Burnt Mills Dam has a long history in Montgomery County

Burnt Mills Maryland

The Burnt Mills Dam located in Silver Spring, Maryland has a long history

Lately I have been taking my dogs swimming in the Northwest Branch just above the old Burnt Mills Dam. It is a nice spot for a dog to swim on a summer’s day. I have hiked the trails above and below the dam for years now as I live fairly close to it. For those of you who do not know about it the Burnt Mills Dam is located on the Northwest Branch near where the creek goes under Route 29 (Colesville  Rd.). The dam is located on the north side of the road. I have known about the dam all my life-passing by it many times in my youth, and have gotten to know it better since buying my home in the area 25 years ago.  Lately I got to thinking about the dam and it’s origins. I always knew about the dam but have grown curious over the years about how it came to Burnt Mills and why.

Burnt Mills Dam

Drawing of the falls at Burnt Mills by Jake Muirhead. Image from the Frederick Post

The Burnt Mills Dam has a long history and the reason for that is the ideal nature of the creek and surrounding terrain for the purpose of milling. If you have never been to the south of the dam then you owe it to yourself to take a hike back there. There is a trail but it is not easy walking but you will find that there is a fine gorge and series of water falls located there. It was this sort of location that proved a perfect site for a mill as the rapid drop off of the the gorge and suitable area for the dam and holding pond above it  provided ample water power to drive a mill wheel. The record is not clear  when the first mill went into the area but it is known that an existing mill burned down there in 1788. (Thus the name Burnt Mills.)  Shortly after a  new mill was built and modified quite a few times over the years as milling technology improved. It is not know what the original dam was constructed of but eventually a concrete dam was built in the dam’s present location (the original dam is not the current dam) with a mill race that delivered water under Colesville Rd. (Old Columbia Pike) to the mill building located on the south side. The mill passed through numerous owners over the years and stayed in continuous use until about 1920.  The mill produced both flour and ground corn meal. After the mill closed the surrounding land was purchased and then donated to the Boys Scouts of America where they established a camp named for President Woodrow Wilson. For a time the boy scouts used the old mill building located there as a meeting hall.

Burnt Mills, Maryland

Original drawings of the plant from the Library of Congress Archives

The current Burnt Mills Dam came about as the demand for sources of fresh water to meet the needs of the growing region arose. The Boy Scouts donated part of their land to the WSSC and a water filtration plant was installed at the site as early as 1924. This temporary plant was eventually replaced by the new “state of the art” Robert B. Morse Filtration Plant  and that is when the dam that currently sits on the site was built. Construction started on the dam and plant in 1930 and it was completed in 1936. The filtration plant supplied fresh drinking water to the area until the early 1950s when growing  demand for more water led to the construction of larger water filtration plants elsewhere. However the plant was not completely shut down until the early 1960s. The dam is an Ambursen type dam named for it’s inventor and builder. I was very much surprised to discover that the dam is actually a hollow structure. A person can gain entry via the pump house but unfortunately the interior of the dam is not open to the public.

Burnt Mills Maryland

The dam is actually hollow. From the Library of Congress archives

The Burnt Mills Dam and the two Georgian Revival pump houses located on both sides of Colesville Rd. were acquired by the The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission  between 1996 and 2000 and are now on the Historic Register.  The Burnt Mills Dam today is a popular starting point for hikers of the Northwest Branch Trail. If you have not explored the dam and the the surrounding trails then it is time to do so. There is public parking on both sides of Route 29 behind the pumping stations. You are going to need some sturdy shoes if you head south as the hiking around the gorge is difficult. If you have small kids and dogs, it is better to park on the north side where the dam is located and take the easier hike to the north. I promise that you won’t be disappointed.


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