The Mills of Waterford

Waterford Mill 1909

Waterford Mill Sites in 1909 – Wisconsin Digital Collection.

Samuel Chapman and his father-in-law, Levi Barnes, came to this area in 1836 in search of decent water power potential knowing that it would be the engine of progress on which to build a thriving community. Refer to the EARLY HISTORY pages on this website for further detail.

At the heart of any new village, there must be a common endeavor for the settlers. In the pioneer days, it might have been mining excavations, farming,  fishing grounds, timber, or potential water power as was the case for Waterford. In 1836, Samuel Chapman, a young attorney from the Waterford area of New York, and his father-in-law, Levi Barnes, an itinerant preacher, were in search of a new opportunity in the western territory. In particular, they were in search of water power opportunities since they were well aware of a need to power the mills of commerce which produced basic products for the people who lived there.

The story is told in several narratives that they stopped in the LaPorte county area of Indiana, about 65 miles east of downtown Chicago, visiting some friends and did some inquiring about the new territory of Wisconsin which was about to be opened up for settlement. It is not known how long they were there. Further details of the early journey are developed in the OUR FOUNDERS section of this website. Since Wisconsin was a brand new territory, only stories could be passed along relating to what opportunities might exist since settlers were not allowed in until the Indians left under the September 26, 1833 Treaty. Under Article 3D, the Federal government regulations would allow surveying, but not settling, until 1836.

In an address before the Old Settlers Association of Racine County, of which he was a founding member, and as published in the Racine Journal on June 8, 1870, it states: “Mr. Chapman of Waterford was the next to address the audience. He described how he came to Racine, poor and unaided he worked his way through to Racine; he pictured Chicago in those days. We of a later date cannot imagine it. Chicago, the great and glorious metropolis of the west. A scattered hamlet. It seems impossible that there should be living now a man who had seen the Queen of the west in such humble life. He told of his trouble in getting to Waterford of being lost on the prairie and camping out overnight of two days travel to reach that spot. Two hours suffices now.”1

Upon arrival in Racine, inquiry set them on the Indian trail, two days ride west, to the Fox River – Indians named it Pishtaka.The EARLY HISTORY section covers the details of land acquisition.

Five Mill Sites were surveyed by Moses Vilas in 1845. The intent was to use the river and water power to build a dedicated area for commercial and industrial development. The Run-a-By canal, which diverted some of the water, and shown on the accompanying map, did not pass into Mill Site No.1.  The diversion canal allowed others to use the waterpower downstream from the dam.

1845 Mill Sites Clipped

1845 Survey Map by Moses Vilas – Racine County Register of Deeds Archives.

Water rights were sold on the basis of square inches of accessible flow, such as 200 inches, which would be an opening of 10 inches high by 20 inches wide or some combination thereof. The amount of water flow controlled the speed and torque of the waterwheel. It does not take a lot of water flow to develop the power necessary to turn the wheel because it uses the potential energy of the six foot head and the weight of many gallons of water to develop the power.

The present Waterford Library and Village Hall are overlaid on the 1845 Mill Site map to add a current perspective to the locations of old buildings while reading text for each site.

Overlay-Mills-Village bldgs2

Village buildings overlay on 1845 Survey Map – Overlay by R.E. Gariepy, Sr.

Research shows that the various sites were most likely intended to each have their own separate identity. However, they became carved up to accommodate the needs of the business owners and the space they needed.

As the seasons change, the water flow changes which changes the power available from the source – plenty of water in the spring but minimal in late summer.  As a result, the mill operators had to share the available water by scheduling the hours of access. This led to some of the mills to close while other businesses sprouted up that didn’t have a major dependence on the flow of water.

For almost 125 years, this short piece of shoreline on the Fox River was the heart and soul of the industrial activity in Waterford.

Each mill site is examined separately with access from the links below or the main menu.

The Dam

Mill Site No. 1

Mill Site No. 2

Mill Site No. 3

Mill Site No. 4

Mill Site No. 5

(Author’s note: Many sources have been researched to find as much factual information as possible. It is very scattered in multiple archives. However, we rely heavily on anecdotal writings to tell the story and sometimes there are inconsistencies in the sources describing the same places and time frames. We have made a great effort to provide accurate, relevant, and verifiable information to tell a timeline story with pictures and text – something that past chroniclers were not able to do. Should the reader have further contributions, please contact us at

Lead Researcher: Robert E. Gariepy, Sr.


  1. Racine Journal, June 8, 1870 edition.
  2. Wisconsin Gazetteer, 1853, p. 224.
  3. Racine County Register of Deeds Archives.
  4. Wisconsin Digital Collection – Waterford Public Library.