Early sawmills in New England

Sawmill at the Village of Glenns
A view of a sawmill

Sawmills in New England 1600-1900: A Brief Overview

Sash-type sawmills have been known for centuries starting in continental Europe in the 13th or 14th century, and were a feature of the New England landscape since the earliest years of European settlement—the first water-powered sawmills in New England were built near Berwick, Maine in the 1630s. In England, pit sawing by hand remained the predominate method of converting logs to lumber throughout the seventeenth century. In the American colonies, there was a shortage of labor, but hundreds of streams and rivers ripe for exploitation as power sources. In order to utilize the vast forests of the New World and supply the need for building materials in the growing country, sawmills (and other mills) were eventually built on nearly every source of moving water—by 1840 there were about 5,500 sawmills in New England, with nearly 700 in Connecticut alone.

Most of these sawmills were on small scale with a single saw, and were part of the local economy. On the large rivers of northern New England, especially Maine, however, sawmills with multiple or gang saws processed millions of feet of lumber annually both for shipment to major New England cities and for export.

The thousands of sawmills in New England for about 200 years beginning in the 1630s used essentially a single technology—a wooden waterwheel with a crank connected by the ‘pitman’ arm to a wooden sash (frame) in which was mounted a straight saw blade. The reciprocating motion of the vertically mounted saw results in the characteristic straight “up and down” saw marks on boards and timbers cut on these sash-type sawmills.

Sawmill technology changed significantly and continually during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. In 1800, essentially all sawmills were of the sash-type, with the wooden building and structural components of the saw mechanism made locally by the millwright (excepting the steel saw blade, iron crank, and a few other parts). Through the nineteenth century, more sawmill parts began to be manufactured from iron and could be purchased from a mill supplier—for the 1870s-era Ledyard mill, this includes an iron water turbine, iron shafting and gears, and iron friction rods upon which the saw sash moves. A larger change in mill technology, however, was the use of circular, rather than straight, saw blades starting around 1830; by the 1880s circular saws had replaced nearly all the sash sawmills. As these changes were occurring, the development of reliable and affordable steam engines resulted in the dominance of this power source by the early twentieth century—the use of steam power also allowed the development of portable circular sawmills which could be set up near the timber to be harvested.

Header image courtesy of the Ledyard Historical Society from the 1866 Ledyard, Connecticut tax record book. Janice W. Bell Historical Research Room, Bill Library, Ledyard, Connecticut.