The fatal Mill River flood was distressingly predictable

In the Shadow of the Dam: The Aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874
By Elizabeth M. Sharpe
Free Press, New York, 304 pages.

Although floods still rank as major killers in many parts of the world, here in New England rampaging rivers aren’t a source of much worry. But it wasn’t always this way. Prior to the massive, region-wide counterattack against nature spearheaded by the Army Corps of Engineers in the middle of the 20th century, New England’s rivers and streams could kill—and often did. The worst examples included the 1936 flood along the Connecticut River and, of course, the flooding associated with the great 1938 hurricane. After that, hurricanes Carol in 1954 and Diane in 1955 did their level best to chase the last remnants of New England’s textile industry from the region.

These events, frightening as they were, cannot compare in shock, scale, or fury to the calamity along the Mill River in western Massachusetts in 1874, the result of the sudden but not entirely unanticipated failure of a mill reservoir dam. That the flood, which took the lives of 139 people, is not better known today is perhaps due not only to the passage of time but also to the lack of a single coherent account of the event. No contemporaries seriously attempted to tell the story, and a similar but even greater disaster at Johnstown, Pa., just 15 years later, seemingly eclipsed forever the horrendous events along the Mill River. At least, until now.

Elizabeth M. Sharpe, a former director of education at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and a resident of Amherst, has filled this gap in our regional memory with In the Shadow of the Dam. The book draws on contemporary accounts, legal documents, and personal letters to paint a picture of life in a vibrant 19th-century manufacturing community that is swept away in an event as harrowing as any in a modern-day disaster movie.

The stars of the first part of Sharpe’s story are the entrepreneurs who harnessed the river, imagined new products and manufacturing methods, and made their fortunes with them. These same men also turn out to be the villains of the piece—blind to their own ignorance of engineering, frightened of spending the money to build the dam properly, and supremely capable of rationalizing their errors, no matter how grievous. As a result, In the Shadow of the Dam is both an entertaining bit of historical reporting and a timeless tale of venality getting the best of human nature.

Sharpe largely resists the temptation to moralize over her cast of characters, or even to second-guess them. Thus, even the most culpable are rendered as human beings—familiar, accessible, and not beyond our sympathy even when their actions seem inexcusable. For condemnation, events provide enough.

Among the local grandees is Joel Hayden of the eponymous Haydenville, a village of Williamsburg, who rose to prominence as a manufacturer and also became lieutenant governor of the state. His brass works, which employed scores of local residents producing plumbing fixtures and other items, was just one of his business interests. But, like many other manufacturers, he prospered to some extent at the whim of nature. The Mill River, which flows from the Highland Lakes in Goshen to the Connecticut River on Northampton’s southern border, sometimes nearly dried up, stopping production and throwing operatives out of work. In 1864, Hayden proposed the creation of a large storage reservoir that could ensure year-round water power for himself and other manufacturers.

Because the project would benefit all the businesses in the valley, Hayden enlisted wide financial and political support. The names of fellow entrepreneurs—Spelman, Skinner, Bodman, and Dimock—filled the roster of dam proprietors. From the start, though, the project flirted with disaster. The budget the proprietors set aside to build the dam ended up a fraction of the cost estimate provided by the first engineering firm they hired. So, rather than revisit their expectations (or their pocketbooks), the financiers sought out someone who would deliver a “yes” to their request for a massive dam at a bargain price. In the end, they settled on a rough specification rather than a full plan, drawn up by an engineer who specialized in railroads, not dams. And that sketchy blueprint was passed along to a contractor inexperienced in dam construction.

Giving the proprietors what they paid for, the contractor cut corners at almost every step. Rotting tree stumps were left in place under the dam; walls were not sunk to bedrock, or “hardpan”; inferior materials were used; and grouting was done in the dead of winter when it was too cold for the mortar to cure properly. Worst of all, the dam was fitted with a drain culvert smaller than what was specified, allowing the reservoir to drain no faster than it naturally filled up. In short, the dam was a disaster waiting to happen.

Villagers expressed concern about the safety of the reservoir from its inception, partly because of stories of Hayden himself riding up to check on the reservoir in the dead of night when there was a heavy rain. But a decade of false alarms lulled them into a false sense of security.

To his credit, Hayden was prudent enough to insist that the rickety reservoir be kept no more than half full. But when Hayden died, in November 1873, those who remained in charge grew bolder. The next spring, the proprietors ignored the numerous and substantial leaks along the dam’s face and, anxious to harness every drop of water, ordered the reservoir filled to capacity. On the morning of May 16, 1874, the dam literally exploded skyward as millions of tons of reservoir water undercut the dam and lifted it aside.

Witnesses saw a great, rolling wall of debris, 20 to 40 feet in height.
Sharpe is at her best describing, breathlessly and with earnest fidelity, the deadly minutes that followed. Witnesses saw not a wave of water but a great, rolling wall of debris, between 20 and 40 feet in height, consisting of the thousands of cubic yards of earth and stone of the dam itself, and nearly all the trees, soil, and human-made material it encountered below. Buildings of all sizes were swept from their foundations and pounded to bits. When the flood hit Skinnerville, another Williamsburg mill village, Sharpe tells us, “The torrent reached for the storehouses, dye house, and wood house, consuming them as it smothered the three-story factory and pulled the structure down. In one single swift moment the mill workers saw their homes, their jobs, and all their possessions washed away.”

Fortunately for the thousands of people in its path, a few heroes raced ahead of the flood—Sharpe estimates it traveled about nine miles an hour—in an effort to warn the workers and citizens of the fate that awaited them. A few scoffed; more ran, and most of those who ran survived. Thus, despite nearly erasing several thriving communities, the death toll, initially thought to be as high as 2,000, ended up at only 139. But some entire families were erased, and hundreds more were left homeless.

The proprietors, the designers, and the builders of the dam each got tarred in varying degrees by the formal inquest, though none suffered anything worse than a tarnished reputation. Also put under scrutiny, albeit more obliquely, was the Commonwealth’s toothless system of oversight. Untrained county commissioners could and did “accept” a dam, as was the case with the Williamsburg structure, more on the reputation of its owner than on the basis of sound engineering.

Sharpe makes much of the influence the Mill River disaster had in encouraging reform, but in this she is not entirely convincing. Even two subsequent dam failures within a matter of months, one of which nearly led to a Mill River-scale calamity, were not enough to force anything more than measured change in Massachusetts and neighboring states. Indeed, Sharpe admits it was not until the start of the 20th century that anything like adequate dam oversight became the norm here.

Aside from attaching more significance to the event than the facts seem to support, Sharpe provides a wonderful account of an awful tragedy. And this long-forgotten episode of Massachusetts history is a reminder of the perpetual challenge of making institutions, both public and private, as responsible as possible without condemning them to strictures that sap their vitality.

Meet the Author
In truth, what’s most striking about the aftermath of the Mill River flood is that the valley’s entrepreneurs largely went back to their old ways. One of the mill owners even lost another, smaller dam the very next year. But that story—outrage, followed by return to an almost-unchanged normalcy—is familiar enough today. We are now as scandalized by the shenanigans of the corporate boardroom as we are by government malfeasance. But, also like our 19th-century predecessors, we are slow to make changes that would guard against their recurrence, especially if there is a price to pay in future prosperity.

Alan R. Earls is a writer based in Franklin.