News of the San Gabriel Valley since 1966.

‘TIME JOCKEY’: Mill Restoration

by Joe Castillo

Reluctant Pirate….

  The San Gabriel Mission would end up as the most prosperous of the California Missions. Its proximity to the growing Los Angeles commercial center and strategic location on the El Camino Real between Monterey and Mexico spurred its growth. With the fertile lands of the San Gabriel Valley, easily accessible labor in the form of the local indigenous people and the farming and agricultural knowledge of the colonizing Spanish, the Mission had all the components for being self-sustaining. Only one thing was missing, a reliable water source. Without water, the Spanish would be unable to grow its numerous crops, orchards, vineyards and feed its large collection of livestock. Joseph Chapman was an American carpenter and blacksmith from Maine and would eventually travel to the Hawaiian Islands. Captain Bouchard, an Argentine pirate, abducted Chapman and forced him into service. Bouchard began to scout the California coast and initiated land raids in November 1818. But the Spanish suppressed the attacks, captured Chapman and imprisoned him in Monterey.  He was sentenced to be confined to a prison cell for an extended period of time and was destined to complete his sentence. However, knowledge of his engineering skills caught the ears of his Spanish captives. Chapman was requested to construct some buildings for the Spanish and when he agreed, he recognized an opportunity to secure his freedom.  While working at the Mission San Buenaventura, Chapman married Guadalupe Ortega of Santa Barbara and converted to Catholicism in the process. He was sent to the Mission San Gabriel the following year, and began to work for the Franciscan Missionaries on engineering projects. One of his projects was to build a new mill for the Mission, which had constructed a mill in present day San Marino but it proved to be inadequate for the grinding of corn and other grains. Chapman recognized that the mill needed to be constructed closer to the Mission itself, and identified a location about 150 yards to the south of the main Mission building. Chapman recognized that he needed water to operate the mill and turn its heavy grist wheels, and so he completed a series of ditches or zanjas from Lake Vineyard to the Mission mill. The Mill was completed in 1823 and operation continued for the next 25 years until the water source eventually dried up. In 1874, the Southern Pacific Railroad surveyed a path just south of the Mission building, cutting off all water sources. In 1941, after years of deterioration and inactivity, the mill was bulldozed to make way for a new housing tract. As part of the Alameda Corridor Trench Project, excavation of the site was performed to determine if anything remained. Unearthed in the excavation were the remnants of the Chapman Mill in the form of a water mill race, a channel used to funnel and store water used to turn the mill. The remains were excavated and can now be seen at Plaza Park, adjacent to the Mission itself. A continuous flow of water is pumped through the restored channel to give it an appearance which has not been seen for nearly 200 hundred years….

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