Carlile vs. Cooper
by Brian Murphy
Everyone with roots in Chester is familiar with our great landmark, the Cooper Mill, which is located about a mile west of Chester village. Nathan Cooper erected this gristmill in 1826 where an “ancient” mill once stood, on the east side of the Black River along the Washington Turnpike. In 1834, “Uncle” Nathan died without any children of his own and left the mill property to his nephew, “General” Nathan A. Cooper. Back then, Cooper’s mill property included not only a gristmill, but a sawmill as well.
The Cooper mill complex was certainly a great asset to the local economy in and around Chester. Local farmers would cart their grain and corn to the gristmill for processing into useable foodstuffs and the sawmill converted raw timber into more useful boards. But not all of the local landowners were happy having Cooper as their neighbor. Mills require power to run. The Black River provided Cooper’s mill with that necessary power; therein laid the problem.
It seems that General Cooper’s legal troubles began in 1861 when Eliza Carlile brought a suit in the State Supreme Court against Cooper claiming that he had raised his milldam in 1846 to such an extent that it flooded her pastures. The real flooding began, according to Carlile and others, when Cooper’s millwright added two more runs of stone in 1852 and a new waterwheel in 1853 to replace the old upper water wheel. More power was needed to run these additional millstones. If more water could be held in reserve to power the Mill, then it would be more productive. Records show that many of Cooper’s upstream neighbors believed that he had flooded their low-lying lands by raising the height of his milldam. At least nine of these neighbors helped to fund Carlile’s litigation against Cooper in order to force him to lower the height of the dam. Mrs. Carlile, whose land bordered the west side of the Black River about ½ mile above Milltown, claimed that by raising his milldam, General Cooper had caused her land to become flooded and had the effect of producing “unwholesome malaria,” “noxious vapors,” “disagreeable odors” and had rendered her dwelling house “ very unhealthy.” During one of the trials, Foster Waters testified under oath that he had lost the use of 6 or 7 acres due to flooding caused by the raising of General Cooper’s dam. These lawsuits were essentially about water use rights and property rights, issues which we continue to struggle with today.
While Cooper did not deny that he raised his tumble dam about nine inches in 1846, his defense maintained that he was not the only one trying to tame the nature of the river. Other factors like “ditching,” may have eventually contributed to the flooding of the lands up river. Ditching was the common practice of draining marshes along the river so they could be farmed. Cooper’s upstream neighbors also had work done to widen, deepen and straighten the course of the river in order to improve its flow. Cooper’s defense tried to show that these alterations in the natural flow of the river may have caused the river to form sand bars and may have caused the water to back up in certain places.
It’s difficult to figure out what the final outcome was as a result of all these lawsuits. At one point, Cooper is ordered by the court to lower his tumble dam to its pre – 1846 height and to pay damages for the flooded meadows above his mill. One very astute witness, a millwright named William Bartley, made the following point during his testimony, “One day in a joking way talking with [General Cooper], I told him if he would give me half the money this suit was costing, I would make the mill better than it ever was, and give both parties all they asked.”
The Historical Society of Chester, New Jersey owns a rare set of law books that document the legal controversy between Cooper and his neighbors from 1861 to 1868. These three volumes contain a whopping 1,743 pages of exhaustive testimony by 95 witnesses, and reveal amazing details about Cooper’s mill, the Black River and the people whose lives were intertwined with both of them.