Persian Water Wheel


As the port of Falmouth developed and the commercial and residential population increased, so did the need for fresh, clean water.  The town was founded in 1769, and in 1799, a regular supply of potable water flowed into Falmouth when King George III signed a charter inaugurating the activities of a group called the “Falmouth Water Company.”  Attempting to solve the water supply problem, the company chose a site on the Martha Brae River, near the town of Martha Brae about two miles inland from Falmouth, where they built a low diversion dam and sluice leading to a large Persian water wheel.  The wheel dumped water into a gravity fed system, which conducted it to a central holding tank located in Falmouth’s Water Square, and from there into businesses and private homes.  This water system established Falmouth as the first town in the western hemisphere to have a public water system, one year before New York City.

In 2008, Falmouth Heritage Renewal and students from the University of Virginia Falmouth Field School began to study, restore, and reconstruct portions of the water wheel, which had fallen into disrepair.  Mr. Desmond Leaky, owner of the water wheel at the time, had previously replaced parts and constructed sluice gates, but the water wheel barely turned due to a rusted shaft.  The team restored the wheel and, using many of the original parts, was also able to recreate the water wheel’s support system, catch basin, and cat walk. 

Once restored, the water wheel began lifting its 15 to 20 gallon buckets and completing a full rotation every thirty seconds, delivering an estimated 300 gallons of water per minute into the water system.  During the process, the team also discovered the six-inch cast iron pipes that once carried the water to the tank in Falmouth’s Water Square.  Although the holding basin no longer exists in Water Square, a water fountain at the center of Falmouth’s Town Center marks the location and is a reminder of the site’s historic significance.