Wednesday, May 16, 2007

May 16

On 16 May 1874, the Williamsburg reservoir dam collapsed in western Massachusetts, sending out a torrent of 600 million gallons of water, which lifted hundreds of thousands of tons of rocks, earth, trees, livestock and other debris to heights of 40 feet as it rolled across the land. Several towns were crushed and 139 lives were lost in the surge from the Mill River before the floodwaters spread out across the broad agricultural plain around Northampton.

Developed to aid the light industrial economy of Western Massachusetts, the earthenwork dam was one of four major reservoirs in the region and had been completed less than a decade before the 1874 disaster. Designed by amateur civil engineers, the project was riddled with design flaws that were apparent to the original surveyor as well as several of the builders who worked on the project. Their concerns were ignored, and the leaky dam held for several years before an especially heavy patch of spring rain loosened and dislodged a section of the east bank just after 7:00 a.m. on May 16. Realizing that the entire structure was about to disintegrate, the gatekeeper of the reservoir -- a young man named George Cheney -- immediately rushed out on horseback to warn the nearby towns. Twenty minutes later, the dam exploded outward and upward. The sound, as Cheney’s wife described it, was like an earthquake.

Williamsburg, Skinnerville, Leeds and Haydenville were obliterated. One survivor recalled later that
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 hay rake 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.
Homes were lifted into the air and smashed against the sides of factories. Almost nothing remained in the wake. Nearly 1000 people were instantly rendered homeless. The scale of the disaster was so enormous that the commonwealth of Massachusetts -- by custom reluctant to intervene with state assistance -- had no choice but to appropriate over $100,000 for to rebuild roads and bridges.

The last of the flood victims’ bodies -- those of seven-year-old Rosa Wilson, seventeen-year-old Julia Patrick, and a sawyer named Augustus Laney -- were not recovered for more than a month. The body of John Fennessey, a six-year-old from Leeds, was never found.

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