The Mill River Flood 150 years later: ‘The whole valley was a wild torrent’

A  marker at the end of East Main Street in Williamsburg explaining the damage when the Mill River flooded the town.

A marker at the end of East Main Street in Williamsburg explaining the damage when the Mill River flooded the town. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

The ruins of  Joel Hayden’s brass works factory in Haydenville are shown following the Mill River Flood.

The ruins of Joel Hayden’s brass works factory in Haydenville are shown following the Mill River Flood. COURTESY HISTORIC NORTHAMPTON

George Cheney, gatekeeper at the Williamsburg Reservoir Dam, rode to town to warn mill owner Onslow Spelman and others of the Mill River Flood in May 1874.

George Cheney, gatekeeper at the Williamsburg Reservoir Dam, rode to town to warn mill owner Onslow Spelman and others of the Mill River Flood in May 1874. COURTESY HISTORIC NORTHAMPTON

Visitors examine the ruins of the dam at what had been the Williamsburg Reservoir following the collapse of the poorly designed and cheaply built dam on May 16, 1874.

Visitors examine the ruins of the dam at what had been the Williamsburg Reservoir following the collapse of the poorly designed and cheaply built dam on May 16, 1874. COURTESY HISTORIC NORTHAMPTON

Volunteers work on clearing debris on the Florence meadows following the Mill River Flood in May 1874.

Volunteers work on clearing debris on the Florence meadows following the Mill River Flood in May 1874. COURTESY HISTORIC NORTHAMPTON

Several houses in Skinnerville, like this one belonging to Thaddeus Bartlett, were thrown across the flat by the Mill River Flood but later put back on their foundations. Many such houses are occupied today.

Several houses in Skinnerville, like this one belonging to Thaddeus Bartlett, were thrown across the flat by the Mill River Flood but later put back on their foundations. Many such houses are occupied today. COURTESY HISTORIC NORTHAMPTON

Eric Weber, the chair of the Williamsburg Historical Commission, talks about the Mill River Flood.

Eric Weber, the chair of the Williamsburg Historical Commission, talks about the Mill River Flood. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Eric Weber, the chair of the Williamsburg Historical Commission, talks about the Mill River Flood.

Eric Weber, the chair of the Williamsburg Historical Commission, talks about the Mill River Flood. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Eric Weber, the chairman of the Williamsburg Historical Commission, talks about the Mill River Flood.

Eric Weber, the chairman of the Williamsburg Historical Commission, talks about the Mill River Flood. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

The Mill River at the end of East Main Street, Williamsburg.

The Mill River at the end of East Main Street, Williamsburg. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Christopher Clark and Daria D’Arienzo mark the grave sites of the victims of the Mill River Flood along with the heroes who were awarded medals for bravery at the Village Hill Cemetery in Williamsburg.

Christopher Clark and Daria D’Arienzo mark the grave sites of the victims of the Mill River Flood along with the heroes who were awarded medals for bravery at the Village Hill Cemetery in Williamsburg. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Christopher Clark and Daria D’Arienzo mark the gravesites of the victims of the Mill River Flood, along with the heroes who were awarded medals for bravery, at the Village Hill Cemetery in Williamsburg.

Christopher Clark and Daria D’Arienzo mark the gravesites of the victims of the Mill River Flood, along with the heroes who were awarded medals for bravery, at the Village Hill Cemetery in Williamsburg. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Christopher Clark and Daria D’Arienzo mark the grave sites of the victims of the Mill River Flood along with the heroes who were awarded medals for bravery at the Village Hill Cemetery in Williamsburg.

Christopher Clark and Daria D’Arienzo mark the grave sites of the victims of the Mill River Flood along with the heroes who were awarded medals for bravery at the Village Hill Cemetery in Williamsburg. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

 Christopher Clark and Daria D’Arienzo mark the grave sites of the victims of the Mill River Flood along with the heroes who were awarded medals for bravery at the Village Hill Cemetery in Williamsburg.

Christopher Clark and Daria D’Arienzo mark the grave sites of the victims of the Mill River Flood along with the heroes who were awarded medals for bravery at the Village Hill Cemetery in Williamsburg. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 05-15-2024 5:58 PM

Modified: 05-16-2024 4:54 PM


WILLIAMSBURG — Like many mill owners before and since, the consortium that created the Williamsburg Reservoir in 1866 wanted more power for their factories, and they wanted to pay as little as possible for it.

Eight years after the dam began its contribution to industrial progress, it failed catastrophically, destroying mills and homes along the Mill River all the way to Florence and claiming 139 lives.

May 16 this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Mill River Flood. To commemorate the occasion, several area historians, artists, archivists, landscape experts and others have pulled together a wide range of events, including historical reenactments, guided walks, a cascade of bells, talks and community gatherings.

Among those speaking about the flood will be Eric Weber, a retired landscape designer, historical commission member and de facto Williamsburg historian since moving to town 40 years ago.

Mills, such as Onslow Spelman’s button factory and Joel Hayden’s brass works, had sprung up along the Mill River in the 19th century, but the stream flow was often insufficient to power their mill wheels, Weber said, especially in dry summers.

What they needed was a dam to hold back the water during the spring, then release it in a controlled way during summer and fall.

Hayden, Spelman and several other mill owners downstream formed the Williamsburg Reservoir Co. in 1865 and got to work on damming the East Branch of the Mill River, a few miles up Ashfield Road from Williamsburg. The spot was chosen because it offered a steep-sided valley with a large watershed, maximizing the volume of water the reservoir could hold.

The dam consisted of a “theoretically impermeable wall of unquarried field stone, 5 feet thick at the base, 2 feet at the top,” Weber said. Earthen embankments were piled on both sides. But the stone wall was built on gravel because the builders wanted to save on the cost of digging 6 feet down to bedrock, according to Elizabeth Sharpe’s “In the Shadow of the Dam.”

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Construction went on through the winter, which was ill-advised, according to Weber, because of the freeze-thaw effect on the mortar. It was a “back-of-the-envelope design” by an engineer whose only experience involved working on a railroad spur, he said.

“It leaked in small ways right from the start,” Weber said, because the mortar hadn’t set properly.

Eventually, he said, the engineers concluded that the persistent leaks weren’t a problem because the channels wouldn’t grow any larger.

The 600-foot-long dam rose 43 feet above the original streambed. It impounded a reservoir a mile long and a third of a mile wide, with an average depth of 22 feet.

There’s clear evidence that the mill owners wanted to save money, Weber said. Rejecting an all-stone design costing $125,000, the company settled on one that cost $30,000.

For most of its short life, there was local concern about the dam’s safety. When the reservoir company called for county commissioners to inspect the dam in 1867, they failed it. The company then spent up to $10,000 on improvements, after which the commissioners approved it, so limiting the company’s liability.

Joel Hayden, a former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts and the wealthiest and most influential mill owner, was concerned all along, Weber said. He prevailed on the others not to allow the reservoir to reach full capacity, which he believed would put too much stress on the dam.

In late 1873, though, Hayden died. The winter was snowy, the spring of 1874 was very wet — and the reservoir filled to the top.

This was what caused the dam to fail, Weber said. The 16-inch outlet pipe with the control valve was supposed to have been an 18-inch pipe, but that alone is unlikely to have made the difference, he said.

Riders to the rescue

George Cheney, the dam’s gatekeeper and an employee of Spelman’s, lived in a cabin overlooking the reservoir with his wife, parents and children. Sometime after 7 a.m. on Saturday, May 16, his father saw a large section of the dam’s earthwork moving out into the stream and alerted his son, who immediately jumped on his horse and rode the three miles to town.

It wasn’t the first time Cheney had raised the alarm, Weber said, and when he got to Spelman’s, he had to waste several minutes convincing the mill owner that the dam really was about to burst.

Spelman then sent him over to the livery — now Cichy’s Garage — to get a fresh horse. There he met Collins Graves, delivering milk with his horse and cart, who quickly took off to spread the news downstream. In Haydenville, he encountered Myron Day of Leeds, who was on his way to visit Henry Birmingham, the superintendent of Henry James’ woolen mill, where the Williamsburg Hardware store now stands.

Day turned around and rode back to warn people at the Silk Mill in Leeds and George Warner’s button factory, which employed 200.

About 20 minutes after Cheney rode out, the dam gave way.

“Cheney’s mother said it looked like the dam lifted up from the bottom,” Weber said.

It unleashed a wall of water, 600 million gallons, gathering trees, rocks and debris as it rolled downstream. Initially moving at around 15 mph, it would have soon slowed to around 9 mph, Weber said.

Eyewitness Eugene Davis in Williamsburg saw a wave 20 to 30 feet high.

“A great mass of brush, trees and trash was rolling rapidly towards me,” he wrote. “I have tried many times to describe how this appeared; perhaps the best simile is that of hay rolling over and over as a hayrake moves along the field, only this roll seemed 20 feet high, and the spears of grass in the hayrake enlarged to limbs and trunks of trees mixed with boards and timbers; at this time I saw no water.”

The first lives claimed were those of Sarah Collyer Bartlett and her 3-year-old daughter, Viola Collyer, who lived upstream from Spelman’s.

Cheney and the other riders’ warnings were mostly given at factories, and many residents didn’t hear them. They saved many lives, but they couldn’t save everyone. In the half-mile from the two bridges in Williamsburg, the flood killed 57 people and demolished two dozen houses, Weber said.

Some would have had to cross the river to get to higher ground, and some who heeded the alert went the wrong way. Henry Birmingham ran west toward his house; the house came to meet him, Weber said, and he and his family all perished.

Civil War surgeon Elbridge Johnson’s home was in the center of the flood, which demolished the house and took the lives of Johnson and his family of six.

Down the road in Skinnerville, a village that was lost to the flood and never rebuilt, William Skinner’s silk mill was destroyed but, thanks to Collins Graves, all the workers had enough time to reach safety.

Skinner’s house was flooded to the first-floor ceiling, but it was massive enough to survive largely intact. Skinner had the house moved to Holyoke; it’s now the Wistariahurst Museum. He also moved his business to Holyoke, where it grew to become the largest silk mill under one roof in North America, Weber said.

Hayden’s memorial

In Haydenville that Saturday morning, Joel Hayden’s factories — the brass works, tobacco factory and cotton mill — were filled with hundreds of workers. A little before 8 a.m., the flood hit the brass works, reducing the three-story brick building to a fragment of its 600-foot length. All 300 workers but one survived. The factory’s 5-ton boiler washed into Hayden’s front yard, Weber said.

In a strange coincidence, the Haydenville Church that day was decorated with flowers and black banners for Joel Hayden’s memorial service. Instead of a service, people used the church vestry to lay out flood victims.

Downstream on Main and South Main streets, nearly every building was leveled.

Myron Day, who had turned his horse around to warn people in Leeds, reached the silk mill, where Chartpak is now, and George Warner’s button factory in time to allow all but a few to escape.

At Cook’s Dam, the biggest drop on the river at 33 feet, the flood took out the dam, like it did the three other dams upstream, then spread out on the meadows. It covered the entire village of Leeds, leaving only three houses standing on their original sites and killing 51 people.

Mill River Button Co. worker Fred Howard detailed his experience of the flood in letters to his brother.

Writing of “a scene that can never be described and I hope I may never see again,” he continued: “The whole valley was a wild torrent filled with men, women and children, horses and cattle, trees and broken houses, the former waving their hands and crying for help until some timber struck them and either killed them outright or pushed them under and drowned them.”

Warnings telegraphed to Florence prevented any further deaths, but the slow-moving sea of debris still took out bridges and damaged factories. It also carried dozens of bodies. Volunteers came in the hours and days following the flood to recover them.

In “History of Florence,” Clayton E. Davis writes that the bodies were taken to a carpenter’s shop on North Main Street and laid out in two rows.

“As soon as a body was recognized, it was removed, and many were the heart-rending scenes as the bereaved ones recognized companions, friends or relatives in that silent company.”

By Sunday, when church services were canceled in favor of relief parties, 42 bodies had been found on the Florence meadows.

The aftermath

Beginning the day of the flood, trains brought supplies, volunteers, sightseers, newspaper reporters — and looters.

In an effort to determine who should be accountable for such a great disaster, an inquest was held, initiated by Dr. William Trow.

“The inquest concluded that there were so many to blame, there was no one to blame,” Weber said.

The inquest chose one victim at random — a John Atkinson — to determine what caused his death.

The jury faulted the mill owners, the county commissioners, the contractors who had cut corners and who had no relevant experience, the engineers who designed the dam and failed to oversee its construction, and the “delinquent legislation” that chartered the reservoir company without a guarantee of safety for life and property.

“Nobody paid,” Weber said. “There was not a single lawsuit.”

Widely vilified was Lucius Dimock, owner of the silk mill in Leeds, who “distinguished himself at the inquest by being a driveling fool,” Weber said. “I think he was an embarrassment to everyone involved.”

Many of the mill owners did rebuild, and a group of them under William Skinner organized a relief fund to help people who had lost their family homes, Weber said.

Some received a trunk full of clothes and money with which they could get out of town and start a new life elsewhere. Some went to work in Skinner’s new mill.

Joel Hayden Jr. took charge of his father’s business and determined to rebuild the brass works. Today’s Brassworks building dates to 1876. Hayden kept the entire workforce on the payroll searching downstream for everything they could salvage, especially patterns, wooden mock-ups used to make the molds that brass fixtures — growing in importance in the new age of indoor plumbing — were cast in.

As the first dam disaster in U.S. history, the Mill River Flood became national and even international news. On July 16, 1874, the West Briton newspaper, out of Truro in England, carried a “story of the Mill River Flood and the singular conduct of a hen that was out in it,” as told by the Rev. Ward Beecher during one of his sermons.

“She had laid seventeen eggs in a barrel when the mill-dam broke. She was carried away, but continued hatching down the river. Finally, her barrel was drifted safely upon the bank, but though a good deal bumped on her way, and on her final stoppage, the stedfast hen persisted in sitting until her seventeen chickens made their way into the world.

“Mr. Beecher told the story in illustration of the perseverance of the saints.”

The heroes who warned so many of the impending flood would be long remembered. Collins Graves, who was known as the principal hero because he saved the greatest number of lives, became the subject of several poems, including John Boyle O’Reilly’s “The Ride of Collins Graves,” which the Holyoke Transcript-Telegram reprinted in full when Graves died at 69 in 1910.

James Pentland can be reached at jpentland@ gazettenet.com.