If you passed by Mabry Mill in the past couple of weeks, you might have noticed a curious run of big black pipe around the shoreline. It was the first lick at solving a problem of a badly-silted millpond at one of the most photographed sites along the Parkway -— maybe one of the most photographed in the East.
Mabry Mill's unique site is a marvel of engineering — but it's susceptible to weather. It sits, just a few feet off the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the perfect spot to collect the accumulated weight of water seeping out of the earth, of springs that flow out of little folds in the terrain and of happily running creeks throughout the woods covering the slopes of this part of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Ed Mabry used these waters to power the big waterwheel on his mill, first built in 1910, and the National Park Service has used his mill to illustrate how there was plenty of power to manufacture things in the days long before power was defined as electrical.
But one of water power's disadvantages is that along with the water that comes flowing down watersheds and hills and stone-lined drains and wooden flumes is that there's a lot of silt, a lot of leaves, a lot of sticks and other natural things that can clog up a millpond and even, eventually, the flumes themselves.
That's just one of the problems the Blue Ridge Parkway encountered in its plans to rebuild part of this attraction on the scenic roadway. It is one of the most popular sites to visit — there's a terrific seasonal restaurant run by Parkway concessionaires, as well as fascinating glimpses of 18th and 19th century life when the mill's waterwheel is rumbling away, the blacksmith shop rings with the songs of the smith's hammers and tongs, and the paddles in the apple-sauce and molasses cookers are working their magic.
But the mill hasn't run much in awhile because the wheel is in bad shape and the flumes have been clogged and even the pond didn't look as good as it usually does. Thanks to weeks of effort by Parkway employees and the dredging skills of Larry Hampton, a Blue Ridge Parkway retiree who has his own excavating business (and who worked on the last waterwheel reconstruction two decades ago), the millpond is back to its 8 1/2 feet depth again, and crews are digging out nearly two-foot depths of muddy compacted leaves from the flumes near the mill.
The much bigger job was removing tons of silt from the pond — and doing so in a way that didn't cause damage to habitat or to the inhabitants of the productive creeks downstream, including trout and bog turtles. The big black pipe was put in to divert a creek that feeds the millpond, so that the creek below the pond would continue to run clean and free. The Parkway, with the financial support of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, rented a big powerful Diesel pump to siphon off the millpond's water after the creek water was diverted through the pipe, under the Parkway and down into the creek flowing westward.
That pump would shoot a cannonstream of water downhill — and workers had to be careful to contain it within a haybale-lined silt fence to avoid putting clouds of silt into the water.
The pumping job was complicated by the fact that it's been wet lately, and water would trickle back into the pond overnight. And then there was the problem of how to get a huge excavator into the pond, keep it from sinking with a 21st century version of the old "corduroy roads" paved with tree trunks, and how to keep big dump trucks that would haul off the silt from sinking axle-deep into the soft banks of the millpond.
The muck from the pond was trucked a couple of thousand feet away to an open field above where Mabry Mill workers park. Allen Lawson, the Blue Ridge Parkway Facility Manager and supervisor of the project, says workers in the past have found plenty of pocket change that visitors have thrown into the pond after making a wish. Every time it rained on a pile of the silt, it revealed a few more quarters and dimes —- not enough to put a dent in the cost of the project, but interesting to see what comes up.
Miraculously, at least to me, was the fact that the pond not only was excavated to its new depth within a week, but the landscape was also cleaned up — the pipes removed, the logs used to keep the excavator from sinking were extracted, the rockway that gave dump trucks access removed — and the banks reseeded and covered with straw while new grass starts to grow back sometime this spring. It was an amazing thing to see:
Next up in Chapter 3: Finding the right wood in the right sizes
And now this message: Want to help bring Mabry Mill back to life? You can be a big part of it by donating to the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, which has committed a substantial sum to pay for the work because the Parkway itself doesn't have the money and isn't likely to get it from Congress any time soon. Find out more about the Foundation at www.brpfoundation.org. If you donate at least $100, you'll find your name on the Donor Board at Mabry Mill, along with other Parkway lovers who have cumulatively donated several thousand dollars to this effort.