Cape Cod windmills then and now
I've always loved windmills. There's something about them that just
smile. I think it may have something to do with the combination
of engineering elegance, and architectural whimsy that they universally
exhibit. I like em all, from the old weather beaten Aeromotor out in Auntie Em's pasture, to the shingled mill tower so unjustly attacked by Don
Quixote de la Mancha. In some respect, my favorites are the businesslike
acres of high tech spinning industry one finds in modern wind farms. Certainly part
of the appeal is the lure of getting something for nothing. Using our
minds to create a device to harness this insubstantial energy then stepping back
and letting it do real work while we sit in the shade. When we moved to
Cape Cod in the mid
1990's, I was delighted to find that the salty breezes here have powered many a
windmill over the span of history and they are still very much in the news
The Past: Canvas & Shingles
The first windmill constructed on Cape Cod was built in 1687 at Cobb's Hill
in Barnstable Village. This eight sided smock-type mill was built by the
millwright Thomas Paine of Eastham, Massachusetts who received 32£ for his
efforts. The success of Cobb's Hill mill quickly gave rise to many others
and over the course of the next one hundred years over fifty of these statuesque
beauties were spread over the Cape. Nearly every town had at least one
windmill to perform the essential task of grinding the harvest of grain.
The local mills also served a more social function as a gathering place where
the townsfolk gathered to enjoy a chat while they waited for their grains to be
Every successful windmill required the efforts of at least three talented
individuals. First, there was the millwright, who constructed the windmill
tower, a structure strong enough to withstand the fierce winter
storms common to the Cape. Next came the millstone picker, who was
responsible for selecting and carving the millstones as well as
maintaining them once they were in service. Finally, the miller, often a
retired sea captain, who ran the mill, adjusted it based on the wind
conditions and repaired the many yards of its canvas sails. Not so very
different from a ship after all.
The smock-type windmills traditionally built on Cape Cod were a second
generation improvement on the earlier post mills developed in Europe.
Smock-type mills have a fixed tower housing the mill machinery, and a
"smock" or cap on top that rotates, allowing the blades and rotor to
follow the wind. Typically the body of a smock-type mill is octagonal and
tapers slightly inward as it rises above the ground. Inside the tower were
one or more sets of millstones used to grind the grain. Millstones are
typically thick granite disks about a meter in diameter and 40 centimeters thick
with shallow grooves radiating out from the center. The bottom stone is
fixed in place and the top stone rotates above it, powered by the blades and
rotor through a gearing system. The distance between the top and the
bottom stones could be adjusted, controlling the coarseness of the
You can still find many fine examples of these historical windmills
throughout the Cape. Lovingly restored windmills can be found in the towns
of Bourne, Orleans, Chatham, Sandwich, Brewster and Eastham among others.
Some these are privately owned, while others, such as the Old Mill in Eastham
are open to the public.
The Future: Turbines and Megawatts
While the old shingled windmills spinning slowly in the sea breeze have a
solid lock on our nostalgic daydreams, the imagination of modern cape codders has been captured by windmills of a very different
type. Cape Wind Associates, a private corporation proposes to put 130
high tech wind turbines on Horseshoe Shoal, five miles off
the southern shore of Cape Cod. Each wind turbine will stand 197 meters
above sea level, and have three 50 meter blades. The project will cover
25 square miles and a peak output will produce enough energy to power more than
half a million homes, and save over a hundred million gallons of oil each
year. Cape Wind Associates anticipates spending over $150 million dollars
on the project.
On the face of it, you might think that this would be a dream project for
Cape Cod. After all, it's clean, it's green and it would make a statement
to the rest of the country that we are serious about exploring alternative
sources of energy. Unfortunately, the reality has been nearly so simple
and the project is currently snarled in a nasty political tug of
The unlikely list of project opponents includes:
The give and take of the argument is a fascinating study in the complexity of
modern environmental politics and NIMBY-esque rhetoric. Here are some
Pro: The most common ocean mammals in Nantucket Sound are seals. Extensive studies of the
Bockstigen wind farm off
the shore of Sweden found no adverse impact to the abundant local seal
population there. In fact, seals have been regularly observed sunning
themselves on rocks near the Bockstigen wind farm and near the Tuno Knob wind
farm off the shore of Denmark.
Con: Horseshoe Shoals is within 7 miles of Muskeget and 12.5
miles of Monomoy islands, which are important haul-out areas for more than
7,000 gray and harbor seals and pupping sites for gray seals. Data
indicate that harp, hooded, harbor, and gray seals are stranded regularly from
Falmouth to Monomoy and are, therefore, likely transiting the area on a
regular basis. Because of potential noise during construction, wildlife may
abandon habitat, seals may abandon pups, and animals may experience
potentially permanent hearing loss.
Pro: When designed properly, wind turbines are much safer to
birds than other sources of energy production. The nation’s reliance on
fossil fuel energy has brought enormous harm to birds from oil spills, habitat
destruction due to practices like “mountaintop removal” mining, and
mercury contamination of the fish they eat.
Con: Horseshoe Shoals is in the middle of the Atlantic flyway
with one of the largest known concentrations of waterfowl on the east coast.
As many as 250,000 to 500,000 birds are found here for at least six months of
the year. The endangered roseate tern and threatened piping plover are
known to migrate through Nantucket Sound, as do thousands of other birds
during their spring and fall migration. It is critical that these
species and their rich habitat are not adversely impacted by the construction
of a windmill farm.
Pro: Cape Wind does not seek exclusive use of Horseshoe
Shoal. Access for boaters who use this shallow shoal will not change. The wind
turbines will be spaced six-to-nine football fields apart to provide plenty of
room for navigation. Cape Wind will be given permission to install wind
turbines only if government agencies determine that, on balance, it is in the
public interest to provide this clean, non-polluting electricity from this
location in this manner. Cape Wind is undergoing a full, comprehensive and
rigorous permitting review from federal, state and regional authorities.
Numerous government authorities are involved in reviewing and approving
various aspects of this project including: US Army Corps of Engineers, US
Coast Guard, Federal Aviation Administration, Massachusetts Energy Facilities
Siting Board, Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, Massachusetts office of Coastal Zone Management and the
Cape Cod Commission.
Con: The Corps of Engineers is considering permitting this
project under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act, which is designed to
address hazards to navigation. This is insufficient for a project of this
magnitude. Other activities that impact the marine environment, such as oil
and gas exploration and development, are subject to laws requiring issuance of
leases through a competitive process, and provide procedures for addressing
environmental concerns and balancing project benefits against adverse impacts.
Until the proper process has been established to consider the impacts of
windmill farms such as this project, we call for a halt to the issuance of
permits for wind, wave, and other energy installations in federal waters.
Pro: From the shore, the slender supporting towers will blend
in with the horizon making them nearly invisible on all but the clearest days.
While many people who have seen modern wind turbines describe them as
beautiful and fascinating to watch, we recognize that aesthetic values vary.
The project’s location several miles away from shore will reduce the visual
impact of the wind turbines. On clear days, they will appear like small masts
on the horizon.
Con: The towers will not, as developers insist, "blend
in with the marine landscape" unless they are installed under water. The
horizon and miles of towers will be plainly visible from south-facing points
on Cape Cod at or above sea level.
And on and on and on. The long history of windmills on Cape Cod
continues to this day.
Look there, my friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or
more monstrous giants present themselves, all of whom
I mean to engage in battle and slay!
Comprehensive Windmill Website: http://www.windmillworld.com/
Mechanical drawings of a Smock-type Windmill:
Cape Wind Associates: http://www.capewind.org
PMMRC Windfarm Statement of Concern: http://pmmrc.org/windfarmstatementofconcern.htm
Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound: http://www.saveoursound.org/