Monday, February 22, 2010

From Mills to Motorcycles

--photos and text by Ken Aiken

     The wheel turns and gears mesh as the shaft spins and all the components shutter into motion with an agonizing groan.  The word “meccanic” wasn’t even in common use at the time this was built in the 1790’s, although this type of “engine” had been in use across Europe for hundreds of years.  This original flourmill is a rare gem that still grinds wheat and buckwheat for a local baker.
    Located on Route 362 east of Baie-Saint-Paul in the heart of the Charlevoix Region, the Moulin Seigneurial des Éboulements is one of those exceedingly rare sites that survived unchanged to the modern era.  The seigneurial system was the quasi-feudal system that was instituted for the settlement of New France and that continued under British rule until 1854. This is one of only four seigneurial sites that have survived to the present day.  Except for the electrification of the miller’s house, which remains as the private residence of the miller, and the jostle of summer tourists this place exists in a mid-19th-century time warp without the theatrical trappings of a living-history museum. 
     François and I park the bikes and walk past an open-sided woodworking shed that is strictly old school.  With its belt-driven cast-iron lathe, dangerously naked circular saw, and sawdust-strewn floor it evokes childhood memories and it’s quite obvious that this is not a museum exhibit.  The outside clay oven is another ancient relic, but the stack of split wood is recent and I learn that it’s still used for baking bread.  The millpond is gorgeous, the manually operated sluice gates are freshly painted and the rack and pinion gearing is well greased. The mill is poised on the brink of a 30-meter (98 ft.) waterfall, the main floor slightly below the water level in the pond, and water sluices down the tidy wooden race into the structure.  One doesn’t need to be a gear head to appreciate the beauty of this place.
     Machine technology is much older than most historians are willing to acknowledge.  The knowledge of the properties of different kinds of wood used for mechanical purposes became all-but-lost when the advent of cast iron and the subsequent availability of steel made wooden machinery obsolete.  Covered in a thin layer of flour dust the gearing of this two-hundred-year-old mill lies between floors much like watch gears positioned between brass plates.  The analogy is apt, the similarities obvious.  The weight of water causes the 24-foot diameter waterwheel to rotate, shafts and differential gears transfer the energy to the heavy granite stones that crush and grind the kernels of wheat to dust.  I discover that most of the original wooden mechanical components have been replaced by a late 19th century belt system, although some of the original wooden pinion gears are still on site.  It’s basic mechanical engineering with the high-torque power generated by the waterwheel being transferred from the rotation of the horizontal driveshaft to the vertical main shaft by means of gearing.  Big, heavy leather belts on pulley wheels transfer rotation from the main shaft to secondary drive shafts whose smaller belts provide motive power to the mill’s machinery. With every step in the series the revolutions per minute increase and subsidiary shafts, belts, and pulleys transfer or distribute the generated motive power to different locations and machinery, including multiple grindstones.  It’s a system developed in Arabic countries during the Medieval Period and was brought to Europe during the Renaissance where it remained virtually unchanged until the beginning of the 1800’s. The various components of wood, cast iron, and steel in this water-powered mill amply illustrate the evolution of mechanization during the 19th century.
  From the village of Les Éboulements, François leads me down an infamous hill where grades reach 18%. Éboulements means landslide, and in February of 1663 an earthquake caused a massive section of the shoreline to slip into the St. Lawrence River and disappear.  The sense of magnitude of the landslide is experienced while riding down the hill to the small port village of Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive, situated 650 feet below the Seigneurial Mill. Here we join a group of other motorcyclists for the free ferry ride to Isle-aux-Coudres.
Jacques Cartier named this island for the wild hazelnut trees that grew on the island.  There’s plenty of history on this island in the St. Lawrence River, but most motorcyclists come simply to ride the 23-kilometer circuit and enjoy the fabulous views.  We come to view Les Moulins de L’Isle-aux-Coudres (The Mills of Hazelnut Island).
    These are a pair of gristmills, once powered by water and one by wind. Although both are located on the Rouge River neither was ever called the Moulin Rouge.  The watermill was built in 1825 because hauling wheat across the river and up the mountain to the Seigneurial Mill was too arduous.  The windmill was constructed on the other side of the stream in 1836 after a drought incapacitated the watermill. 
    These mills benefited from a complete restoration that was done in the 1980’s and are typical of those that existed throughout colonial New England.  Although both are operational, the water-powered mill is used on a regular basis, as testified by the layer of fine flour dust that covers every surface of its interior.  In this mill the water and pit wheels are exposed and the wooden “wallower” wheel has teeth cast in four iron sections that are bolted to it.  This is an example of what the Seigneurial Mill evolved from, the type of technology that was found in every major farming region of Europe, Canada, and the United States during the 18th and early 19th centuries.
    The mills of the Charlevoix are intended to portray the social-economic history of Canada, but they also illustrate a much greater one: the development of machine technology that transformed the world.  It took 15 centuries for direct-drive mills to evolve to geared ones; three centuries to move from wood to metal; and just a few decades more watermills to become transformed into factories of mass production. 
    François and I mount up on motorcycles whose gears, shafts, and belts are the direct descendents of these flourmills.  It’s worthy of contemplation, but the scenic beauty of these roads through the Charlevoix fill the senses and intellectual thought has to take a backseat to the experience to the ride—at least for now.

View Charlevoix Motorcycle Roads Quebec in a larger map

For more information:

Les Moulins de I’Isle-aux-Coudres, 36 chemin du Moulin, (418) 438-2184,

Moulin seigneurial des Éboulements, 157 rang Saint-Joseph, (418) 635-2239,

Tourisme Charlevoix, 495 boul. De Comporté, La Malbaie, QC  G5A 3G3, (800) 667-2276,