The Historic Waterpower System of North Family, Mount Lebanon Shaker Village: A Model of Sustainability (HALS NY-7)
by David Driapsa, ASLA, and edited by Chris Stevens, ASLA

While the Shaker population itself may not have been sustainable, their waterpower system at the North Family of Mount Lebanon Shaker Village was a model of sustainability. The Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) documented this ambitious historic system in 2009. The project was cosponsored by the National Park Service, the Shaker Museum and Library, and the World Monuments Fund. This article is a brief synopsis of the HALS historical report prepared by David Driapsa, ASLA Florida and HALS Liaison Coordinator, and edited by Chris Stevens, HALS Landscape Architect. The full report as well as the measured drawings and large format photography, all copyright free, will soon be available at the Library of Congress HALS website.

Mount Lebanon Shaker Village was settled in 1787 in New Lebanon, New York and survived until 1947 as the "Center of Union," "Central Ministry," or "Holy Mount" for the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing. This was the largest Shaker Society of the Nineteen Villages in the United States, comprising about 600 people, 100 buildings, and 6,000 acres (Greenwood, 1983). The village had grown to 5 families (North, Church, Center, Second, and South Families) arranged in a north to south line around the Church Family along a one and one-third mile section of the Albany to Pittsfield Post Road (Figure 1). Each family had its own fields, dwelling houses, barns, ancillary buildings, millstream, and workshop. Each family also had specific assigned crafts and duties, regulated by gender, so a family’s workshops were customized for its own particular pursuits. The village, a National Historic Landmark since 1965, includes many contributing buildings and other cultural landscape characteristics and features preserved as a comprehensive example representing the Shakers' domestic, agricultural, and industrial ideals.

Stevens Figure 1
Figure 1. The Families and their millstreams of Mount Lebanon Shaker Village in New Lebanon, New York (HALS NY-7, Sheet 6 of 29). Drawn by David Driapsa.

The North Family was the novitiate order within the society and the link between the Shaker Church and the outside world, sitting both literally and symbolically at "the gate" into the village. Family members were innovative architects, engineers, inventors, farmers, and craftsmen. The North Family site, better than any other, preserves the history of the Shaker hybridization of agriculture and significant water-powered workshops. Today this 30-acre site is home to the Shaker Museum and Library and part of the Darrow School, whose main campus is located at the neighboring Church Family.

During the project, New Lebanon experienced the most significant rainfall in recent history, illuminating much of the hidden waterworks. One July rainstorm flooded the village and revealed the locations of the stone aqueducts buried beneath the village by pushing water from the aqueducts up through the sod above the capstones. The HALS team used a pipe locator to track buried metal piping within the village. One immediate benefit of the project was the discovery of an open 15-inch cast iron pipe leading into the Brethren's Workshop from the North Family Upper Millpond that was flooding the basement during times of heavy rainfall. By sealing off this source of water to a former turbine, the Shaker Museum and Library eliminated the destructive source of water flooding the basement. Historic research supplemented the field discoveries. Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) drawings and photographs and Shaker Journal entries from the 1930s and 1940s were particularly useful in documenting the North Family waterworks system. The HABS drawings included buildings and systems that have since been removed, including the First Dwelling House and its larder, the Second Wash House turbine, and the Forge trip hammer. To view and download these early HABS drawings and photographs search for "Mount Lebanon Shaker" on the Library of Congress website.

While early industries at Mount Lebanon depended on waterpower, there were no reliable naturally flowing streams within the Shaker village that could be used for a millstream. Wood sawing was confined to spring months while melting snow on the mountain provided a continuous supply of water, but running a mill would “saw the water out.” The Shakers understood the potential for harvesting waterpower energy and worked for about a century "re-plumbing" Mount Lebanon to bring waterpower to mills and workshops within the village. They dug ditches across the mountain slopes, built stone walls along the contours, and diverted springs and seeps into streambeds to divert water coming down from the mountain into the larger millstreams. Along the millstreams, they constructed earthwork embankments and stone dams to impound water in millponds, one below the other. They used the release of this captured water, conveyed through sluices and pipes, to turn the waterwheels (later turbines), that in turn operated pulleys and belts to mechanize the sawmills and gristmills, lathes, planers, trip hammers, and many other apparatuses in the Shaker workshops. The waterworks also supplied quality water for domestic uses, fire protection, and for the automation of the washhouses and light handicraft workshops.

The Shakers constructed stone aqueducts where the millstreams passed through the village to take them underground where they would neither require bridges at crossings nor interrupt the continuity of the land surface. Burying the aqueducts underground and covering them with soil made it possible to plant gardens and walk unencumbered above them. The Shakers excavated the stream channels to the bedrock, which was relatively close to the surface. They lined the sides with stone walls that were then spanned with large, flat capstones of a general width of six feet. The millstream was not enclosed in stone aqueducts above or below the village, where they ran above ground through natural or partly-modified streambeds. The Shakers constructed “cabooses” or rectangular openings along the aqueducts, believed to provide both clean-out points similar to modern day catch basins as well as air vents to moderate flow pressure (Evans 1795) (Figure 2).

Stevens Figure 2
Figure 2. Caboose and standpipe details of the Brethren's Workshop area waterworks (HALS NY-7, Sheet 26 of 29). Drawn by Alan Grosse.

Millponds served both as a source of water to power mills and workshops, and as water source for agricultural uses. The millstream design enabled the Brethren to operate mills and workshops for longer periods of time than would be possible from a single millpond. For example, the Lumber and Grist Mill below the middle millpond in the North Family would have an operating time based on the capability of all the millponds upstream from the mill site (Figure 3). When water was depleted from the middle millpond, standpipes in each of millponds higher up the millstream could be opened to release water underground through the stone aqueduct to refill it (Figures 4 and 5).

Stevens Figure 3
Figure 3. Existing and historic sections through the North Family showing Lumber and Grist Mill waterworks details (HALS NY-7, Sheet 18 of 29). Delineated by Andrew Meessmann.

Stevens Figure 4
Figure 4. Left: View north of the North Family Middle Millpond Standpipe (HALS NY-7-23). Right: View east (upstream) inside the subterranean stone aqueduct that once supplied water to the Lumber and Grist Mill (HALS NY-7-27). The large capstones are at the top and water worn bedrock is at the bottom. James W. Rosenthal, Renee Bieretz, photographers, July 2009.

Stevens Figure 5
Figure 5. The Lumber and Grist Mill aqueduct (HALS NY-7, Sheet 25 of 29). Drawn by Alan Grosse.

Farm use of millponds contaminated the water, making it unsuitable for domestic use and consumption. The North Family developed a secondary water source of mountain spring water for their domestic use and fire protection. Pure water from the springs was conveyed by piping into holding cisterns for domestic use in the kitchens of dwellings such as the First Dwelling House as described in this undated historic Shaker account, “We have plenty of hot and cold water in the various departments. We have also another model arrangement—a cooling room [larder] on a level with the kitchens which saves much backache and weariness, answering the purpose of a refrigerator or down-stairs cellar. It is built of stone, by the sides are coils of iron pipe through which the cold mountain water circulates and then passes into two large Portland cement sinks, where we set away the food in earthen crocks. We find it keeps better than when we put it on ice" (White 1847-1879 ).

Shaker journals record the great effort expended by the North Family to create a reliable water collection and distribution system within the residences, workshops, and farm. A reservoir was dug on the mountainside to supply pressurized water for fire protection, and five fire hydrants were placed around the buildings. According to a September 1875 Brethren's Journal entry, the pressure was high enough to spray the water above the roof tops. This same source of water was piped into the Second Wash House to turn the turbine that created power for washing machines and mechanized workshops located in the building. Water from the turbines as well as rainwater diverted from the building roofs was delivered to the barn and barnyard through underground pipes for the livestock. The Brethren even threaded some piping through chimneys to prevent this water from freezing. From the barn, the water was conducted by drain tiles and released into gardens and orchards as irrigation, and out again to the lower millpond, from where it would be used to power a mill. From there the water flowed into a streambed, down the mountain into the Shaker Swamp, and then out to the natural water cycle.

The Shaker use of water was so efficient it was remarked that "Shaker water wasn’t any good when they were done with it because it was all worn out” (Sprigg 1975). By the time the last Shaker left the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village in 1947, the North Family waterworks were in a deteriorating state of disrepair. The millponds had been silted in or drained, and the aqueducts and pipelines connecting them had been damaged by both natural and cultural forces (Coe 1986). The Shaker Museum and Library hopes to rehabilitate some of the historic millstream features to both aid with stormwater management and to interpret the historic waterpower system for the visiting public. This website has recently been updated to include a link to the NPS video tour of the Mount Lebanon Shaker Village waterworks, and a link to the HALS interactive Google Earth media project on Mount Lebanon Shaker Village (requires Google Earth.)
Coe, Michael D. Mount Lebanon Shaker Village NEH Application. September 30, 1986.

Evans, Oliver. The Young Mill-Wright and Miller’s Guide. Philadelphia: Self Published, 1795.

Greenwood, Richard. Mount Lebanon Shaker Society, National Registry of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form. Washington: National Park Service, 1983.

Sprigg, June. By Shaker Hands. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1975.

White, Anna. Vegetarianism Among Shakers. Republished from “The Counselor," 1847-1879. North Family, Mount Lebanon, N.Y.

David Driapsa, ASLA, is a historical landscape architect for the National Park Service. He serves as the HALS Coordinator for ASLA and is the HALS Liaison for Florida. He can be reached at

Chris Stevens, ASLA, is a landscape architect for the National Park Service (NPS) Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS). He is also the current chair of the ASLA Historic Preservation Professional Practice Network. He can be reached at

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Andrew Kohr, ASLA, Chair
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