NIAGARA DISCOVERIES: Water-powered industry in Newfane

COURTESY NIAGARA HISTORY CENTERA postcard showing the Newfane Basket Company on Eighteen-Mile Creek in Newfane, circa 1910.

Last week Niagara Discoveries looked at the early history of Eighteen-Mile Creek in Niagara County. It was since pointed out that Van Horn’s Mill was upstream, not downstream, from the mouth of the creek, and that the two branches of the creek come together near Wrights Corners to create the northern part of the creek rather than separating at that point to form the two branches. I apologize for any confusion this may have caused.

With the return of former residents, and new settlers moving into the area following the end of War of 1812 in 1815, the importance of Eighteen-Mile Creek grew substantially. By building small dams and constructing raceways, water from the creek was diverted and harnessed for power to operate water wheels and machinery. Traveling upstream from Olcott, many mills were built along the creek as far as Lockport.

In what is now Newfane, James Van Horn rebuilt his grist mill in 1817 and six years later began construction of a large brick home on the bank above the creek. Although the mill burned in the 1830s, the house is still standing as the Van Horn Mansion. After that fire, Van Horn again rebuilt his grist mill and later it became known as the “Lake Shore Mills.” The Van Horns stayed in the milling business until 1894, more than 80 years after their first mill had been built.

Other mills on the creek in Newfane, built after the War of 1812, were the Charlotte Grist Mill (1835), Adam Grist Mills (1835) and Tompkins Grist Mill (1869), which was built on the site of the Adam mills. Ira Tompkins, who had started out with the Van Horn Mill, was a millwright by trade and built many of these mills before erecting and operating his own mill in 1869.

To all of these mills were later added sawmills. Local lumber was still plentiful in Niagara County in the years after the War of 1812 and raw timber and processed wood products such as staves were sent down the creek to Lake Ontario for shipment elsewhere.

Two woolen mills were also located on the creek, the first one started by James Van Horn in 1841, and then the Charlotte Woolen Mill, opened in 1863. Van Horn’s woolen mill closed in 1874 but the Charlotte Mill continued until 1891, when it was acquired by the Lockport Felt Mill.

The Newfane Basket Company opened in 1887 adjacent to a dam on the creek. The company still exists today as Newfane Lumber.

Due to the many mills located between Olcott and Charlotte, the area became known locally as “Millville.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, two events occurred relating to Eighteen-Mile Creek in Newfane.

In February 1883, an unseasonably warm, rainy day caused an ice jam on the creek that let loose and traveled downstream toward Olcott. Water and ice caused the creek to rise about 15 feet above normal, damaging or destroying whatever was in its path. Although several mills were damaged, it was the bridges across the creek that bore the brunt of the flood. An iron bridge at Charlotte, constructed just four years earlier, was brought down as was the six year old RW&O (Hojack) iron railroad bridge. An approaching train was stopped in time, avoiding what could have been a catastrophic accident.

The second event that took place had a much more positive effect on the town. In the last years of the 19th century, the Lockport Felt Mill was generating enough electricity from its small dam and generator to supply the nearby hamlet of Charlotteville with electric power for a few homes and businesses. By the early years of the 20th century, the demand for electricity had grown beyond what that mill could produce. A new, larger dam was built near the mill but within 20 years even that was not enough. In 1925, the Burt Dam was completed, enabling electric power to be generated and transmitted to the whole town of Newfane and nearby communities.

Ironically, it was the advent of electric power generated by the dam that spelled the end of the milling era on Eighteen-Mile Creek. Factories and other industries no longer needed to be near a water source for their operations and eventually moved away from the creek to areas where they had more room to expand.

Over the past almost 100 years, the northern end of Eighteen-Mile Creek has gradually become cleaner and is now a popular waterway for fishermen and recreational boaters.

NEXT WEEK: Eighteen-Mile Creek in Lockport.

Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.

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