Any photos not otherwise credited are from the personal collection of Frank Passic, Albion Historian.
Copyright 1990 by Frank Passic
This report is an historical review of the uses of Albion’s most prominent natural resource: the Kalamazoo River. Emphasis is given to the early development of our community when the river was widely used to power the various saw, planing, and grist mills along its banks. Later emphasis is given to the development of the river in recent years into parks and recreation areas.
Albion’s pioneers recognized the valuable resource the Kalamazoo River provided at “the Forks.” The river’s drop in elevation invited Albion’s early industrialists to build races and install power wheels for their equipment to grind grain and saw lumber. The harnessing of water power was a primary goal for Albion’s earliest settlers in the 1830s.
Of course, there were the typical uses for the river one might expect. One of these included a watering place for cows. Historian Donald Rousseau (1883-1973) wrote: “There were no houses from South Ionia Street to Berrien St. A Fence ran along the south side of E. Erie Street from Ionia Street to the race, with a gate so that a wagon could get to Silas Pardee’s cider mill. The area now known as Linden Avenue was a cow pasture. I remember standing on the south footbridge and watching three cows drinking in the river. Being a curious kid I went down to the river late one afternoon. An Albion College student came for the cows: two of them went to the home of the president of the college, and the third cow belonged to William H. Brockway.” 1
The river was also a place to wash clothes. Garfield Farley (1880-1972) recalled in 1957 how his grandmother Rosina (Blackmar) Farley washed clothes in the Kalamazoo River by Riverside Cemetery during the 1840s: “The water was so scarce at first that grandmother Farley would take her washing to the river once a week and wash ‘em in the river, and then hang them on the bushes to dry. When they got partially dry she’d take them home and iron them.” 2
The construction of the mill race west of the Kalamazoo River was a huge task. Local citizens erected a dam on the south branch of the river at the present site of the Victory Park waterfall, consisting of heavy oak planks. The mill race ran parellel to S. Ionia Street across E. Erie Street and behind the east side of S. Superior Street where the alley road [named Market Place] now runs.
In digging the race, planners constructed a narrow bank on the east side, reinforced by willow trees planted close together to hold the earth. To keep the muskrats from burrowing holes through the bank, tin clippings were spread on the east inside slope of the race. The path along the top of this east bank from E. Erie St. to the gates in present-day Victory Park was known as the “Willow Walk.”
Gates known as the “Black Gates” were situated adjacent to the dam, and the water was very deep. This portion of the race flowed through what is today Rieger Park skating pond towards the former Consumer’s Power Company powerhouse on E. Erie St.
The first water-powered business in Albion as a result of the building of the raceway was a sawmill erected in 1835 by Paul Tenney Peabody (1792-1856) and Wareham Warner (1779-1854), Albion’s earliest settlers. Mr. Warner soon sold his interest in the sawmill to Jesse Crowell and the Albion Company, which laid the plat for the fledgling community. [This sawmill was apparently located along the main river in the Market Place, as labeled “SM” for sawmill” according to the 1858 Plat Map. The 1886 “Bird’s Eye View of Albion shows a sawmill in the Market Place along the raceway just below the Brown Mill, and is illustrated here.]
Map showing Saw mill
Unlike today, water power surpassed all other sources of energy in its importance to citizens and industry during these early years. For example, note the low priority given to crude oil in this April 2, 1864 article from the "Albion Union Herald", describing the mill race construction by Jesse Crowell (1797-1872), “Albion’s Greatest Benefactor.” “Some twenty-two years ago, says the Detroit Tribune, Daniel Compton, who was employed by Jesse Crowell of Albion, in sinking a tail race for a grist mill, discovered a black oily substance oozing from the sand rock, several feet below the surface of the ground. Mr. Crowell’s attention was called to the fact, but he thought the black looking liquid was valueless. Mr. Compton and his comrade gathered two pailfulls of the crude oil and used it in lamps, and it burned freely. But the water was let into the race, and the matter was forgotten.” 3
The article mentions residents’ concerns about surface oil and oily well-water, but the nuisance would not be turned into opportunity until the city’s major oil boom in the 1950s. During the 1840s, water power was supreme.
Albion’s founding enterprise, the Albion Company, erected a grist mill which opened in September 1837. It was located on E. Erie Street where the [former] Consumer’s Power Company powerhouse building now stands. This structure, also known as the Brown Mill, proved to be a boon to Albion’s settlers. Previously residents had to take their grain to Ypsilanti to have it ground.
The Brown Mill was one of the oldest grist mills in the state of Michigan. The first millwright was Harlow Green, who unfortunately had the distinction of becoming the first person to be buried in Riverside Cemetery (1837). The Brown Mill was the first mill of Jesse Crowell, who is best known for building the Stone Mill on S. Superior Street in 1845.
The Brown Mill was destroyed by an unfortunate fire at 4 o’clock in the morning of February 9, 1883. The volunteer fire fighters arrived on the scene with all their necessary equipment, but because the captain had not yet arrived, no water was thrown because no one had the authority to give the orders to do so. The pump steamer was taken back to the fire engine house, and the mill was allowed to burn. The policy of “no chief, no water” was a common practice in the area during the mid-19th century.
The Brown Mill was subsequently rebuilt as the Red Mill, under the auspices of the Albion Milling Company, which also operated Jesse Crowell’s Stone Mill, and was in use until the turn of the century.
Jesse Crowell’s Stone Mill was erected in 1845, and soon became the most well know water-powered mill in Albion. The construction of the Stone Mill was a gigantic undertaking for those days, using stone from nearby quarries. The firm of J. Crowell & Co. was a synonym of strength, integrity and enterprise. The mill ran constantly, and the firm built up a flour trade which was known nationwide.
The Stone Mill was powered by overshot water wheels, which were used for thirty years. An American Turbine wheel was added in 1876 to supplement the original water wheels, and the latter were abandoned in 1878 when steam power was added.
Stone Mill & Elevator
The mill went into bankruptcy in 1871 and was sold to W. B. Knickerbocker of Jackson. Mr. Knickerbocker undertook a great modernization project and changed the operations to a complete roller process. A new brick elevator was erected north of the Stone Mill in 1881, which a capacity of 65,000 bushels. A Corliss Engine with a capacity of 200 horsepower was installed in the winter of 1885 and was placed in use in March, 1886. By the early 1890s, the capacity of the mill increased to 400 bushels every 24 hours, and the firm employed 24 men.
The business was incorporated as the Albion Milling Company, and in its later years was known as W. H. Nelson, Grain, Flour & Feed. The Stone Mill was sold in 1916 to the Commercial & Savings Bank, which reconstructed it into their new headquarters. The north elevator was sold to a cooperative, which moved it back in August and September 1917 to the east side of the alley [Market Place] behind S. Superior St. where the Eslow lumberyard once stood. That mill, now known as the Albion Elevator, still operates today [2002 update: The Albion Elevator building is scheduled to be demolished in 2002 to make way for a new Albion health clinic on the site].
Albion Elevator in May of 2002
Shortly after the Stone Mill was built, Lyman Munson erected a carding mill along the raceway in 1846, which produced processed rolls of wool brought in by farmers. It developed into a cloth factory, where the farmers had their wool made into cloth.
The business was purchased by Champion (1815-1880) and James (1836-1918) Eslow, who continued to card wool there, but soon they also opened a wagon factory, and a sash, door and blind factory on the site. The Eslow Planing Mill and Lumber Yard was erected to the north of the carding Mill. The saw and carding mill was located where the Albion Meat Locker is now located. The Eslow Mills smokestack was an Albion landmark for many years, located south of the present-day Albion Meat Locker where the road now passes through leading to Stoffer Plaza in the Market Place. Photographs taken of the great Flood of 1908 will often show the Eslow Mills smokestack in the distance.
Mention must be made of two other water-powered mills in the Albion area which were in existence in the late 1830s and early 1840s. Waterburg was a stagecoach stop four miles west of Albion on the Territorial Road (present-day Michigan Avenue west of Albion). It was here that Albionites had to travel to get their mail until 1838 when a post office was established locally. The Kalamazoo River flowed just south of the main road, and here a sawmill was erected in 1837 by Daniel Rossiter and Reuben Abbott, early Sheridan Township settlers. The mill unfortunately lost considerable amounts of money for its investors, and was closed. The structure was later destroyed by fire. Today, canoeists can still see the remains of the mill as part of a picturesque trip between Albion and Marengo.
The Newburg Mill on Newburg Road [which the county calls 29˝ Mile Road] just east of Albion was erected in the summer of 1843 by Edwin H. Johnson (1811-1887) and Marvin Hannahs (1796-1876). It was later sold and operated by John Marsters. Newburg Mill received its power from a large dam erected over the east branch of the Kalamazoo River, which formed a mill pond as the river flowed towards Albion. Newburg Mill served both as a grain mill and as a saw mill. Dr. Elmore Palmer, who grew up in the Newburg Road area, wrote in his 1908 “Biographical Sketches:” “The plant consisted of a grist and flouring mill, and a saw mill. There were three run of stone in the grist mill and one upright saw in the saw mill. The power was furnished by one large overshot water wheel. For many years after their erection these mills were known as “Hannahs’ Mills.” This was a favorite playground of the writer and the neighboring boys. About a quarter of a mile below these mills, the river widened and the water was about four feet deep. This constituted an ideal place for sheep washing; hardly a day passed during the month of June, that some of the surrounding farmers did not drive their flocks there to wash.” 4
Newburg Mill and river
Newburg Mill was acquired by the firm of Amsden & Clark and closed in the late 1890s. Newburg Mill burned April 17, 1903, with the damage estimated at $2,500. It was rumored that a band of gypsies or a couple of tramps had camped in the mill and made a bonfire on the dam to cook a meal, and left without entirely putting out the fire.
Newburg Mill Barn
In addition to the raceway constructed west of the Kalamazoo River utilizing the waters from the south branch, another raceway was dug, coming from the east branch. The raceway tapped the east fork of the Kalamazoo River at “Dutchtown” on S. Hannah Street just south of the present-day Albion College Athletic Field. This raceway continued on the east side of Linden Avenue, across E. Cass Street (which did not exist at that location until ca. 1870), and flowed back into the river by the present-day Lloyd Park. The digging of this raceway was quite an undertaking. The high ridge of land under Linden Avenue is actually man-made and was obtained from the digging of the race.
The Peabody Mill, also known as the Gothic Mill, was built in 1854 by Albion’s first settler, Paul Tenney Peabody, and by George Hannahs, Albion’s first village president and prominent banker. The mill was located on S. Monroe Street at the intersection with E. Porter Street across from where the Presbyterian Church now stands. Upon Tenney Peabody’s death in 1856, the ownership of the mill passed to his sons David and Walter. The mill continued in operation until it burned in the early morning hours of June 22, 1876.
Following the burning of the Peabody/Gothic Mill, Manley Amsden (1831-1912) and J. William Clark erected the White Mill in 1876, located at 203 E. Cass Street. Amsden had come to Albion in 1854, and was a well known millwright. He was a member of the board of public works for several years, and acted as superintendent of the water works when the city water system was installed. Mr. Clark was a civic leader who served as the last president of the village of Albion before it was incorporated as a city in 1885.
The building of the White Mill involved digging a new raceway extension from the old Peabody/Gothic Mill site. The site of the mill was originally Albion’s “cow pound.” Cattle were allowed to roam down to the river to drink, but had to be off the streets by 6 p.m. each evening. Any cow still roaming the streets was taken to the “cow pound,” and the owners had to pay a fine to get their animal back.
The White Mill
The White Mill was known throughout southern Michigan for its Victor-brand flour, a favorite of housewives for bread and pastries. Every grocery store in Albion handled this brand, and at times a dozen men were employed at the mill in grinding wheat into flour. Later, whole wheat pancake and muffin mixes were specialties of the mill, in addition to various types of pastry flour.
The Amsden-Clark partnership continued until Mr. Clark’s death in 1889, at which time a mill employee, Homer Campbell, purchased the Clark interest. The Amsden interest in the mill was sold in 1914 to Homer Pennell, who purchased the Clark interest in 1916. The mill was acquired by Louis R. Key from F. M. Peters in 1926. Keys was a Canadian miller who operated the White Mill with his son Lloyd until his death in 1946.
Before his death in 1956, Lloyd Key modernized the mill equipment, built two silos with a capacity of 10,000 bushels, and added an extension to the mill for storing an additional 5,000 bushels. The mill continued to use water power for its source of electricity, supplied by a generator in the basement. A diesel engine was installed in 1954 as a standby in the event of a water power failure. The White Mill was the last of the water-powered grain mills in Albion. Following Lloyd’s death in 1956, his wife Gladys continued to operate the mill for a short period of time. She was unable to find a buyer however, and closed the mill on August 24, 1957. With its closure, the era of water power in Albion ended.
The White Mill is best remembered as being illustrated in the classic 1908 flood photograph showing the E. Cass St. bridge in the foreground, with the raging waters of the Kalamazoo River almost to the top of the bridge.
The E. Cass Street Bridge during the 1908 Flood
The old White Mill stood vacant for 17 years, until a fire in May, 1974 resulted in the building being demolished. The rights to the raceway were purchased by Albion College, which now controls the water level from the dam at S. Hannah Street to the outlet at the corner of S. Monroe and E. Porter Streets. In March 1965, the mill race was filled in between E. Porter and E. Cass Streets, thus eliminating the possibility of any future water power use at the White Mill site. The Riverside Apartments were built on the location where the old mill race once flowed.
1974 White Mill fire
The White Mill site was purchased in 1974 by the Albion Civic Foundation and was developed into a small terrace type park named for Thomas T. Lloyd (1912-1978), a local industrialist and civic leader. The park utilized the stone foundations of the old White Mill. Lloyd Park opened in 1980 and has been the location of “Lunch at the Lloyd” Friday concerts by various musical groups.
Besides powering machines through waterwheels, the Kalamazoo River also provided Albion’s earliest source of electricity. In 1886, the Foote brothers from Jackson installed one arc light on S. Superior Street, which obtained its operating power from a dynamo attached to the water wheel at the Stone Mill. People came in wagon loads from Duck Lake and other places into Albion to view this spectacular phenomenon.
The Albion Electric Light Company was formed shortly thereafter, and was purchased by the Commonwealth Power Company in 1905. In 1910, the firm became known as the Consumers Power Company. Shortly after the turn of the century, the electric company purchased the old Red Mill on E. Erie St., which had been owned by the Albion Milling Company. Electric generators were installed, and this became the source of Albion’s water-power generated electricity.
The Red Mill/Powerhouse
At first, electric power was only available for street lighting purposes, but when the Red Mill generating facilities were placed into operation, electrical power was expanded. The first three businesses to receive electricity in Albion were: Bullen’s Big Busy Store, C. S. Tucker Dry Goods, and George Mitchell’s Confectionery. The use of electric power was expanded to 236 customers, using only 9˝ horsepower. All but two of that horsepower of current was used by the J. W. Brant Company, a manufacturer of patent medicines.
The Red Mill electric building was destroyed in a spectacular blaze on the evening of June 30, 1913, which caused $100,000 damage. Lightning had struck the building at 5:30 p.m., and within thirty minutes the building was completely engulfed in flames. Firemen were unable to put out the fire because water on the electric lines would have electrocuted them. The heat of the fire was so intense, according to reports, that those persons standing a block away were compelled to shield their faces.
Albion was plunged into total darkness, and the following day Albion’s factories were all closed, with the exception of the Cook Manufacturing Company which produced gasoline engines. Albion was without electric service for about a week, until a temporary power plant was installed. A heavy rainstorm caused the electricity to fail again a week later at the temporary plant, after a transformer fell.
A new power plant was soon erected on the site of the old Red Mill, water-powered with generators utilizing the raceway of the Kalamazoo River. Consumers Power Company continued to use its water-powered generators in Albion, but also brought in other electricity from outside Albion. A decision was made following World War II to abandon water-powered electricity here, and the powerhouse was converted into an electrical substation. Thus water-powered electricity in Albion came to an end.
Consumers Power Building
The mill race was filled in 1954. The portion of the race located in the Market Place became a parking area, and later Stoffer Plaza. In order to save money during a sewer construction project, the city of Albion used the old raceway to place sewer lines, thus reducing digging costs. The area just south of E. Erie Street across from the powerhouse was developed into Rieger Park, named in 1955 for city engineer Hugo A. Rieger. A portion of the upper raceway was incorporated by the city into Victory Park.
Filling in the Millpond
The need for responsible use of the Kalamazoo River has been recognized for many years. There have been several developments which have aided towards the betterment of its condition. In the 1930s a stone retaining wall was built through town with Works Progress Administration funding, providing a pleasant river boundary while at the same time allowing appropriate landscaping to be placed on its banks.
A sewage treatment plant was constructed in 1956, and opened February 15, 1957. This greatly reduced the problem of river pollution. The sewage treatment plant was part of an overall plan to remove storm waters from the sanitary sewer system, which formerly had been allowed to flow together into the Kalamazoo River.
Albion citizens joined the ecology movement of the 1970s by undertaking the Kalamazoo River Clean-Up, a special event held in April, 1970, in which local volunteers waded into the river and removed hundreds of foreign objects: glass, tires, bicycles, fenders, and other material. The Clean-Up was repeated several times in subsequent years.
A massive dredging of the south branch millpond form above the Victory Park waterfall all the way past Riverside Cemetery to Dalrymple Street--occurred during 1978 and 1979, removing tons of silt and debris which had accumulated over 140 years. The majority of the silt had accumulated due to the Homer dam breaking in 1908, and when the dam was removed during the 1960s. The dredging provided opportunities for new uses of the river, and Barnes Park was constructed along its banks on Water Street in honor of Truman Barnes, a long-time advocate of river clean-up.
Albion citizens have recognized the valuable resource the Kalamazoo River provides our community. Where saw and grist mills once stood and where electric power was once generated, parks and recreation areas have now reclaimed the river for the people of Albion, to be preserved in beauty and responsible use for future generations.
2. Garfield Farley, Albion Historical Society meeting tape recording, 5 February 1957. Return to article.
3. “Petroleum Discoveries,” Albion Union-Herald, 2 April 1864, pg. 1. Return to article.
4. Dr. Elmore Palmer “Biographical Sketches,” Albion Mirror, 25 September 1908, pg. 1 Return to article.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Albion Historian Frank Passic writes weekly history columns in the local Albion newspapers, and is the author of several books on the topic. He is a 1975 graduate of Spring Arbor College.
All text copyright, 2022 © all rights reserved Frank Passic