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A Preventable Tragedy...

In 1874, the dams and reservoirs above Williamsburg (MA) provided water to power about thirty mill enterprises. Completed in 1866, the Williamsburg Reservoir dam was the largest…and had always leaked. Eleven local industrialists invested in the 43’-high, 600’-long dam and rumor has it their stinginess, callous mismanagement, chiseling contractors (who used unsuitable materials and shoddy workmanship) resulted in an extremely unstable structure.

This sounds like a recipe for disaster…and it was.

On a rainy Saturday morning (May 16, 1874), attendant George Cheney left his cabin overlooking the dam to make his daily inspection. He found the dam intact and returned home. Unbeknownst to him, the reservoir was already full and it was raining buckets!

Half an hour later, he saw the face of the dam slide downstream. The dam collapsed and released more than 600 million gallons of water 8 miles downstream!

Leaping bareback onto his old mare, he rushed 3 miles down the road to warn his boss, Onslow Spelman. Cheney’s wife sat on the porch and watched the dam. She later said that the dam “seemed to burst all at once, from the bottom, where the earth seemed to be lifted up.”

Fred Howard, a box maker, who ushered workers out of the button mill, described the fearful scene: “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 till some timber struck them and either killed them outright or pushed them under and drowned them…You must remember that all this occurred in a very short time, probably in one minute after I first saw the water…”

Within one hour 139 people were dead in the towns of Skinnerville, Haydenville, Williamsburg, and the village of Leeds (in Northampton). The flood wiped away mills, factories, homes, barns, bridges, and roads.

Survivors began to search for the dead as soon as the flood subsided. The government had no disaster relief programs then, so local committees organized thousands of volunteers to handle cleanup and relief. They raised $100,000, an enormous sum that rivaled the donations for the victims of the Great Chicago Fire three years earlier. (The Massachusetts state government eventually stepped in to loan $120,000 to rebuild the valley’s infrastructure.)

Five days after the flood, the county coroner began an investigation which lasted seven days. A jury heard a full account from numerous witnesses about the dam’s construction and the reasons for its failure. In its verdict on July 3, the jury charged five parties with negating their responsibilities:

1. The Massachusetts legislature for lax laws;

2. The dam owners for privileging profit over lives;

3. The engineers for poor design;

4. The contractors for poor construction;

5. The County commissioners for lack of oversight.

With so many parties named, the blame stuck to no one. No criminal or civil suits were carried out, and none of the responsible parties were penalized or held accountable.

Although this was a preventable tragedy, there is one silver lining: the state Legislature passed the first dam safety laws. In addition,neighboring states followed Massachusetts’ example.

As always, thank you for taking some of your previous time to spend here with us! Enjoy the rest of your week!

Article published on May 16th, 2023 by Laurel Governal

HLEW Weather Rewind

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