Mercer’s Mills and Bridge

Out on the eastern border of Lancaster County, spanning the Octoraro Creek between Sadsbury Township, Lancaster County and West Fallowfield Township, Chester County lies the Mercer’s Mills Covered Bridge. Thomas Kipphorn calls this “Captain John Mercer’s Mill Bridge”. Who was Captain John and where were the mills?

The research on this location was difficult because the deed records have some gaps making it hard to connect the dots. And the names of the various owners are spelled (or misspelled) in different ways by different sources. The marker by the bridge even misspells the name of the creek! I have used the spelling of the names in the deed records thinking that they would be the most accurate. Although one early owner is spelled “Staret” in one deed and “Sterrett” in others.

What follows is the story as well as I could piece it together. It is a brief story about a remote edge of the county that was once a busy, industrial location.

The story begins in 1743 when Robert Lewis received a patent from the Pennsylvania Proprietors for 136 acres (plus a 6% allowance for roads) situated along the Octoraro Creek, partly in Chester County and partly in Lancaster County. The patent stipulated that Lewis had to pay an annual “quit rent” of one half-penny Sterling per acre. According to a marker on the site, the first mill was built in the following year, 1744.

Lewis owned the property and operated the mill for about 13 years, then sold it to Joseph and James Hewes in 1757. Lewis must have added an additional 70 acres because the tract at that time contained 206 acres. The new owners were required to pay the same quit rent to the Proprietors. Joseph eventually bought his brother’s share of the property. In 1768, Joseph was served with a lawsuit that he apparently lost, and the sheriffs of the respective counties seized the property on both sides of the creek and granted it to a gentleman named John Hamilton.

It is not clear what happened next, but in 1774 three tracts of land, including the original 136 acres, turned up in the hands of a real estate broker named Tobias Miller. Miller granted the property to Martin Horst in 1781. However, Martin died shortly after, and his heirs conveyed the property back to Tobias Miller and James Sterrett (Starrett) as co-owners in 1784. James Sterrett built a second mill on the estate 1786. Two years later he assumed full ownership which he then shared with his brother David. Tobias Miller retained ownership of the first mill for a while but then sold it to the Sterret brothers in 1800.

From 1804 until 1831, the mill property passed through five or six different owners until it came into the possession of John Mercer on March 1, 1831. John owned and operated the mills for the next 37 years. He converted one of the mills to a paper mill sometime before 1855.

Captain John Mercer

In 1839, John and his first wife had a son. They named him John Quincey Mercer. In 1861, at the age of 22, J. Q. Mercer enlisted in the 147th Pennsylvania Regiment of the Union Army. He saw action at Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain in Tennessee, and he was at Gettysburg. He worked his way up the ranks until he was made Captain on March 16,1864. He was wounded in the battle of Pine Knob, Georgia in which he lost one of his legs. He was discharged from the army on account of his wound in 1865.

Returning to Christiana, Captain Mercer taught school for a few years until he was elected Clerk of the Orphan’s Court.  Later, he moved to Washington, D.C. where he served as a doorkeeper at the House of Representatives for a while and as a clerk in the pension office. Captain Mercer died on June 7, 1906, at the age of 67. The family held his funeral at his son’s home at 351 East King Street, Lancaster. He was survived by his wife, his son, Joseph, and a half-sister, Mary Mercer.

Meanwhile, in 1868, the elder John Mercer and his wife, Rachel, sold the paper mill to the brothers Writer and Edmund Bicking, who operated it as the W&E Bicking Paper Mill. The Bicking brothers went bankrupt in 1876 and the mill was put up for sheriff’s sale. Rachel Mercer then reacquired the property.

Mercer’s Mills Covered Bridge

At this time, traffic wanting to cross the Octoraro Creek had to do so at a ford below the mill dam. The ford was locally known as “Mercer’s Ford”. In 1878, the roadmasters noted a need for a bridge at this location and put out Request for Proposals to build it. The red line on the map below indicates the old road alignment while the yellow line shows the new alignment with the bridge.

Map showing the mills, races, dam, old ford, and location of the covered bridge.

The commissioners of the two counties met in Christiana in the summer of 1880 to review the proposals.  Each county was to contribute one half of the cost. B. J. Carter submitted the lowest bid. But when the Lancaster commissioners sent the bond for Mr. Carter to the Chester County commissioners for approval, those commissioners, upon learning who were the bondsman, rejected the bond. The contract was then awarded to the next highest bidder, John A. Wimer of Lancaster who bid $1,737. The portal of this bridge is unique because it has horizontal framing while most other bridges have vertical framing. And the sides of the portal on this bridge resemble Greek columns. Perhaps Mr. Wimer wanted to make his mark with this unique construction.

Rachel Mercer sold the mill plantation in 1881. The paper mill went through a few more owners until it came into the hands of Ellsworth (Elmer) Hults in 1899. In 1907, the mill was destroyed by fire. The fire started on the second floor but the workers on the first floor were unaware of the danger until a passerby alerted them. They escaped just before the structure collapsed. This brought an end to the industrial era of the Octoraro Creek.