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A History of the Fitz Water Wheel Company

A History of the Fitz Water Wheel Company
Theodore R. Hazen

In 1840, Samuel Fitz organized the Hanover Foundry and Machine Shop in Hanover, Pennsylvania. Ten years later, in 1850, he opened the Tuscarora Iron Works in present day Martinsburg, West Virginia (in 1850 West Virginia was still a part of the state of Virginia) and set up a machine shop, saw mill, and foundry. The Tuscarora Iron Works was to became the first site of the first all metal water wheel constructed by Fitz in 1852. Prior to this date, Fitz built water wheels that were the traditional wooden variety. The first all metal wheel was constructed for Equality Mills, located in Martinsburg, West Virginia, across from the Tuscarora Iron Works. The Iron Works building is still standing, but Equality Mills burned to the ground several years ago. Although all metal wheels appeared frequently in England by the middle of the 19th century, and while wheels with iron hubs and shafts were used in America before 1852, Samuel Fitz believed that his was the first all metal overshot water wheel to be constructed in the United States.

John Fitz (born April 15th, 1847 and died April 12, 1914), was the imventor and creator of their Fitz Steel Overshoot Water Wheel, for a mill in Augusta County, Virginia, in 1870. He was not the first to use the curvilinear bucket form. In 1841, a French iron water wheel was built with curvilinear buckets. A change from the elbow bucket which appeared late in the middle ages. Later in the United States, a similar wheel was built by Henry Burden, a Scottish born iron worker, near Troy, New York. He built an overshot water wheel in 1851. It was 69 feet in diameter by 22 feet wide. It had a cast iron axle, wrought iron rods for spokes. The shrouding being made of cast iron sections, buckets of Georgia Pine, with iron renforcing. The Burden wheel developed 278-280 horse power, with an efficiency of 80% to 84.25%.

So Fitz was not the first to break with the elbow bucket, but he was the first to apply mass production lto water wheel construction. The curvilinear bucket form reduced impact, less spillage, less losses of water entry, it retared spillage losses later and retained water longer in the wheel. All the water captured, was discharged into the tail race. And finnally the only other thing to say about them is, "They run with less water."

The Fitz Company built water wheels from 4 to 45 feet in diameter, and from one to 16 feet in width. In 1896, the Tuscarora Iron Works and the Hanover Foundry and Machine Shop were merged into the, "I-X-L Water Wheel Company," and on July 15, 1902, the name finally was changed to The Fitz Water Wheel Company under John S. Fitz (1847-1914), company President and son of Samuel Fitz.

Although principally known for its overshoot water wheels, Fitz did make a very fine line of turbines. He came into the turbine production business with the acquisition of the Norrish Burnham Company of York, Pennsylvania, and began to build the improved Fitz-Burnham Turbine. Burnham began his turbine company in 1856 in Laurel, Maryland, then moved the plant to Pennsylvania in 1858. The growing Fitz Company soon added another turbine design for their customers which they called the Fitz-Hanover. Rounding out his product line, Fitz also made corn roasters, and wire weaving machinery.

Early Fitz overshoots water wheels, built of wood, had an efficiency of 75% at best. It was to this relative inefficiency and then present day technology that caused Fitz to hit upon the idea of constructing steel wheels. Such wheels, he reasoned, would have none of the draw backs of their clumsy cousins: Wooden Buckets could not be shaped with the optimum curve needed for receiving and discharging water; they were frequently out of balance and jerky in rotation; swelling and drying caused loose parts and leaky buckets made for a loss of power and efficiency. Why, even in a small flood, a little back water would reduce efficiency as the wheel had to drag through the tail race; sometimes the wheel stopped turning completely under a load. In the winter, ice would prevent the wheel from turning (causing northern millers to consider placing their wheels inside the mill); and, finally, ice or water soaked wheels made their static weight increase so dramatically that efficiency was again compromised. The average life of a wooden wheel ranged from 10 to 30 years depending on how well the wheel was maintained. Repairs were always frequent, and down time because of wheel repairs and/ or inefficiencies were a common phenomenon with wooden wheels. Furthermore, their jerky motion made them impossible to govern, An all iron wheel would end all of these troubles.

Fitz's Steel Overshoot Water Wheel (Fitz called his wheels "overshoot" principally as a promotional gimmick to distinguish his design) have none of the disadvantages of wooden wheels. Fitz himself would claim, "The field of the overshoot wheel lies in the development of small powers. It is not suitable for use in large water power on account of the increase in size and weight of the wheel as the head and discharge are increased beyond certain limits." In the Fitz design, water enters the buckets 10" behind vertical center. Because of their scientifically designed curve, water is retained in the buckets almost to the bottom vertical position at the tail race. The slow motion of the wheel (rim speed was about 6 feet per second) was increased with gearing for machines that needed faster rotation speeds. Fitz's Overshoot Water Wheels developed an efficiency of about 90%. Tests done in the hydraulic laboratory at the University of Wisconsin in 1913 proved Fitz's claims.

Early water wheels built with metal hubs and shafts usually had wooden arms and buckets. The Steel Fitz Wheel, was nicknamed by John Fitz as the "I-X-L' (I excel) - again showing Fitz's proclivities for promotion. The original name came from a Water Turbine Company in Martinsburg,West Virginia, builders of the Excelsoir Water Wheel. John Fitz purchased the company sometime, between 1872 and 1882. This is the source orgin of execl (I-X-L) when they dropped the "soir" from the brand name. For many years, their buckets were riveted on the rims; later, reluctantly, a few were welded together. The wheels were built in near secrecy. Designs specifications, and even plant operation, remained safe guarded secrets. No person could obtain permission to tour their plant. They built their wheels in sections which were later knocked down for easy shipping. Buckets/rim sections were built in either 8 or 20 sections according to the diameter of the wheel. The best year was in 1932 while the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. Over the years, FItz claimed to have installed over 1,000 water wheels in Pennsylvania alone, and over 700 in the state of Virginia.

During World War II, it made 120 water wheels for the British Army. These water wheels were designed by John H. Dawson who was later an adjunct professor at SCULB, Civil Engineering and Ocean Engineering department from 1958 until 1980. These water wheels were small impulse turbines he helped design for Fitz Water Wheel Company in 1942. They were originally dropped by parachute to the underground during World War II to provide electricity for radios. Many of these turbines are in the laboratories of many universities today.

Mill Springs Mill, Mill Springs, Kentucky

In a December 3, 1955 article in the Saturday Evening Post entitled, "There'll Always Be Water Wheels," Neil M. Clark writes, "Some folks like the atom. It is modern and stylish. John Fitz like the raindrop, which is old and somewhat outmoded. Both are forces of nature, both are tiny, and both, Fitz agrees, pack a tremendous wallop - the atom when it bursts, the raindrop when it falls. The raindrop's wallop, he thinks, is easier to understand and cope with. So, others can build cyclotrons. He will go on building water wheels. As long as water runs down hill, John Fitz thinks people will use the power of its fall. He has nothing against the atom, but he finds raindrops simpler."

Besides selling new wheels, Fitz's company reworked shafts, hubs, and arms for older wheels at remote locations since Fitz components could be used and adopted to different size wheels. When constructing the mill at Wayside Inn for Henry Ford at Sudbury, Massachusetts, Fitz took great care to import French buhrs for the occasion. This mill was one of the few that ground wheat for the original Pepperidge Farm family. For a short time, this mill also made King Arthur Stone Ground Wheat Flour in the early 1970's that was packaged in 2# bags. The flour became so popular that the company moved its business to another mill that could handle the demand. The Sudbury, Mass., mill now only grinds flour for the Wayside Inn.

Glade Creek Mill, Babcock State Park, Clifftop, West Virginia

After Fitz closed, some of their wheels were sold to other locations. Some of them went to The Tennessee Mill and Mine Company in Knoxville, Tennessee. Because they only had the wheels, these secondary companies had to manufacture/ supply their own water tanks, gates, and spouts. Because they didn't understand the scientific principles worked out by Fitz, water often delivered past the vertical center of the wheel. A prime example is the cannibalized Fitz Water Wheel mill and used old mill parts used to create the Glade Creek Mill in Babcock State Park, Cliftop, West Virginia. The wooden sluice box there makes it appear as an old time, original, "pioneer" water wheel. But when working, water pours over the wheel with most of it missing the buckets entirely!

Fitz Water Wheels are still being reconditioned or copied today. A new Fitz type steel wheel was recently built by James Kricker of Saugerties, New York, for the Wye Mill at Wye Mills, Maryland. Also, two Fitz style wheels were built several years ago by a machine shop in Culpeper, Virginia, for the Aldie Mill in Aldie, Virginia, that was restored by millwright Derek Ogden.

Fitz Overshoot Water Wheels became the wheel of choice for small custom mills, located along small streams, in eastern rural America in the 20th century. At these locations, there usually wasn't enough water supply to consider a turbine. Pumping stations and small electrical generation power plants (very small, by today's standards!) were also the target of Fitz Wheels and turbines. Most Fitz Wheels were painted red, some were silver.

SPOOM member, Donald Wisensale, Hanover, Pennsylvania took a job with Fitz in 1926, and stayed until 1967 when the company closed. Wisensale worked for Fitz on mill restorations, as a sale manager, and later as Vice President. Also included among Fitz's distinguished personal was the later millwright, John B. Campbell. Campbell worked for both himself and Fitz. He organized the Campbell Water Wheel Company, with headquarters in the Lafayette Building, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Campbell's company made their own Fitz look a like wheel, but Campbell placed his company's name on the hub casting. Campbell also issued his own catalogs. His 1932, "Water Wheels, Dams, Hydroelectric Plants, and Water Supply Systems," was equivalent to the Fitz Bulletin #70 of 1928 sold in reprint form by SPOOM. SPOOM (

Wooden Breast Shot Water Wheel at Isaac Pierce Mill,
Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C.

One day Mr.Fitz came to Wisensale and said, "There is a 40' x 50' mill over in Washington, D. C. the Isaac Pierce Mill, and I want you to go and fill it up with machinery. You can use machinery from mill that would never again be restarted." (This is the present day Isaac Pierce Mill operated by the National Park Service, in Rock Creek Park). Mr. Wisensale did all the drawings for the 1930's Fitz restoration. Thus, Wisensale and his assistant, Richard Walker, started work using materials and equipment that Fitz had previously collected including:gears dating from 1818, millstones, lighter staffs, bottle weights, and meal boxes dating from 1804 which came from the J. A. Baldwin Mill in Burnt Cabins, Pennsylvania. From the Baughman's Mill near Linesboro, Maryland, came an 1802 hopper-boy, cleaners, sifters and elevators. The other half of the works (the millstones and gearing) was used later in the Lee's Mill restoration. At the Isaac Pierce Mill in Washington, Fitz's men built a wooden breast water wheel because there was plenty of water available, and they could make the wheel about 8 feet wide to hold plenty of water. An overshot wheel would have had to have been substantially smaller in diameter and would have developed much less power. The wheel had French Creek granite bearings lubricated with water. The granite came from Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

Robert E. Lee Mill, Stratford Hall, Virginia

Some of the best restorations Fitz was involve with are the Robert E. Lee Mill at Stratford Hall, Virginia, and the mill at Tarrytown, New York, (1941) which was later replaced with a more historically accurate mill period. This restoration was done with the assistance of Professor Benjamin W. Dedrick, Head of Mill Engineering School, Pennsylvania State College, and author of Practical Milling. This 1924 edition is sold in reprint form by SPOOM. SPOOM ( Most of the machinery he used came from mills in Pennsylvania and Maryland. It was kept in storage at their Hanover plant, reconditioned there, and used in restoration work everywhere.

The Fitz restoration of the Beckman Mill on the left and
a colorized old photo steroview slide of the original mill on the right.

The 1941 Fitz Water Wheel Company reconstruction more closely resembled the (post-colonial Oliver Evans) Beckman's Mill (circa 1783-1910) as seen above in the old drawings, paintings and photos, than the eariler 1684 (colonial) Philipse (Flypse) Mill. It was not until the year 1839, did the old Philipse or Beckman Mill repaired, and most modern improved machinery for cleaning grain and bolting flour were added with to the three pairs of millstones. The latest restoration of the mill see: Philipsburg Mill at Philipsburg Manor, Historic Hudson Valley, a.k.a. Sleppy Hollow Restorations, Sleepy Hollow, a.k.a. North Tarrytown, New York.

Mill Dam, Old Mill and Castle of Sleepy Hollow, North Tarrytown, N. Y.
Frederick Philipse, fist lord of the Manor of Philipsburg, in the 17th centurybuilt a dam
across the water of the Pocantico River, thus forming a mill pond to provide water power
for the grinding of grain in this rich agrarian area. The Castle and associated buildings
were the nucleus of a manor which streched from Spuyten Duyvil to Croton.

The end of the company came with the passing of Samuel Fitz's grandson, John Samuel Fitz, age 94, on September 4, 1965. Of the closing, Wisensale would say, "Fitz Water Wheel Company went out of business because the son of the previous owner was President and General Manager and most of the stock was owned by his sisters who were all a little bit too old to bother continuing the business, so they decided to sell out and get rid of everything." The milling machinery that Fitz had collected for his restorations, and machinery at the Fitz plant were all sold at public auction on October 20, 1966 to various persons. All drawings, records, patterns, etc, were purchased and shipped to the James Leffel Company at Springfield, Ohio. The sheet metal templates and patterns were cut up and sold for scrap. The wooden patterns were all destroyed by J. Robert Groff.

For many years, the Fitz records sat on Leffel's third floor in cardboard boxes marked, "FITZ" in red crayon. In time what was left of the old files were given away, some was sent to the Hagley Museum, Wilmington, Delaware and also some to the Smithsonian,in Washington,D.C. Until a few years ago one of their buildings still stood, with faded painted letters on the old brick building - "The Fitz Water Wheel Company."

Today water wheel are still being built in Europe, which have fiberglass buckets, and won't rot out like metal buckets. I am sure if Fitz had stayed in business, they perhaps would of been using fiberglass buckets first. And also if the Fitz Company still was in business they would be using computer to help design their water wheels.

For further information on water power and water wheels see:

Fitz Steel Overshoot Water Wheels, Bulletin 70, December 1928.

The Water Wheel Album: Page Six- The Fitz I-X-L Steel Overshoot Water Wheels.

Fritzell, Joseph P. "Water power; An outline of the Development and Application of the energy of Flowing Water," John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1901.

Fritzell, Joseph P. "Old time Water Wheels of America," Trans., A. S.C. E. , Vol. 23, page 237, 1893.

Weidner, Carl R. "Theory and Test of an Overshot Water Wheel," Bulletin 529, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, June 1913.

Weiss, Harry B. and Sim, Robert J. "The Early Grist and Flouring Mills of New Jersey," New Jersey Agricultural Society, Trenton, New Jersey, 1956.

Clark, Neil M. "There'll Always be Water Wheels," Saturday Evening Post, December 3, 1955.

o The Big Wheel,The Fairwater Electric Company, Fair Water, Wisconsin. The largest water wheel constructed by the Fitz Water Wheel Company, Hanover, Pennsylvania. It is 50 Feet in diameter Steel Overshoot Water Wheel. Built in 1924, the 29 ton wheel is 10 feet wide, and produced about 140 horsepower.
o The Big Wheel, same site different address.

o Jesse Laper's Water Wheel

o Focus on Fond du Lac County: The Fairwater Water Wheel, by Bob Schuster, April, 1999
o Focus on Fond du Lac County: The Fairwater Water Wheel, by Bob Schuster
o The Fairwater Fitz Water Wheel, Fair Water, Wisconsin.

o An Analysis of the Fitz Water Wheel at Falls Mill, by Stephen Moss.
Inspired by three Old Mill News articles by Mr. Robert L. Omland entitled "The Modern Steel
Overshot Water Wheel."


1. A version of this article by T. R. Hazen appeared in OLD MILL NEWS, Winter 1995, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Whole Number 90, pages 11 to 14.

2. A later version of this article has been rewritten and appears under the title "Manufacturing Water Wheels: A Family Affair for the Fitz's," by T. R. Hazen appears in HYDRO-REVIEW, Vol. XVI, No. 4, August 1997, pages 114 to 118.

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Copyright 1996 by T. R. Hazen