SAN GABRIEL – The past has come alive in San Gabriel. Officials and community leaders gathered at the San Gabriel Mission on Tuesday to dedicate the restoration and relocation to a city park of the sole remaining section of a masonry millrace built in 1823 for Chapman’s Mill. Chapman’s Mill was a cornerstone of the agricultural community centered on the old mission.
The 20-foot, 15-ton section of masonry waterway was relocated to Plaza Park on the grounds of the mission and installed as an educational exhibit, featuring running water, for the many visitors to the adjacent mission.
Excavated by archaeologists, the millrace was carefully moved during the summer from a nearby railroad right-of-way to permit mass excavation for an Alameda Corridor-East Construction Authority project to lower the railroad in a 30-foot-deep, concrete-walled trench with bridges spanning the new trench at four crossings in San Gabriel.
The historic millrace was built in the 1820s by the Gabrielino Tribe who lived at the San Gabriel Mission. It was designed by JOseph Chapman who was described as an "ex pirate."
Mike Hart, a historian who was very knowledgeable with the millrace, said it was part of a larger system that irrigated the San Gabriel Valley in those days.
“This millrace was part of a large water system that irrigated over 6,000 acres of land altogether,” Hart said. “It’s a mortar-lined structure that channeled water directly to the mill before in went in to turn the mill wheel. It carried water. It was an aqueduct.”
Hart added there isn’t much left of this kind and that what is found needs to be preserved.
“This find is very important because the San Gabriel Valley developed so quick after the mission era that a lot of the principle mission irrigation system and buildings were destroyed,” he said. “At the end of the 1840s Americans had started to come in and this area developed so very fast, which erased a lot of the old mission system.”
Fr. Bruce Wellems of the mission agreed.
“Anytime you find artifacts like that it connects you with history,” Wellems said. “So that’s cool. I never made the connection of how important aqueducts were to the life of the mission.”
Steve Wilkinson of San Dimas works at the nearby Mission Playhouse and stopped by for the festivities. He said it was wonderful the millrace was being preserved.
“I think it looks great,” he said. “I think it is way cool they decided to put it here instead of just getting dug up and lost forever.
The millrace and historical drawings on display is visable to the public at the Plaza Park, located in front the San Gabriel Mission.