Water Wheels / Saw Mills

Reprinted with permission from the book Hodge’s Cove by Eric Stringer, 2011

It would be several decades after the arrival of the first settlers in Southwest Arm when gasoline or diesel engines would be available to the market. Prior to that, power to turn the large saws for cutting logs into boards, palings, and other lumber was generated by water that was dammed off upstream to form a reservoir and released at the dam to the water wheel site when required.

The water wheels, which were approximately 12 – 14 feet in diameter, were constructed primarily of wood, though there were several parts that were made of steel. To learn more about the structure of a water wheel and its component parts, check out Alexander Robertson’s book, with illustrations, entitled WATER POWERED SAWMILLS IN NEWFOUNDLAND. This book is available on loan from the Public Library in Clarenville if a reader were interested enough to study the component parts and structure of a water wheel.

A simplistic version might go something like:

Around the perimeter of the wheel were a series of formations known as buckets. In the case of the undershoot style, the water would be directed through a chute to the bottom of the wheel where it would catch the bucket thus forcing the wheel to rotate. As the wheel turned, the next bucket would come into position, catching the flowing water and keeping the wheel turning. And as long as the water was of sufficient quantity, the wheel would keep turning and sawing of logs was possible.

Another style had the water directed via a wooden chute onto the bucket(s) about mid-way up the wheel.

And another, probably the most efficient, was the overshoot style. In this type, the water came through the chute, across the top of the wheel, and down into the buckets on the far side of the wheel.

In order to best avail of whatever water was stored behind the dam, all logs to be sawed were located as near as possible to the ramp which was located beside the saw. One by one, the logs would be put on the table and pushed along the top of a series of rollers and on through until the saw had split the whole length of the log. Then the table and the sawed log would be hauled back, the flat side of the sawed log turned face down and positioned in such a way as to take the next slab off. And so on the process went until the desired piece or pieces of lumber were sawed. After they dried, the slabs were generally used as kindling in stoves in the home.


Harbour Grace Standard, September 9, 1882

The Mills seem to be mostly owned by the men themselves, and no doubt contribute largely to the general prosperity of the settlers here; for poverty there is none. The people live in comparative comfort, compared with many others – those at the bottom of the Bay – many of whom are half-starving during most of the winter. The mills each earn £100 to £200 a year, and in most cases are worked by the owner and his family; and that, of course, only spring and fall, or perhaps one of these seasons only. In Smith’s Sound there are 10 mills; in South West Arm 9; in North West Arm 15; the latter mostly being in operation all the summer – the men doing nothing scarcely with the fishery.


Water Powered Sawmills in Southwest Arm

Hatchet Cove

Hillview / Northern Bight

Hodge’s Cove

Long Beach

St. Jones’ Within

Upper Deer Harbour