in 1818, devising the 18-acre Mill Lot to his son John. He sold 81 acres, including the mill, to George Keen in April 1824 for $3,200.
George Keen was born January 18, 1789, at Springdale, where he spent the first half of his life, perhaps at the gristmill there, coming to Swartswood when he was 35 years old. He built the extent stone gristmill in 1838 with three run of grinding stones. The mill operated on a 16-foot fall of water, using a “Pitch back” water wheel, 17 feet in diameter, making 20 revolutions per minute, and generating 30 horsepower. Mill gearing allowed the runner stones to turn at about 100 revolutions per minute.
Keen’s Mill was built on the model of Oliver Evan’s design for a fully automated flouring mill. A form of the bucket or gravity waterwheel, called a pitch back wheel, was selected, as it utilized the weight as well as the impact of the water. Since the water was delivered to the buckets of the pitch back wheels from above, their diameter could exceed the height of the waterfall. Unlike the overshot wheel, it had the advantage of turning in the direction of the current. To improve its efficiency, this variant of the breast wheel also turned within a close-fitting wooden apron, or “breast,” which held the water on the wheel to the bottom of the wheel’s revolution. Its large capacity and high efficiency was particularly suited to a merchant mill.
George Keen died on February 28, 1866, at 78 years of age. According to his obituary, “by a life of industry and integrity, he secured public confidence and became the proprietor of a valuable estate.” His son John W. Keen ground 50 bushels of grain per day in 1880. He owned the mill property until his death in December 1898 at 76 years of age. Being slightly deaf, he did not hear a locomotive whistle and drove directly into the path of a train approaching at high speed on the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad.
The children and heirs of John W. Keen sold the old mill at the outlet of Swartswood Lake to Dr. William H. Vail, of Blairstown, in March 1901 for $3,500. Dr. Vail acted in the interest of the Blairstown Electric Light Company, which hoped to use this “valuable acquisition for future dry periods.” The dam was to be raised to control the outflow as soon as possible. The water in Swartswood Lake was to be kept at the high water mark and this enormous reservoir drawn from as needed for power for the electric light plant at Paulina.
The Great Flood of February 26, 1902, washed out the milldam. Charles H. Crisman, a Branchville mill owner, superintended the building of a new dam with heavy timbers in July 1903. Dr. Vail had the wooden door and window frames of the gristmill replaced and he thoroughly overhauled the interior of the gristmill, equipping it with modern machinery. A slate roof was put on the building.
In 1903, Charles Crisman removed the waterwheel and installed a turbine. This is a rotary reaction wheel, which operates from the reactive pressure of the water upon the surfaces of guides or passages from which it issued. The turbine not only operated submerged, but with greater efficiency and economy that the more cumbersome waterwheel. The purpose of the 1903 alterations to Keen’s Mill remains unclear. Charles H. Crisman also operated the hydroelectric plant that supplied Branchville. At this time, many country towns were similarly provided with electric power from obsolete gristmills.
Whatever the economic motivation, the conversion did not succeed. Dr. Vail sold the mill property to the trustees of the Blairstown Presbyterial Academy in May 1904 for $4,000. They owned it until January 1969. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection acquired Keen’s Mill in July 1976.