1874 - TERRIBLE CATASTROPHE !! BURSTING OF A WATER RESERVOIR IN MASSACHUSETTS !! EVERYTHING CARRIED BEFORE THE TORRENT !!
FOUR VILLAGES ALMOST DEMOLISHED !!
NEARLY 200 LIVES LOST !!
ABOUT $2,000,000 WORTH OF PROPERTY DESTROYED !!
Northampton, Mass., May 16. - Not far from eight o'clock this morning the peaceful residents of Williamsburg were startled by the appearance of a horse dashing madly through the streets, while his rider shouted to the people to escape for their lives, for the reservoir had given way and the waters were coming down upon them.
Scarcely comprehending the dreadful tidings, but with the instinct of self-preservation strong within them, the people began to rush from their homes, while the foam-flecked animal that had so gallantly brought the messenger sunk to the ground, utterly exhausted. Another horse was quickly secured, and the messenger was borne to other villages but the alarm was so sudden that all did not hear it, and scores were caught by the swiftly rolling waters and grand dames, innocent children and strong men were alike overwhelmed by the flood or crushed beneath the falling walls of their houses. Up among the hills of Goshen there was a large reservoir of about one hundred and four acres in extent, where the various mill operators of Williamsburg, Skinnerville, Haydensville and Leeds were to store their summer supply of water. People living in the vicinity of the dam say that it has been leaking more or less for several weeks, and it is believed that having thus gradually undermined the dam, the water acquired strong headway, and suddenly the dam gave way and the immense body of water poured out in its strength, carrying everything before it. The torrent rushed upon the doomed villages with a loud roar, apparently a large advancing billow of underbrush and debris issuing rapidly through the deep gorges to a height of forty feet, and again spreading out a wide expanse of seething angry waves as it reached the more open country.
Reaching the beautiful village of Williamsburg, some two and a half miles distant, it struck a small button factory, sweeping it out of existence.
Next a saw and grist mill was attacked and melted, not a vestige remaining. Houses, barns and shops followed like grass before a scythe, and men, women and children were caught and borne away, struggling and shrieking in vain.
On the waves swept to Skinnersville, two miles distant, a silk factory being hurled down, a huge iron boiler being carried nearly half a mile and landed high and dry. In Haydersville, about one mile further on, the bank building, a three-story brick structure, was swept away, scarcely one brick being left upon another, the money in the vault sharing the same fate.
The small village of Leeds, between one and two miles distant, was the next place to suffer, and the scenes of Williamsburg and Haydensville were here repeated. A short distance below Leeds were two bridges, one of iron and one of stone, both nearly fifty feet above the bed of the stream. Here the greatest destruction appeared to have stopped, although all along the river, until it emptied into the Connecticut River, a short distance below Northampton, the banks are covered with all manner of debris, timber, trees, pianos, tables, chairs, and other furniture.
It is estimated that nearly one hundred buildings were destroyed, and the total loss is from one million to a million and a half of dollars, although, of course, it is impossible to accurately estimate the damage.
The saddest feature of the whole affair is the great loss of life. At first it was thought that not more than forty or fifty lives were lost, but a more careful canvass of the villages visited gives the total number of missing persons at nearly 120, as follows: At Williamsburg, 49, at Leeds 39, and at Haydenville, 34. There have between fifty and sixty dead bodies already recovered.
There were many narrow escapes. A butchernames Michael Hernigan was caught, horse wagon and all, and carried along until he managed to get into the top of a tree, and thus escaped. Thomas Finnessy was carried some two miles, floating on some timber, until he finally escaped. Ira Dunning was in like manner carried over half a mile. Chas. Brady, after riding in imminent peril for a mile, escaped to a tree. Dr. Johnson warned his wife in season to permit her escape in safety, but in trying to save his three children he was caught by the flood, and they all four perished in sight of the agonized wife and mother. The bodies recovered were terribly mangled, and many of them were stripped of every particle of clothing, but most of them were identified by friends, and the scene of the disaster has been visited by hundreds of people this afternoon.
Boston, May 16. - The villages which are affected by the disaster are Williamsburg, Haydenville, Leeds and Florence, and are situated on Mill River, which is a tributary to the Connecticut River, running into the latter at Northampton. In the village of Williamsburg, Mill River divides into two branches, one of which has its rise in Goshen and the other at about the edge of Conway.
The large reserviors are situated on the Goshen branch and one on the Conway branch containing a total depth of not less than six feet. The reservoir dams were regarded as substantially constructed being built by skillful engineers, in the most approved modern method and large sums of money were expended last year in putting them in what was supposed to be perfect order. The oldest dams is at least twenty-five years of age, and is on the Goshen Branch. It was most carefully rebuilt within the last two years. Above this was a new dam built last year. The dam on the Conway Branch is six or seven years old.
The mills on the stream reckoning from Williamsburg down to Northampton, were as follows: WM. THAYERS tool factory, 25 men; two button factories, total 30 hands, men and girls, corset woolen mills of HENRY JONES, employs about 50 hands; large brass works of HAYDER, GERE & Co., employ about 300 hands. It was formerly the property of the late Lieutenant Governor HAYDEN. Cotton mills of the HAYDEN Manufacturing Company, 5,000 spindles, employing about 80 hands; the Diamond Tobacco Works, employing 15 or 20 hands; the large brick mill of the Northampton Brush Co., employing about 60 or 75 hands; cotton factory of the Greenville Manufacturing Co., 5,000 spindles employing 75 to 80 hands; Northampton, formerly Bay State Cutlery Co., employing probably 200 hands; the CLEMESH & HAWKES Manufacturing Co., agricultural implements, employing 50 hands; International Screw & Nail Co., employing 75 hands, and the large basket factory of the WILLIAMS Manufacturing Co., employing about 100 hands; also the SKINNER Silk Mill, employing 50 or 60 hands.
Besides these there are some half dozen grist and saw mills, some of them of considerable capacity, which are within the range of the devastation.
New Haven, May 17. - A man was picked up from a tree, upon which he had ridden six miles on the torrent, cheering and waving his coat. The poor fellow's mind was gone. No less than eight cases of insanity followed among those who have lost relatives and friends by this terrible calamity, and three were committed to the asylum in Northampton.
The gracious work of saving the dead for their burial began at noon yesterday. At Skinnersville the first pobies were picked up, dug from mud or taken with difficulty from overloaded ruins. All through the valley the work went on till night, and then men with lanterns, seeking their dead, stood guard. At Haydenville forty bodies were gathered by night; at Leeds forty-five. There had been in the afternoon gangs of plunderers promptly turned to workmen by no stinted threats. The people were ready to brain them with the first stone.
There were fewer dead at Florence and Northampton, one hundred and forty in all, and many more are certainly buried in the mud and rubbish that fill the valley with black heaps from Williamsburg to Northampton.
At Williamsburg a factory and twenty-seven houses were blotted out. At Haydensville a factory, a gas house, a cotton mill, a bank and one hundred buildings; at Leeds, a button factory and twenty-five buildings; at Skinnersville every house is gone, except Mr. Skinner's own. Such houses as are here set down as "gone" are utterly vanished and distributed in shreds -- not a piece over six feet long -- over miles of the country. The "Lickingwater River," as they call it, has been a sea, and is now a trickling stream, lost in miles of mud. The lake, hemmed in by defective masonry up among the Goshen hills, has done its work terribly.
It appears that serious doubts as to the safety of the reservoir have been entertained ever since it was built, nine years ago, though less the last year or two than in its early history. The gate keeper has several times expressed fears of his employers, calling special attention once to a point where a breach occurred, but the examiners always reported everything safe. The direct cause of the disaster, aside from general weakness of the dam, must remain a subject of speculation. Perhaps as satisfactory a theory as any is the one advanced by a man familiar with the case, that frosts had started the earth so that the water had found numerous little courses through it, which finally carried off the first mass of earth on Saturday morning, and at once precipitated the catastrophe.
Northampton, Mass., May 17. - Just below Leeds, on which was a pretty lawn called Warner's Flat, a vast amount of debris was collected. A hundred men with ox teams and horses to move the heavy timbers began work early this morning. In the first half hour five bodies were found, and before noon thirty were unburied from that spot. The operatives from Williamsburg, whose lost ones had not been recovered, crowded the little carpenter shop into which the bodies were carried, and all were recognized, although some were disfigured almost past recognition.
Every few rods were wagons containing one, two and sometimes three coffined bodies, going to the cemetery, for in the universal bereavements interment followed swiftly after the recovery of the bodies, and funerals services, excepting in a few instances, were dispensed with. At Haydensville the bodies were laid out in the Congregational Church. Lying side by side were a mother and her children, near them a mother, her married daughter and her infant child. The dead of those whose the flood had left destitute were buried at the expense of the town.
May 20, 1874
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