Thorp Mill - A Compelling Snap of History

by Shutter Stops on 05/30/2012 - 12:06 pm

Tag: Shutter Stops


As Washington becomes ever more identified as a high tech mecca and wine market powerhouse (second only to California in output), it's easy to overlook our pioneer roots. Opportunities for a visit to our colorful history abound though, particularly when you’ve cleared the Cascades and find yourself on the many back roads in central and eastern Washington.


One such stop is the historic Thorp Mill, just scant seconds from I-90 between Cle Elum and Ellensburg. Maintained by the Thorp Mill Town Historical Preservation Society, the Mill serves as an important link to a not-so-distant past when Kittitas Valley residents worked the land around somewhat isolated towns and villages.


What began in the late 1800s as first a saw mill and then a grain mill, historical sources note that in 1907, the energy from the water wheel was utilized to power a steam generator having a 40-horsepower dynamo. This furnished electricity for laundering clothes two mornings each week, and for lighting homes for a few hours each evening. Thus, Thorp earned the distinction of being among the first Washington towns (and and the smallest unincorporated town in the Northwest) to have electricity. The Thorp Mill continued active operation until 1946; 30 years later, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and the local Preservation Society took over.


Shutter Stop Tips - If you’re a barn head (I am) and love incorporating flowing water into photos (I do), you’ll happily add the Thorp Mill to your photo library.  For exterior images, I recommend a morning shoot, before 9, particularly if it’s a sunny day (though the Mill doesn’t open for inside tours till later). 

•  Walk around before you shoot.  I spent a good 20 minutes just walking around the mill identifying the strongest compositions.  To my eye, the flowing water in the foreground nicely anchored the leading lines to the Mill and I set up tripod there.

 •  Great morning light literally bathes the Mill and the diverted river but get there before nine before the light becomes too harsh. 

•  If you’re using a digital point and shoot, set your white balance setting to cloudy or shady to emulate the golden light from the morning.

•  To achieve the silky flowing water effect (called veiling), set your ISO to its lowest possible setting. You can generally slow the flow of water with a shutter speed of about 1/15 of a second but it’s hard to hold your camera steady at such a slow shutter speed so use a tripod or a monopod if you have one. 

•  DSLR users -- use your polarizer! It will slow the shutter even more, darken the distracting reflections and glare from the water and saturation the color. Less work to do in post-processing!

•  Start at standing level but don’t rule out lower angles for a more impactful foreground. Go to your knees for a different capture.  And go wide!

•  Go landscape and portrait. Landscape underscores the impressive grounds; portrait emphasizes the water against the vertical Mill.

•  Watch how the light changes and move with it. As the increasing morning light slowly overpowered the water flow I liked, I moved to a higher position to capture the great lines and patterns of the Mill’s structure.    

•  If you’re stopping at mid-day, you can still photograph the east side of the mill; just compensate for the loss of direct light.  

•  Don’t pass up the chance to shoot the Mill’s machinery amidst the soft glow of late afternoon light.  Boost your ISO to avoid using the flash.


If time (and fuel needs) allow, stop in at the Thorp Fruit & Antique Mall , in continuous operation for more than 60 years! I always load up on fresh fruit (cherry season is right around the corner!!) and fill the tank at the neighboring station.  


Directions: From I-90 East Take exit 101 (between Cle Elum and Ellensburg) for Thorp Hwy toward Turn left onto S Thorp Hwy, drive through the hamlet of Thorp. Thorp Mill will be on the right.