“Every moment, new rivulets popped through. The bank was becoming a muddy mush. He thought that in minutes the wall would burst…. Cheney dashed to the house to tell his father he was riding to Spelman’s in the village. At the barn he bridled his horse as his father cut him a switch. Cheney climbed on his barebacked mare and headed her down the trail to the river road, the old horse at a gallop. His father ran for Hemenway’s farm to warn him to get his cows off the riverside pasture…. Cheney called, “The flood! The flood! The reservoir is broken!”

A convulsive boom echoed through the Williamsburg hills, and was heard as far away as Goshen. Elias Cheney, George’s father, heard it as he ran to Hemenway’s to tell him to remove his cows from the river pasture. Elias later said it was “louder than the biggest clap of thunder” he had ever heard.”

- from In the Shadow of the Dam by Elizabeth Shape. The story of an event that reshaped society.


ON MAY 16, 1874, Williamsburg was struck by one of the most disastrous floods that New England had ever known. Scarcely an hour and a quarter in duration, the flood stripped the town of property, roads, stock, and much precious human life. One hundred and forty-five lives were lost. Although relief work and reconstruction were carried out with unbelievable efficiency and rapidity, our village had undergone in that short time a permanent change. Many business and manufucturing concerns have flourished since 1874, but the general character of the town has remained primarily residential, while previously it had been primarily industrial.

An eye-witness of the disaster has described the Mill River Valley as it was before that May morning.
"Shops and mills lined its course - Spelman's button shop and sawmill; Adams' flouring mill; Skinner's silk mill, a growing and prosperous concern; the Hayden and Gere Brass Works, one of the largest producers of brass plumbing fixtures in the country; and others. These buildings extended about 600 feet along the river. The office at the lower end contained also the Haydenville Savings Bank and the Masonic Lodge rooms and was considered a very elegant and unusual building."

The Mill River and Williamsburg Reservoir Company was organized because, with the growth of industry in many villages, the manufucturers had felt the need of a more extensive water supply. In 1865 this company built a reservoir in the north part of town. When finished, the next year, it covered III acres to an average depth of twenty-four feet.
2"Emol)' B. Wells of Northampton and Joel Bassett of Easthampton were the contractors, and the cost was $35,000. A stone wall was first built, which was stipulated to rise from a width of eight feet at the hardpan to two feet at the top. This was forty-two feet above the bed of the stream. This wall was contracted to be laid in the best-known cement, and the
projectors claimed, would be as strong as a single shaft of granite. Enveloping this stone wall on each side was a mass of earth, which sloped down on the water side at an angle of thirty degrees, and on the lower side at an angle of forty- five degrees. A lateral section of this earthen support, the greater mass of which was on the water side, measured about 120 feet at the base. At the center of the stream, enclosed in a stone wall running at right angles to the main wall of the reservoir, ran an iron tube of two feet diameter for controlling the flow of the water, extending, of course, a few feet beyond this earthen wall at both extremities of its base. This wall of earth, 120 feet wide at the bottom was sixteen feet across at the top, covering the crest of the stone wall a depth of two feet, in order to prevent danger &om fi:ost, and along the top furnished a good driveway. The water never rose quite to the crest of the dam, being kept about two feet below that line by means of a waste-way at the western side. Serious doubts as to the safety of the structure had been entertained even by the proprietors. In the spring following its completion fears were felt that it would go off at the very first trial, but it withstood the strain. At various times subsequently it was strengthened. Not long before the dam broke, it was made more secure by 'rip-rapping'; that is, the laying of cobblestones along the earth bank to diminish the force of the water upon the earth.

"The winter and spring of 1873-74 were unusually trying to an earth dam on account of heavy rains and melting snow, accompanied by a constant succession of freezing and thawing. But the direct cause of the disaster, aside from the general weakness of the dam, must remain a subject of speculation. The gate-keeper detected no sign of danger when he examined the situation at early dawn. What the last straw was that broke the great back of the reservoir can never be definitely known. The gate-keeper had always feared trouble from the fact that a stream of water flowed constantly through the bottom, just east of the gate-way, while there were always a number of smaller streams, some of them quite minute, along the bottom on each side of the center. It was said, however, that it was quite impossible to construct such a dam so that there would be absolutely no show of water on the lower side, and some experts felt that there was no reason for alarm because of the small streams that trickled through.

"The gate-keeper was George Cheney, a man of about "thirty- five, who had held the position for three years. On Saturday morning, the sixteenth of May he went out as usual at six o'clock to look things over. All appeared as usual. At half past seven, while at breakfast, he noticed what appeared to be about forty feet in length of the bottom of the reservoir shooting down stream. He rushed to the gate, opened it to relieve the pressure, then jumped on his horse and rode bare-back to the village to warn people of the impending disaster. He went first to the house of Mr. Spelman who had general charge of the dam. After convincing him of the coming danger, he nEhed on to the livery stable for a fresh horse. The church bell was rung, but there seems to have been no general alarm in the village of Williamsburg. In the meantime, Robert Loud upon his farm overlooking the reservoir and stream had seen the break, and ran the mile and a half to the grist mill near where the John Hill house stands. Unable to speak, he gave the alarm by pointing to the rising stream. Cheney rode his exhausted horse to Belcher's stable and while there, Collins Graves, who was delivering milk around the village, saw the haste and drove up. On being told that the reservoir had burst, Mr. Graves started off with his milk-wagon on the famous ride for Haydenville which was the means of saving the lives of 300 people wolking in James' mill, Skinner's mill, and the Brass Works. So close was the water behind. Graves that when Cheney mounted to follow to Haydenville, the water was up across the road so that he was obliged to turn back. Jerome Hillman was another hero who took an active and important part in warning Haydenville of the approaching flood. After riding through the street, shouting to all whom he saw, he dashed up to the village church, ran in, and rang the bell. One person, James Ryan, was a young boy who happened to be up in the village with an old horse. He overheard the talk of Mr. Cheney with Mr. Belcher, and drove out at once to his home. His mother sent him along to Haydenville to warn his father who was working there. He succeeded not only saving his father's life but also the lives of others who heard his warning. He was just ahead of the flood, and rushed into Haydenville crying, 'It's right here! Get up, get up! To the hills!'

"From Haydenville the news was warned by Myron Day. He warned the hands at the cotton mill, raced for two miles with the flood just behind him, and succeeded in gaining sufficiently upon the waters to save many lives at Leeds."
"The flood came tearing down the Ashfield road and the first house in its path was a cottage at the Bullard bridge, occupied by one Collier. It was lifted as one would lift a feather. The wife and daughter were drowned, Mrs. Collier being thrown upon the bank along Valley View Avenue. The saw mill, which was where the old grist mill now stands, was overwhelmed in a moment The flood tore its way across the open lot to the house of Gilbert Bradford, making a channel straight past the Edward Miller place and the mill bridge, sweeping away the houses that lined both sides of the road. At the turn of the river by the station there stood some woods, and this for a moment stayed the oncoming flood which flowed up the Joe Wright brook, canying with it the iron bridge at the Bradford Mill. As the waters piled up behind this temporary dam, it broke away, taking with it the Skinner mill of solid brick and all the little village which he had there built down to Haydenville the oncoming flood rolled. A floating house struck the corner of the foundry building nearest the water. It began to crumble and as the water entered, the foundry collapsed like a house of cards. One portion after another crumbled away. The heating boiler was tossed up on the Hayden lawn. The debris, catching on the row of maples along the sidewalk, held the current to the center where the houses, one after another, were borne away and down through the channel."

One wonders what impressions this horrible inundation brought to the minds of its eyewitnesses. A newspaper of the time gives these descriptions:
"Of course, the onslaught of the waters was terrible and grand beyond description; one can only give its results as depicting best its appalling accompaniments. To one, the thick, on-coming mass of waters seemed like the heaviest ocean waves; to another the sound was like the tearing of shingles from many buildings; while a third heard it as the heavy, sullen thunder which comes before the summer storm. It was preceded and surrounded by a dense spray or fog, dark and thick as the heaviest smoke, while even as far away as the Hill, there was an odor like that emitted from stagnant pools. The wave was generally described as twenty feet high, though in one spot the spray washed the branches of a tree forty feet from the ground. It would be interesting to follow the front of the flood as it thrust itself upon different eyes along the valley; but we have taken only a representative view from the village as given by Reverend John F. Gleason. Mr. Gleason got up from his breakfast table to see the Adams' flouring mill sailing by his window, while his neighbors' houses in the valley below were taken up by the water as chips, to crumble as salt; the trees were mown down like grass; huge boulders were tossed about by the resistless current; the waves would savagely play while with the barns and shops to grind them to chips and splinters.

"In nearly a quarter of an hour the accumulated water had passed so that its path could be traced. The valley was obliterated, and its face was the jagged, scarred bed of the destroying stream. A mile down from the village nothing had escaped unscathed; no green or whole thing was to be seen; only one or two houses were left on the street; upon the hillsides were strewn all sorts of household articles, not one of them intact; while perhaps, near by, would be the beaten and bruised bodies of the drowned."

Eugere E. Davis, witnessing the disaster as a small boy in Florence, told what it looked like to him when he first saw its approach. "A great mass of brush, trees, and trash was rolling rapidly toward me. 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 twenty 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. "Imagine, if possible, a mass of trees, brush, logs, cord-wood, hay, broken machinery, parts of houses, furniture, carpets, clothing, blankets, wool and silk from the ruined mills, horses, cattle, swine and sheep, timbers from ruined factories, dams and bridges, tons and tons of sand, gravel, and rocks, all piled in intricate confusion over an area half a mile long, quarter of a mile wide and ten, fifteen, and twenty feet deep, and somewhere, in this mass were hidden the bodies of the drowned."

As soon as the waters had subsided, the dazed people began to search among the rubbish. By noon a group was organized to make a systematic canvass for the names of the lost and to hunt for their bodies. As fast as found, these were placed in a long gruesome row in the chapel of the Haydenville Church and in the Town Hall in Williamsburg. The scenes there were heartrending. One account tells of the way in which the townsfolk as a whole reacted.
"The blow came upon the village with such abruptness that even the very participants in the terrible struggle with the waters scarce realized its import. They turned out to relieve the saved or to recover the dead with no intense demonstrations of sorrow, quietly and with studied method. Saturday evening a relief meeting was held at the church, and necessary committees were appointed for burying the dead, relieving the needy, and soliciting funds. All this was done without the slightest display of sorrow with the single intent of doing all that could be accomplished to alleviate the situation. The damage to the town-mills, dwellings, roads, field&-was estimated at more than one-third of the valuation of a million and a half.  Still more appalling was the loss of life. One hundred and forty- five people perished in the flood; sixty in Williamsburg, thirty- four in Skinnerville and Haydenville, and fifty-one in Leeds."

Mr. Davis added to this estimate. "Our village of Williamsburg lost forty-five buildings, and Skinnerville and Haydenville forty-one. Every bridge (ten iron and as many more of wood) in the path of the waters was destroyed, and every dam on the river either destroyed or seriously damaged. The little red house in Williamsburg just above the Shell filling station is the only one left of the original fifteen houses between the telephone building and the new concrete bridge. Frank Bisbee's house was washed back against the bank and a woman drowned in the house. Later it was brought back to its original site. At Williamsburg. a new channel was cut by the river, crossing the present state highway just below the telephone building, and continuing down the southwesterly side of the road to, or below, the railroad depot. Practically all the highway from Williamsburg down through Haydenville and along Mill River, to and through Leeds, was made impassable, and, in many places, deeply eroded. So thorough had been the destruction that many of the boundaries of real estate were obliterated, and many of the survivors were unable to locate the sites of their former habitations. In a letter to the New York Tribune, a correspondent of the time described the reaction of William Skinner. He wrote, 'William Skinner, the wealthy silk manufacturer, who had seen his mill and fortune lost in a few minutes, said, pointing to a man who had lost wife and children and all the property he had, "In comparison I have lost nothing and have reason to be glad it is no worse."
"At the time of the coroner's inquest relative to the cause of this disaster, William Skinner said to the builders of the dam, 'You ought to have a rope around your necks, and something ought to be done to the rope, too.' At this time O. G. Spelman, the personal representative in Williamsburg of the owners, testified that the work suited Engineer Fenn, and that he accepted it. Little seems to be known about Fenn, but that he should design such a structure and accept such fumdulent work has classified him in the minds of the townsfolk clearly enough."

Relief work was immediately begun. All the surrounding towns contributed money and clothing, and a committee was appointed for the distribution of the funds. The state made
an appropriation of $1 00,000 for the rebuilding of roads and bridges. By the end of the year, the work on the highways was very satisfuctorily completed; but all the intervening
years have not restored to the town its former industrial prosperity, nor led it to forget the sorrows nor the heroism that marked the spring of 1874.

In March, 1875, at the annual town meeting, the following resolutions were offered by Reverend John F. Gleason and were unanimously adopted:
"Whereas, The town of Williamsburg has received the hearty sympathy and generous aid of the communities in consequence of the disastrous flood of May 16, 1874, which swept away one-third of our property, including many of our manufucturing industries, thereby rendering many of our families penniless.
"Resolved, that we tender our thanks to the state of Connecticut, which by her legislature sprang so promptly to our relief: 'They who give quickly, give thrice.'
"Resolved, that our thanks are due our own Commonwealth for reaching down to us in our hour of need a helping hand, loaded with an appropriation sufficient to restore our highways and bridges.
"Resolved, that we express our gratitude to all others who by their sympathy and substantial aid have contributed to our comfort and relief."


1 Eugene E. Davis at a Kiwanis club meeting at the Hotel Northampton in 1934.
2 From a paper on the Mill River Flood which bears no name but acknowledges its sources as current publications of the time.
3 By Mrs. Ada Chandler Hamlin. 4 Taylor and Mellon.