Grist Mill Trail Self-Guided Hike

Orange Grove Flour Mill and B & O Railroad on the Grist Mill Trail

2.2 miles

The Community of Orange Grove, circa 1900 (now the Orange Grove Parking Lot):

Many of the sounds that you hear at this location now are strikingly similar to those heard here a century before: sounds like the wind in the trees, the passing of water over the rocks in the streambed, and perhaps children playing in the field. Occasionally, these sounds are drowned out by a passing train. However, there are also many differences in sounds at this location compared to the early 20th century. Instead of hearing the sound of passing cars and bikers, other sounds such as water gently passing over a wooden dam and the rumble of heavy machinery could be heard. Children too played here then, but passing steam locomotives, not diesels, drowned their voices out.

In the location of the Orange Grove parking lot, stood the Orange Grove Community in the early 1900's. Orange Grove had seven houses and a combination church/school, all lined up in more or less straight row along the Patapsco River. The Orange Grove flour mill, located across the river, owned all of these houses (save one). Occupying these houses were, of course, the mill workers and their families. On today's scale, many of these families were quite large. Of the 43 people living in the town, 20 of them were considered children. According to Thomas Phillips, who grew up here, the town (and much of the river valley for that matter) was open as a magnificent playground. Most children today can only imagine such a place to play, not because there were a lot of expensive toys, but because the area provided such a great opportunity for mischief and fun.

The Swinging Bridge:

In order for the mill workers to commute to work every morning (or evening if they worked the night shift), they had to cross this bridge. Though that may seem quite obvious, it is difficult for us to realize how vital the presence of this bridge was. When the workers were without it, they were forced to take a buggy (or walk) two miles up the river to Ilchester, then catch a train and ride it back down to the mill, ultimately to get 100 yards from where they had started. The river was deeper a hundred years ago and, in the winter, it was very cold so wading across the river would have been unwise. After operating for about two years, the Orange Grove Flouring Mills Co. built this bridge to make the commute more reasonable. The bridge has been replaced 3 or 4 times through the years after natural disasters such as floods and ice flows. Cross the bridge to arrive at the site of the former Orange Grove Flour Mill.

The Orange Grove Flour Mill:

In front of you, on the hill below the railroad tracks, are the remains of the original section of the Orange Grove flour mill, or, as it was technically known. Mill C of the C.A. Gambrills Manufacturing Company. Built between 1856-1860, this section was about four stories high with several windows, called dormers, on the roof. The original mill was known as a grist type mill. Put simply, it was a mill that used massive stones to grind the raw wheat into flour, like the model shown in the Offutt Johnson Visitor Center. This was the most common type of flour mill used in the United States before the 1870s.

Behind you, and up the river a short distance, stood the wooden dam that was used to channel water to the water wheel, the mill's source of power (just like the model). The water was channeled through the millrace, over the wheel and out of another little canal called a tailrace, back to the river. The small stone wall above the sewage pipe line below is one of the remaining walls of this structure.

The Power House:

Up the hill remains the only obvious sign that heavy industry once existed here. It is the remains of the old railroad drop-shoot that allowed railroad hoppers to unload their coal and/or grain into the mill. Over the years, the mill grew in size and complexity. The first improvement came in the form of a steam engine that was installed in 1873. The steam engine converted water into steam, and it could produce much more power than the old water wheel. This improvement was in a building that stood directly in front of you. It was about four stories, with a massive smoke stack mounted on its front. The stack may have topped 10 stories in height.

Another upgrade came 10 years later when the old grist mill stones (used for grinding wheat into flour) were replaced by more modern steel equipment known as "rollers". During this upgrade, two stories of attic space were added to the original building to your left. As a result, Orange Grove became one of the most productive flour mills east of the Mississippi River, ultimately reaching its peak production in the 1890s.

The Grain Storage Facility and The Fire:

Among the improvements made during the mill's heyday was a tall grain storage warehouse, called an "elevator" that measured about seven stories in height. This portion of the ruins is easily distinguishable from the rest of the facility by closely looking at the remains of the stone wall. Here the stones are larger with a more rectangular pattern.

Life in Orange Grove changed forever on May 1st, 1905 when a fire swept through the entire facility (and neighboring out buildings), completely destroying it. The warehouse was completely destroyed (save the back wall), but the shell of the rest of the mill managed to survive. However, after nearly a century of constantly dealing with the elements (most notably floods) much of the structure has vanished since.

River Road on the Baltimore County Side:

Before the great flood of 1868, there was a "river" road that ran along the Baltimore County side of the Patapsco River. Though this road was never rebuilt, it did have a unique feature during its last dozen years of existence. In order for the road to pass the Orange Grove Mill complex, it could neither run around it, nor over it. So, to solve this problem, it was decided that the road would merely go through it! During the mill's early years, before all the improvements were made, a large tunnel was constructed on the base level of the mill building in order to allow the road to pass. According to some witnesses, it was a remarkable sight to see a 19th century buggy pass into this rumbling structure, only to come out the other side unscathed.

Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Bridge and Retaining Wall:

After crossing the Sawmill Branch stream, begin looking for a granite block retaining wall that holds up the earthen berm supporting the modem CSX railroad. Several walls can be seen within 0.3 miles of Sawmill Branch. As the trail progresses, it moves increasingly close to a retaining wall with some interesting clues about railroad history. In 1829, America's first commercial railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio, or B&O, constructed its first "Main Line" up the banks of the Patapsco Valley. Though its commercial success was not guaranteed when it first began construction outside the city of Baltimore in 1828, it's directors and engineers were convinced that their enterprise was destined to be the great gateway to the west. As a result, the company decided to build an "all stone" railroad with expensive earth fills and stone bridges that would stand the test of time. Ultimately, this philosophy would prove correct in the sense that many of the original structures built have survived for over a century and a half. However, building such magnificent structures (like the Thomas Viaduct) also proved to be a luxury the fledgling railroad couldn't afford. So, many of the railroads' early years were spent in debt, and the railroad would not begin to prosper until it finally reached its goal, the Ohio River, in 1853 (25 years after the railroad was started!).

The large retaining walls and rock cuts (above the tracks) were constructed in the late 1820s. Most of these earthworks were created without any dynamite or TNT, but merely with hands, chisels, and axes. In building the stone walls, often primitive cranes and pulley systems were used. The process was very dangerous and stones sometimes crushed workers when the pulleys gave way.

During the 1800s, the railroad constantly had workers walking along and riding along the track to make sure it was well maintained. To do this, workers used a hand- powered car that was kept on a sidetrack down by the Orange Grove Mill. The railroad workers used to allow the children at Orange Grove to ride on and occasionally power the handcar on the siding for fun.

Bloede's Dam:

In 1906, a year after Orange Grove burned, a new dam was built along the Patapsco River. It was named after the president of the Patapsco Electric and Manufacturing Company, a German immigrant named Victor G. Bloede. This dam was the first hydroelectric dam built in the U.S. to house all its electricity generating machinery inside. Its experimental design was caused by the constraints of its location. Building a higher dam would have caused the many communities upstream to be flooded, and the electric company did not have the money to buy up all the property in the valley. So, with no alternative available, a revolution in hydroelectric dam construction was initiated.

The dam extended 220 feet across the river.It was 40 feet tall and its spillway was 168 feet wide. The Entire structure was built with reinforced concrete (another technological breakthrough) and 19 buttresses (support arches) were built inside the dam to keep it from collapsing. The power plant received nationwide (and worldwide) attention from hydroelectric engineers, and its design was studied and described in many scientific journals of the era.

However, because the dam was in many ways a prototype, its machinery and equipment soon became obsolete. The modern Baltimore Gas & Electric Company shut the facility down in 1924, less than 20 years after it was built. The dam was removed in 2019.

Railroad Stringers (along abandoned B&O right-of-way):

Looking down you will see what appears to be an ordinary section of worked stone that could have come from a long since abandoned building foundation. However, that is not the case. Instead, what you are looking at is the remains of an original section of track from the early B & O. This is an example of where the company directors took the idea of building a permanent railroad to the extreme. Rather than using wooden ties, the B & O used stone "sleepers". The sleepers were laid end to end in two parallel rows.

On the inside of the line of stones a flat piece of iron known as a strap rail was laid atop the stones and bolted into place. This was where the wheels of train cars rode.

Unlike many railroad culverts and bridges, the strap rail track did not stand the test of time. In fact it proved to be an unnecessary expense that the B & O could have done without. As the locomotives and trains became increasingly heavier, the iron rails proved too weak. Also, when the iron rail expanded and contracted with the changes in season (like the gaps on highway bridges), the stone sleeper underneath did not expand and contract with it. As a result, after a few years of being in the elements, the tracks became a major hazard due to their tendency to warp and bend out of gauge.

Perhaps the only notable thing that can be said about this early track was that it was set at four feet and eight and one-half inches apart. This gauge would ultimately become the standard gauge used by all railroads in the United States.

The Grist Mill trail and the historical tour you are taking ends at the former Patterson Viaduct, a stone arched bridge that spanned the river at Ilchester. The viaduct was completed in the early 1830's. While floods have removed most of the bridge, the bridge abutments remain intact. The railroad was later re-routed through the Ilchester Tunnel in order to straighten its windy path to accommodate longer, heavier trains.

Thistle Cotton Mill (from Ilchester Rocks Overlook, follow directions in the Trail Access section for the side trail):

Manufacturing products by machines increased productivity exponentially during the 19th century—a field that was pioneered by the British and largely perfected by Americans. Consider straightening out the fibers of a cotton ball to make a long continuous stream. How tedious would this be to make a shirt, or even a sock, by slowly making each string by hand then weaving them together into a cloth. Unless you took your time, how consistent would the thickness of your shirt be? Machines allowed something as simple as a cotton shirt to be manufactured in a much more efficient way.

Cotton milling became one of the first major industries to employ machinery on a grand scale, whereby giant room-size machines were brought in and operated by an army of workers- usually about 100 or so. Often a lot of these workers were young children. Girls were especially preferred, but boys too were hired in large numbers. Cotton mills were relatively harsh places to work. Machines were set up in ways where workers had to bend over and crawl around in order to operate them "properly."

Cotton milling was a major industry in the Patapsco River Valley. Between Avalon and Daniels, about seven miles up river, there were as many as five cotton mills in operation during the mid-1800s.

This particular mill, in the valley below, was known as the Thistle cotton mill, and it was founded in the 1830s. Like most of the cotton mills, its workers lived in houses owned by the company. The company rented out the houses at a discount, which then allowed the mill owners to pay the workers small salaries. Typical salaries were $2 dollars a day for men, $1 dollar a day for women, and maybe 75 cents for a child worker during the mid-1800s. Fortunately, prices for food and clothing were not as high back then so the people could buy more with a lot less, but the pay was still very small.

The town, which was also called Thistle, was on the hillside to your right. The town had its own general store that sold groceries as well as a few luxuries like furniture and clothes. Some of the buildings from the town are still in existence, but if you ever drive up (or ride up) Hilltop Road you'll see more stone foundations than existing buildings. The mill itself has never ceased to operate.

The river valley becomes a park:

The Patapsco River valley has changed dramatically in its appearance over the past two centuries. These changes are a product of how our society has developed different views on how the valley is most useful. Waterpower became obsolete as a power source for factories. Being located in a river valley, there was always a liability because of flooding. Industries moved away from the river, and the Patapsco River valley for the most part no longer breeds new industry. The river is now valued for its recreation, wildlife habitat, and riparian buffer for its watershed. In 1907 Patapsco Forest Reserve, the precursor to Patapsco Valley State Park, was established as a river playground. Throughout the ensuing years new land acquisitions have expanded the park to make it the nearly 21,000-acre public land that it is today.

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