Cover image for In the shadow of the dam : the aftermath of the Mill River flood of 1874
In the shadow of the dam : the aftermath of the Mill River flood of 1874
Sharpe, Elizabeth M.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Free Press, [2004]

Physical Description:
vii pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
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Item Holds
F72.H3 S47 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Sharpe provides an illuminating look at 19th-century life and the constant threat of preventable industrial disasters in this tale of a Massachusetts town devastated by a shoddy reservoir dam in 1874.

Author Notes

Elizabeth M. Sharpe is a historian, writer, and consultant for museums. The former director of education at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, she holds a doctorate in American history from the University of Delaware. A native of western Massachusetts herself, Elizabeth Sharpe grew up hearing how the Mill River flood destroyed her great-great-grandfather's shop. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her husband and two children

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

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Publisher's Weekly Review

Sharpe, the former director of education at the Smithsonian's American History museum, delivers a compelling account of an 1874 disaster in Massachusetts that became a turning point in the history of American capitalism and technology. Sharpe is a skilled historian who does a superb job presenting the details of the careless planning behind what became at that point the most deadly dam failure a reservoir dam situated high above a number of factory and farm towns that suddenly burst, unleashing 600 million gallons of water that destroyed most of the communities in just four and a half hours, leaving 131 dead and 750 homeless. She gives sympathetic, closely detailed descriptions, from a range of historical sources, of the terror faced during and after the disaster, as people searched for bodies "amid 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." She also provides an excellent historical context for the event, including the lack at that time of any standards for dam construction, the general public's ongoing cultural preoccupation with disasters and the unfortunately common belief that disasters were "part of the unavoidable and necessary cost of industrial development." She nicely details the lasting social changes that came in the wake of the flood, such as how it galvanized public opinion in support of better building standards and how it gave an important boost to the emerging engineering profession in the U.S. Agent, Nina Graybill. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



PROLOGUE On the last day of the coroner's inquest into the cause of the Mill River flood deaths, Joel Hayden Jr. was the morning's first witness. Two weeks earlier, on May 16, 1874, three of his factories had been destroyed when the Williamsburg reservoir dam broke, sending an avalanche of water over five factory villages that lined the Mill Valley in western Massachusetts. When the flood reached Haydenville, the mill village his father had built, it picked up a house and slammed it into his brass factory with such force that the three-story brick structure collapsed, ends folding over the middle as though it were a cardboard box. Brass goods, the company safe, and even the granite columns that had framed the entrance to the office building were found hundreds of yards downstream amid heaps of debris so dense and tangled that men used crowbars to pry the items apart. Twenty-seven of the 139 people killed were from Haydenville. Coroner Ansel Wright offered Hayden the opportunity to make a statement before questioning. He accepted. For the record, he said, he wanted to correct a report by the New York Herald that in earlier times his father had instructed workers to leave the brass factory as soon as they heard the cry "reservoir" in the streets. There was no such warning system, Hayden insisted, because there was no thought that the dam would ever break. Hayden's father, who had died six months earlier, had been partners with his son for more than a decade in the brass and cotton factories. At thirty-nine, Young Joel (as everyone still called him) had grown to look like his father, a successful manufacturer and former Massachusetts lieutenant governor. They shared the same handsome face with finely chiseled features, a long straight nose, thick, wavy gray hair, and a dignified, energetic manner. A Springfield Republican reporter observed that Joel Jr. "reminds one forcibly of his father, who especially in his old age, was a man of rarely fine presence." Ansel Wright turned the questioning over to Charles Delano, a prominent local attorney and a former U.S. congressman, who had been appointed assistant coroner for the inquest. Delano knew Young Joel from Northampton civic affairs and his father from Republican party politics. As Hayden testified, reporters from the Springfield, Boston, and New York papers scribbled furiously, summarizing the proceedings that they would telegraph to their newspapers, or to a wire service, so that Hayden's testimony could be served up that evening or with tomorrow morning's breakfast. According to the newspaper summaries, their dialogue went like this: Delano asked: What was your father's opinion of the Williamsburg dam? Hayden said he had no personal knowledge of what his father thought about the dam. Delano must have thought that Hayden would hold back. The other mill owners, sitting with their attorney at the front table, watching Young Joel, were all partners in the reservoir company that owned the failed dam. Few had willingly offered any information about the dam. Delano picked up a copy of the Hampshire Gazette, a Northampton newspaper, and read aloud what purported to be Joel Hayden Jr.'s own statement: Mr. Hayden says that "his father was always in fear of this reservoir dam." He believed it to be weak and dangerous, and "a thousand times" says Mr. Hayden "have I heard him express such fears." It worried him and when there was a heavy rain he could not sleep at night, so great was his apprehension that the dam would break away. Several times I have known him to get up in the night and drive up to the reservoir to examine it, so as to personally satisfy himself that it was all right. Delano asked, did you talk with Henry Gere, the newspaper's editor, about your father's fear of the Williamsburg dam? Young Joel knew Gere well. Twenty-nine years earlier, in 1845, young Joel's father had begun publishing the Hampshire Herald, the first newspaper in the county to call for the abolition of slavery, and had hired seventeen-year-old Gere as an apprentice printer and later as editor. Yes, his father had talked to Mr. Gere, but his words were misunderstood. His father in his later years was timid, especially in the springtime with the threat of flash floods. He was concerned about all the reservoir dams, but not the Williamsburg dam more than the others. Why did he go up to the Williamsburg reservoir? Hayden supposed that he went for the same reasons he would sometimes go over to the brass works, to make sure it wasn't on fire. But the brass factory was across the street from your father's home, while the reservoir was five miles up in the hills. It was "no child's play to drive up there in the night," Delano countered. No, but it was only on rainy nights that he went, and only to see that it was all right. He was old and frightened easily. He didn't think it would ever go off. How long would he be gone on these trips to the reservoir? Hayden didn't know. He never personally saw him go to the Williamsburg reservoir at night. He had only heard from family members that he had gone about a dozen times. Did your father ever go to one of the Goshen reservoirs at night? The reservoir company owned two reservoirs in the town of Goshen, northwest of Williamsburg, on the West Branch of the Mill River, which supplied power to their factories. No, Young Joel never knew of him doing that and was under the impression that he never did. Delano and the jurors asked no more questions. "He [Hayden] gave his testimony with reluctance," the Springfield Republican reported. When Joel Hayden Jr. stepped down, his future was uncertain. The day after the flood he had posted notices promising to rebuild the brass works in the same location in Haydenville. Thrilled, his employees eagerly took jobs with him digging the riverbed with picks and shovels to uncover manufacturing patterns and finished brass goods washed out of the factory. Their wives and children followed behind scooping up the salvage, finding some still packed in their original boxes. But a week after the flood, business leaders from larger manufacturing centers like Chicopee and Holyoke on the Connecticut River, and Norwich, Connecticut, on the Thames River, offered Hayden vast quantities of cheap waterpower from their large rivers to entice him to move his business. If Hayden had changed his mind about rebuilding his father's village, he hadn't made any announcements yet. His employees fished bricks out of the mud to use in building the new factory, and waited. Copyright (c) 2004 by Elizabeth M. Sharpe Excerpted from In the Shadow of the Dam: The Aftermath of the Mill River Flood Of 1874 by Elizabeth M. Sharpe All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prologuep. 1
Chapter 1 The Mill Valleyp. 5
Chapter 2 Building the Williamsburg Damp. 34
Chapter 3 The Floodp. 50
Chapter 4 The Aftermathp. 90
Chapter 5 Rebuildingp. 124
Chapter 6 The Inquestp. 152
Chapter 7 The Verdictp. 182
Chapter 8 Changep. 205
Epiloguep. 227
Appendix A Contract and Specifications for the Williamsburg Damp. 233
Appendix B List of Flood Victimsp. 236
Appendix C Verdict of the Coroner's Inquestp. 240
Notesp. 245
Bibliographyp. 259
Indexp. 273