Excavation in Gaithersburg uncovers century-old mill flywheel
3.5-ton relic dug up after settlement of flooding lawsuit
Tova Fliegel hoped replacing an old retaining wall would give her some relief from flooding on her property.
What she got was a piece of Gaithersburg history a big piece.
On Nov. 10, as Fliegel and a city employee looked on, a backhoe clanged against a 7,000-pound flywheel from the Gaithersburg Milling and Manufacturing Company buried less than 10 feet below the surface of her property on East Diamond Avenue in Olde Towne.
The wheel, 91 inches across and a foot wide, was part of a steam engine that crushed grains and other products into flour, animal feed and fertilizer, according to records.
"I ran into it full throttle. It was kind of a shocker to me," said Justin Testerman, the 27-year-old Greencastle, Pa. man who was driving the Daewoo 175 backhoe. "I've been doing this for 10 years and I have never, never seen anything like this."
The wheel likely dates to 1891, when the mill complex was first built, or 1903, when it was rebuilt after a fire. The building burned down in 1914 and was never rebuilt, said Gail Smith, a docent at the Gaithersburg Community Museum.
"It seems to me that this could have been left in the rubble," Smith said.
Founded by Ignatius T. Fulks, Gaithersburg Milling and Manufacturing became one of the wealthiest businesses in Montgomery County because it paid Baltimore prices for goods, Smith said. Four other mills were clustered along the train tracks in Olde Towne.
All the mills were run by steam-powered engines instead of the running waterways that drove many other Montgomery County mills at the time, Smith said.
The flywheel uncovered at the Fliegel Building, 115 E. Diamond Ave., came from a Corliss steam engine, Fliegel said.
She plans to sandblast the rust off of the wheel and have it repainted. The new retaining wall is almost complete at the back of her lot, with a 1-foot ledge at the bottom, which will become the wheel's final resting place.
Fliegel said she hopes the flywheel will extend the historic charm further down Diamond Avenue and act as a signature attraction for the community.
"It is a symbol of Old Town Gaithersburg when it established itself as a busy commercial and industrial center along the railroad, a symbol of the kind of prosperity Old Town once experienced," she said. "I hope it will be something of a lucky charm for Old Town's future prosperity."
The wheel would never have been discovered were it not for a $1.5 million lawsuit Fliegel filed against the city in 2008, claiming that storm water runoff from improvements to a city-owned parking lot in Olde Towne caused substantial harm to her neighboring commercial parking lot, retaining wall and storm-water system. A confidential settlement was reached earlier this year, resulting in the construction on the site now.
"It's nice that out of a conflictual situation, we could find a piece of Gaithersburg history," Fliegel said.
The wheel has been sent to a warehouse for safekeeping over the winter and will be painted and sealed when it gets warmer, Fliegel said.
"I don't think the flywheel has a real historical value in a way that would cause it to be displayed in the Smithsonian, but it is an interesting historical object and a piece of Gaithersburg history," Fliegel said. "They don't make those things anymore."