Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Five Feet High and Rising

On a rainy May 16, 1874, residents of Williamsburg and surrounding towns were struck by disaster. Early that morning the Mill River Dam, which harnessed over six hundred million gallons of water, gave way, wiping out four villages, destroying homes and factories, and taking 139 lives early that morning. The explosive wave of water ranged between 20 and 40 feet wide, and was the length of a football field. It only grew larger as it barreled down the river bed, ripping sediment and trees out of the ground as it gained momentum. Survivors of the flood described it as an enormous cloud of dirt and debris (including furniture, farm animals, and even people) speeding downstream.

There was a coroner’s inquest to discover who was at fault. It was apparent that the mill owners who commissioned the dam construction in 1865 had no formal engineering training. After consulting with engineers on the potential project, the mill owners felt the proposals ranging around $100,000 were beyond their $30,000 budget. They instead decided to consult with a railroad engineer to write up an inexpensive and flexible design, and found contractors to do the work for a mere $22,000. After construction was complete, there was much speculation among professional engineers as well as villagers living around the dam as to its safety. These accounts of concern are well documented in the interesting and engaging book, In The Shadow of the Dam: the Aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874 by Elizabeth M. Sharpe.

In 1875 the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed an Act which would hold builders of dams accountable for the first time. Plans for building would now have to be approved by county commissioners before construction began, and inspections would continue to take place even after construction was complete, in order to assure the safety of the structures. You can view the State Library's copy of An Act To Provide For The Supervision Of The Construction And Maintenance Of Reservoirs And Dams online.

-April Pierce, Special Collections intern

Newspaper image taken from Hartford Daily Courant, May 18, 1874, Hartford CT (courtesy of Newsbank and the American Antiquarian Society, 2004).