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Park officials consider immobilizing mill wheel


The 24-year-old Dundalk man had climbed the mill wheel in Susquehanna State Park plenty of times over the years without mishap, an activity that's said to be a rite of passage for many who visit Rock Run's historic gristmill.

But last Sunday what began as a lark turned into a tragedy when the 30-foot wheel started spinning under Christopher Brian Reinthaler and his friend, 23-year-old Patricia Waldmann of Sparrows Point.

Ms. Waldmann was discharged yesterday from Maryland Shock

Trauma Center in Baltimore where she was taken for a crushed leg. And park authorities -- at Mr. Reinthaler's urging -- are crafting plans to anchor the mill wheel when it's not in use.

"If I had any thoughts that we would take a couple of steps and the wheel would start spinning so fast, I never would have taken her there to climb on it," said Mr. Reinthaler, recovering at home from leg injuries.

"Just let people know that thing can kill you," he added.

The gristmill, at the end of Rock Run Road in northeastern Harford County, was built by John Stump Jr. in 1794, or shortly after that, according to C. Milton Wright, author of "Our Harford Heritage."

FTC Rock Run Mill was acquired by the state in 1963 and is operated on weekends and holidays to demonstrate to visitors how millers once ground corn.

In normal operation, water from a pond is released through an overhead pipe. The flowing water fills buckets on the large wheel, which is situated in a 10-foot pit with about 20 feet of the wheel showing above ground.

The weight of the flowing water causes the wheel to spin. The larger wheel turns a 4-foot-diameter internal wheel connected to a shaft on the grinding mechanism inside the mill.

To date, a 4-foot-high picket fence has been the only security measure to keep visitors from climbing on the water wheel, said Ranger Rick Smith, the park manager.

In the wake of last Sunday's accident, however, park officials will use a rope to bind the internal wheel, which they hope will keep the larger wheel from rotating accidentally.

The goal, said Mr. Smith, is to secure the large wheel without disabling the machinery, since the gristmill is used for demonstrations.

"Whatever we do, we have to be certain that our miller can undo, or detach, when he arrives to begin operations on the weekend," Mr. Smith said. "We can't expect him to climb down into the pit, so there's no other way to prevent the larger wheel from turning."

Mr. Smith said officials were encouraged to take safety measures after Mr. Reinthaler told them that others also have climbed the mill's wheel.

"I'm not aware of any other accidents there, or of anyone climbing on the wheel before, but his call prompted us to take a look at it and try to figure out what can be done to keep it from happening again," Mr. Smith said.

The ranger, whose office has completed its investigation of the accident, speculated that the wheel might have moved more easily than usual last weekend because of water dripping into its buckets.

"Even when the water [from the pond] is shut off, the old pipe leaks and water drips into the wheel's buckets," he said.

Mr. Smith said that officials will have to keep a close eye on their scheme to bind the smaller wheel.

He noted that there is some concern that if someone climbs on the larger wheel and turns it after the smaller wheel is bound, the shaft will bend or break, forcing cancellation of the weekend demonstrations.

And even if the wheel is secured, park officials stress that there's only so much they can do to keep the structure off limits to trespassers. The bottom line, they say, is that visitors should not be in the park after sunset, they should not climb over the fence and they should use common sense.

Mr. Reinthaler, meanwhile, warned that he is not the only one to engage in what he now realizes is a hazardous activity.

"It was a stupid mistake on my part," he said. "I shouldn't have been on it [the wheel], but it just took off."

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