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Dear Ms. Taylor,
Thank you for posting your request on History Hub!
A “gin” in this context is an old term for an “engine” that was once used for a variety of mechanical devices used to perform work. According to Lexico, a water gin is a “A machine or mechanical apparatus, especially a hoist, powered by water.” Mindat.org states that it is “A gin actuated by a water wheel.” Based on the examples we could find, there seems to have been at least two main ways that the term was used.
One was in the context of mining. This usage can be seen in Mindat’s definition of gin, John Smeaton's design for a water gin for drawing coals from pits, the references to the water gin in the The Cyclopaedia’s article on the winding machine, and the inclusion of a definition of the the water gin in the Glossary of Mining and Mineral Industry. Reports of the late John Smeaton: F. R. S., made on various occasions, in the course of his employment as a civil engineer also includes information about Smeaton’s design, which variously is called a water gin or a water coal gin.
The other usage we found was in the context of cotton. One example is in the letter to James Madison from Tench Coxe, 25 September 1817, which is available on the National’s Archives’s Founder Online website. The Transactions of the Annual Fair, published 1878 by the Georgia State Agricultural Society, contains a discussion about the advantages of steam power that contrasts the water gin with a steam powered gin and clearly references ginning cotton. “Water gin” being used in the context of cotton can also be found in an interview of Clyde Parker; a National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form for Historic and Architectural Properties of Clarke County, Alabama; the Transactions of the National Association of Cotton Manufacturers, Issue 60, 1896; The National Provisioner, Volume 48, 1913; and A History of Jefferson, 1836-1936. Based on these examples, “water gin” when used by the cotton industry seems to be a term for a water-powered (as opposed to animal or steam powered) cotton gin.
Depending on the contexts in which you are seeing the term used, you may wish to consult a historical society or other organization specializing in the history of the area described, or an organization specializing in industrial, technological, mining, or agricultural history.
We hope this information is helpful. Best of luck with your research!