Rain garden/artifical wetland Queens Plaza East S

The Millstones in Queens Plaza

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

Two historic millstones were extracted from the pavement at Queens Plaza and installed in this new landscape, only several hundred feet from the site of the first watermill in Queens – and very likely the mill that once used these stones.  Their survival is credited to generations of citizens who sought to preserve them in the face of a rapidly changing landscape, first apparent with the arrival of the railway in the 1860s.   Displayed here among the plantings and benches, the stones are a tangible link to the rural past of western Queens.

The stones are the remains of a tidal gristmill used to grind locally grown corn and grain into flour.  Millstones worked in pairs.  Placed one on top of the other with their engraved surfaces or ‘dressing’ facing each other, the lower or ‘bed stone’ remained stationary while the upper or ‘runner’ stone was turned by an axle.  Grain was funneled in between the stones.  As the runner stone rotated over the bed stone, the matching ridges of the dressing met like blades of scissors. Though the stones never touched, their ridges cracked the shell of the grain, producing a meal or flour.  The flour ran out through the furrows of the stones into sacks. 

Mills were key engines of growth in the early colonies and multiplied in number up until the arrival of the Erie Canal in the 1830’s.  At first, colonists imported millstones from Europe.  The stones were engraved with traditional patterns of dressing.  These patterns varied depending upon where they were made.  Colonial millers used these dressings for generations and reproduced them as they began to quarry and carve their own millstones circa 1730.  The patterns did not change over time, for which reason they cannot be used to date a millstone.  But they do tell us something about the millwright (or one who established the mill) who acquired them.  Dutch and German millstones had a curved or sickle-shaped dressing, like a pinwheel.  English millstones had a ‘quarter-dress’ pattern that was divided into quadrants with straight lines of various lengths.  French millstones, the most enduring and expensive of all, were imported to the colonies -- George Washington had a pair -- but they bear little relation to the millstones in question.  The millstones displayed here resemble a conglomerate rock quarried in Ulster County and may have been locally produced sometime between 1730 and 1860, though further research is needed.  Their dressing is an English-style ‘quarter-dress’ pattern, suggesting that the stones were acquired by or from an English millwright.

A tidal gristmill was built alongside an inlet where it harnessed the power of the tides to turn the millstones.  From Newtown Creek up to Bowery Bay, the coastal marshland of western Queens was shaped by meandering inlets that fed into the East River.  Although unfavorable for settlements or farming, these waterways were attractive locations for tide mills.  Despite the exhaustive demands of creating and maintaining one, mills were often lucrative, providing basic necessities for settlement and prompting the growth of roads and even villages.  By 1770 some five tide mills could be found along the coast of western Queens, servicing the hamlets of Dutch Kills, Ravenswood and Astoria, which later joined to form Long Island City.  Up until the 1830’s when the Erie Canal opened up grain production from the mid west, these mills performed an essential service for these developing municipalities.

The earliest tide mill in western Queens was located at present-day 41st Avenue and Northern Boulevard, just inside of the Sunnyside Rail Yards.  Built in the late 1640s by a Germanic settler (from Silesia) named Burger Jorissen, the mill sat at the headwaters of the Dutch Kill, a tidal inlet that feeds into Newtown Creek and out into the East River.  As was the practice, the millwright dammed the inlet to create a reservoir or mill pond to collect the tidewater.  Adjacent to the inlet he built a ‘raceway’ or ‘sluice’ to direct the water from the mill pond to the waterwheel.  The constant movement of the tides created a rhythm of work all year round, turning the millstone twice a day for about five hours each time.

Jorissen’s mill was demolished in 1860 when a new rail line was built through the site.  The mill had endured some 200 years and some untold number of millstones (each with a normal working life of about 25 years).  The small canal-like sluice survived for several decades after, and was known locally as ‘Burger’s Sluice’.  Today, there is an echo of Burger’s Sluice in the drainage corridor under the pedestrian bridge in the newly planted landscape where water is conserved and reused. 

Millstones were tools of an artisanal culture that time has since left behind.  Only our habits of speech, with their rustic references to mills and millstones, remind us how elemental milling once was.  Now in this new setting, these millstones are like ambassadors from the past, offering a glimpse of what once was state of the art technology.

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  • The Millstones In Queens Plaza

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