The Bemis Dam: A Forgotten Link to Our Industrial Past

 
Looking at the Charles River today, it is hard to imagine that it was once the only source of power for a wide variety of mills and "manufactories" clustered around the dams at nearly two dozen locations between Hopkinton and Watertown. At most of the sites, a dam, usually of fairly recent construction, is still there. In Newton, the best-known are those that gave rise to the mill villages at Lower and Upper Falls, which have tended to divert attention from the less imposing structure at Bridge Street in Nonantum. Thus, the number of "firsts" and features, unique in their time, that are associated with the Bemis Mills are often overlooked.

Paper-making in Newton is usually associated with Lower Falls, but it was at the dam built by David Bemis and Enos Sumner in 1778 that the first paper mill on the Charles went into operation. By the time Bemis died in 1790, he owned snuff and gristmills in Watertown, as well as the paper mill on the Newton side of the river. His estate was divided among his three sons: Isaac (who died four years later), Luke, and Seth. It was Seth who was responsible for the experiments and innovations of the next half century.

Graduating from Harvard in 1795, Seth spent a short while in a lawyer's office before abandoning the profession for the more attractive possibilities offered by America's burgeoning industrial revolution. Leaving Luke to run the paper mill in Newton, Seth bought his share on the Watertown side, and for the next few years he carried on experiments in the production of chocolate and the processing of dyewoods and medicinal roots. (The latter, some three decades before Samuel Clarke's ill-fated Newton Chemical Company on Cold Spring Brook in what is now the Newton Cemetery, was probably another Newton first.)

Another of Seth Bemis's time savers was a machine that picked over the cotton in preparation for carding, a slow and expensive process hitherto done by hand. The machine, nicknamed "the devil," was not popular with neighborhood residents deprived of a livelihood.

In common with other New England manufacturers, Seth reaped what advantage he could from what factory owners considered a misguided trade embargo and from the War of 1812. In about 1808, he started up a mill in Watertown for making various kinds of cloth: sheeting, satinet, shirting, and ticking as well as--on the advice of a Boston ship-owner--cotton duck, which had previously been imported. This product, a local first, was used extensively during the war.

What was perhaps his most unusual "first" dates from the fall of 1812, when, while working with an "English expert," Seth Bemis started extracting gas from coal and using it to light his Watertown factory. The experiment was short-lived. Because the "unsavory material" leaked out of the tin pipes, the method had to be abandoned. Nevertheless, while it lasted, many of the curious visited the factory to inspect the first illumination by gas in this country, two years ahead of the first use of carbureted hydrogen for lighting in England.

In 1821, Seth bought the paper mill from Luke. Soon after, he built the rolling stone-dam, unique in this country (the only other known example anywhere is near Warwick Castle in England). Precisely how it worked is not clear, but it seems that the height of the dam was controlled by a mechanically-operated drum that could be rolled up and down the inclined face of the stone dam. Soon after the dam was installed, Seth's upstream neighbor, the Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham, complaining that the river was backing up to its waterwheels and impeding their operation, paid him $12,000 to reduce the height of the dam by a foot.

Seth Bemis continued to operate the mills on both sides of the river until 1848, sometimes alone, sometimes with others, notably his brother Luke. His son, Seth Jr., was largely responsible for the success of the dye works, and took over the management of all the mills on both sides of the river when his father died in 1849.

The previous year, Seth Sr. had sold the dye works to William Freeman. In 1860, Seth Jr. sold Freeman the textile mill (the paper mill had ceased operation in the 1820s), and in 1862 Freeman was one of the principals who incorporated the Aetna Mills. When the dye works came to an end, some of the power generated in Newton was transmitted to the mills in Watertown by an endless wire rope attached to the waterwheels on each side of the river.

Several additions were made to the mills during the years that followed, but part of Seth's early building remains. The dam, now one of the oldest on the river, is under the care and control of the Metropolitan District Commission. It was breached in the 1940s, and in 1974 the Commission was persuaded not to rebuild it and to leave the breach as a passage for anadromous fish.