River Mill is one of the oldest manufacturing sites in North Carolina. Its history spans generations of milling -- from the first recorded use in 1855 by the Falls of the Neuse Manufacturing Company, to its close as Erwin Mills in 1959. Local legend holds that the site served as a powder-making factory during the Revolutionary War.
One of the earliest recorded visits was in 1701, when traveler John Lawson wrote of "stopping at the Falls of a large Creek, where lay mighty rocks, the Water making a strange noise, as if a great many Water-Mills were going at once. I take this to be the Falls of Neuse-Creek, called by the Indians Wee-qou-Whom..."
The potential of the powerful waterfall attracted investment and construction. In 1854, the Raleigh Register visited "the splendid mills in progress of construction at the Falls of the Neuse... the Paper Mills are built of substantial and beautiful granite of which there is extensive quarry upon the spot." The massive three-story Mill and one-story Annex opened as The Falls of the Neuse Manufacturing Company.
As the only significant producer of paper in eastern North Carolina, and one of the largest in the state, the mill produced of much as 3,400 pounds of paper each day. With power created by a 400 foot dam across the river, the Mill's Blake water wheels drove four steam engines, one Rotary Boiler and a Fourdinier machine, generating an estimated 300 horsepower.
When the end of the Civil War drew near and Sherman drew nearer, the mill's machinery was dismantled and hidden. Sherman's army overlooked it, and set fire to nearby paper and powder plants instead. After the war, the mill operated as the Falls of Neuse Manufacturing Company, and the Forest Manufacturing Company, milling paper, lumber and flour.
In March 1871, fire gutted the mill. The Raleigh Sentinel reported "The paper mill of the Forest Manufacturing Company near Forestville was totally destroyed by fire Sunday night. We have not ascertained the amount of loss, but understand it to be covered by $15,000 insurance. Two previous attempts were made to fire this property but were fortunately frustrated. On this occasion the flames gained such headway before being discovered that nothing could be done to extinguish them."
The mill was soon back in production. Demand for quality paper was high. Two twelve-hour shifts of men, women and children were paid between forty cents and two dollars a day to operate the mill at full capacity. According to Josephus Daniels, founder of the modern day News & Observer, the mill at the Falls "is the only place east of Charlotte where paper is made in the State, and no better paper is made anywhere."
In 1896, a flood collapsed two floors destroying the machinery. The mill was closed and the property put in receivership.
The 20th century brought new ownership and new products - -moving profitably from paper to cotton. Until 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, the mill shut down and again the property was put in receivership
In the mid-century, the mill operated under a succession of owners - The Neuse River Manufacturing Company, the Neuse River Cotton Mill, the Diana Cotton Mills and finally, Erwin Mills. In 1959, Erwin Mills closed the Falls location, citing "the three-story structure was too small for successful operations... its solid structure won't yield for easy expansion." The splendid mill became a cotton warehouse.
In 1984, the Mill was restored. While the water wheels are gone, and the dam replaced by a 1960's version, River Mill looks today much the way it did in 1854. The Mill Annex buildings were added to the National Register of Historic Places. The old granite mill will be enjoyed and protected for generations to come.