by Elizabeth M. Sharpe, Ph.D.
The Mill River flood was the first major dam disaster in the United States and one of the greatest calamities of the nineteenth century. It happened early one May morning in 1874, in the hills above the western Massachusetts towns of Williamsburg and Northampton, when a reservoir dam (used for waterpower) suddenly burst, sending an avalanche of water down a narrow valley lined with factories and farms. Within an hour, 139 people were dead, and four mill villages were washed away. The Mill River flood instantly became one of the nation’s big news stories. Newspapers and magazines recounted survivors’ daring escapes from the floodwaters and described the horrors of the week-long search for the dead among acres of debris. Investigations showed that the dam had collapsed because it was poorly and negligently constructed, but, like many other disasters of the nineteenth century, no one was held accountable. The flood’s legacy was that it prompted Massachusetts, and nearby states, to grasp the hazards of unregulated reservoirs and to pass landmark dam safety laws.
The Mill River is a slim rocky stream, just fifteen miles long, that tumbles down the foothills of the Berkshires into the Connecticut River. By the mid-nineteenth century, it powered small-scale industries that made brass goods, grinding wheels, silk thread, buttons, and cotton and woolen fabrics. As the century wore on, the Mill River manufacturers, like their counterparts around New England, required more water to sustain profits. Increased flow allowed them to scale up production to stay competitive in the nation-wide marketplace created by railroads. And, it enabled them to counteract the effects of upstream deforestation as eroding soil washed downriver and silted in mill ponds thereby reducing water storage capacity at the mills. The solution was to build an upstream storage reservoir which could be tapped as needed to provide a steady flow to the factories downstream. Thus, in 1864, eleven manufacturers formed the Williamsburg Reservoir Company to dam the upper reaches of the Mill River in Williamsburg. Completed in 1866, the earthen embankment dam consisted of a stone wall (meant to keep the dam watertight) supported by massive banks of packed earth. It stretched 600 feet between hillsides and rose 43 feet above the river. The reservoir covered 100 acres.
In the absence of state regulation on dam construction, the reservoir company was free to design and build the dam as they pleased. Frustrated with the $100,000 cost of a design prepared by professional civil engineers, the company opted to dictate their own design to an incautious local engineer who wrote general specifications. The company then hired careless contractors for $24,000 who made the inadequate design worse. Despite repairs, the dam leaked and slumped for eight years. Anxious valley residents who questioned the dam’s safety were reassured by the manufacturers that the dam would hold.
At seven o’clock on Saturday morning May 16, 1874, when the reservoir was full, the damkeeper spied a forty-foot-wide slab of earth slide off the downstream face of the dam. Within minutes, dozens of streams spurted through the bank as it began to crumble. The damkeeper jumped on his bareback horse and raced three miles downriver to Williamsburg village. While he was warning the inhabitants there, the dam burst open. Reservoir water had found its way through the base of the poorly grouted stone wall and into the downstream bank which, once saturated, could no longer hold. Unsupported, the stone wall gave way to the pressure of the reservoir water. A convulsive boom roared through the hills which farmers miles away described as louder than the biggest clap of thunder they had ever heard. The breach quickly enlarged to nearly half the width of the dam and 600 million gallons of water poured out, forming a floodwave twenty to forty feet high that roared down the valley, picking up everything in its path. One observer said the floodwave looked like a hayroll, but instead of strands of hay, the roll was comprised of timber, roofs, boulders, mill wheels, furniture, animals, and people, with no water visible.
Villagers had no warning except for the shouts of four brave men (the first was alerted by the damkeeper) who relayed the message down the valley by racing ahead of the flood in wagons and on horseback to alarm the factories first and then villagers at home. Most of the factory workers escaped, and the majority of the dead were women, children, and older people at home eating breakfast or doing morning chores. Half of the victims were immigrants, mostly from Canada and Ireland. Within an hour of the dam break, 139 were dead, 740 were homeless, and the villages of Williamsburg, Skinnerville, and Haydenville (in the town of Williamsburg) and Leeds (in the town of Northampton) were washed away. One million dollars in property was destroyed, most of it the value of the factories owned by reservoir company members, all uninsured.
Minutes after the flood passed, survivors began searching for the dead by culling through wreckage so dense and snarled that mattresses and quilts were knotted with belting and machinery, and hanks of raw silk were lodged with toys and potatoes. With no federal and state disaster relief programs, clean up and relief were managed by local committees who organized thousands of volunteers and pleaded for Americans to send money to help the sufferers. When $100,000 was raised, it was called the largest outpouring of charity since the Great Chicago Fire three years earlier.
Members of the Williamsburg Reservoir Company and Northampton bankers took charge of the valley’s economic recovery. Although they rebuilt all the villages except Skinnerville, the valley never returned to its former prosperity. The heavy business losses had occurred as the era of profitable manufacturing on small New England rivers was ending, and so the flood hastened the decline of industry on the Mill River.
A coroner’s inquest thoroughly investigated the disaster’s cause. The verdict named five parties at fault: the reservoir company which owned the dam; the contractors who built it; the engineer who provided an inadequate design; the county commissioners who inspected and approved it; and the Massachusetts legislature which chartered the reservoir company without requiring any assurance that it was safe. There were no indictments, no fines, and no subsequent law suits. A year after the flood, in 1875, Massachusetts passed its first legislation regarding reservoir dam design, construction, and liability. Considered weak by today’s standards, the law was, nevertheless, a first step toward safer dams.
Americans in 1874 saw the Mill River flood as a terrible calamity and as one example one out of hundreds of disasters–including steamboat explosions, railroad bridge collapses, and mill fires–caused by the carelessness and dishonesty of self-interested manufacturers and businessmen. It took disasters such as the Mill River flood to expose such negligent practices and to serve as a catalyst for legislation to ensure public safety.
For Further Reading
Hannay, Agnes. “Chronicle of Industry on the Mill River.” Smith College Studies in History 21, nos. 1-4 (1935-1936): 1-142.
Sharpe, Elizabeth M. In the Shadow of the Dam: The Aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874. New York: Free Press, 2004.
Place: Williamsburg and Northampton, Massachusetts
Date: May 16, 1874
Type of Disaster: Flood caused by dam failure
Description: Sudden break in reservoir dam sent 600 million gallons of water down mill valley destroying factories and farms.
Cause: Inadequate design and faulty construction of earthen reservoir dam
Casualties: 139 dead, 740 made homeless
Cost: $1 million in property lost
Impact: Massachusetts and nearby states passed dam safety measures.