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Disaster: The Great Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane

On August 24, 1933, the great “Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane” passed through Delmarva creating havoc. Higher than normal tides washed out about a square mile of beaches along the Delaware coastline and road damage was about $150,000 (over 3 million today), after three bridges were wrecked along the DuPont Highway. Rainfall in nearby Bridgeville reached 13.24 inches and in Milford the dam at the railroad bridge on Silver Lake was sandbagged to strengthen it. The danger was so great that, at the height of the storm, officials checked with Ainsworth Abbott every half hour to make sure his dam was holding. Had it failed, the flood of water down Johnson’s Branch and the Mispillion River could have caused a domino effect on the dams on Haven Lake and Silver Lake, destroying much of downtown Milford.

Up until this time the mill had always been powered by a breast-shot waterwheel, similar to the one on the right. The waterwheel was outside at first, like this one, but at some point a room was built over it with a shed-roof. All wooden waterwheels require a lot of maintenance and many millers replaced them with turbines when they were able. Judging by the pictures below of the flood damage, this must have been what prompted Ainsworth to convert his mill to the turbine that's still there now. This would be no easy decision for him to make as just the turbine must have been a very expensive purchase. Of course he couldn't just tear out the old waterwheel and drop in a turbine, first he has to replace all the timbers in the picture below with a concrete "turbine well." Then there was the gearing that was needed to adapt the mill's horizonal line shaft to the new vertical turbine shaft.

The waterwheel would have been behind those large vertical timbers.

Undated pictures of the tail race, probably taken during the 1933 hurricane.

This is what that area looks like now. The turbine is inside the concrete area on the bottom-left, where the clean-out door is. Notice that several windows have since been added.

In the seven years following the hurricane Mr. Abbott also spent a very large sum of money for dam maintenance, mostly for what he called "sinders" (cinders) that were used to raise the dam's height.


Millstones occasionally needed to be sharpened, that is, the edges of the cutting furrow needed to be level and sharp to produce the best product. Often this was done by an itinerate stone dresser who traveled from mill to mill around Delmarva. However, Mr. Abbott, being a frugal man, learned to do it himself.

The E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Company's black powder factory along the Brandywine River closed in 1921, but in 1952 plans were made to open the site as a museum. Part of the Hagley Museum's exhibit includes old milling equipment, including a well used grist millstone, but they needed to find someone who could dress the face of it. Ainsworth Abbott certainly knew how to do it and he had the proper tools so he was employed to “hand-picked” their millstone. My guess is that it was the only time he had to wear safety glasses to do something he had probably done a hundred times without them.

In 1959 Mr. Abbott had an accident of some sort and fractured his left arm at the wrist. It was bad enough that Dr. Sills needed to use anesthesia to set it and he kept Mr. Abbott overnight in Milford Memorial Hospital. Ainsworth went home on July 10th with a cast on his arm. He was 74 years old at the time.

Mary Abbott passed away on January 17 1963 at the age of 73. Ainsworth sold the mill in October to Howard and Frances Killen and the next week the state of Delaware bought the house for $6,000 and then bought the mill for $10.00 in 1964. They acquired the pond in 1965 for another $10.00.

Ainsworth Abbott lived with his granddaughter in Magnolia until his death on February 20, 1969 at the age of 84. He and Mary are buried in the old Odd Fellows Cemetery on Walnut Street in Milford.


Our first monthly "Running of the Mill" tour this year starts at 1:00, 2:00 & 3:00 p.m. on this Saturday, March 20th. The tours are about 45 minutes long and are free for Delaware Nature Society members, $5 for all others. (No charge for children under 10.) During the tour you will see and hear the turbine and the millstones running and you will get to see the 102 year old Fairbanks-Morse diesel engine running.

To schedule a tour please call Matt at 302-422-0847 ext. 102.

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