Natural Disaster, Human Error

By Frances Kidder

Stereo-optic view of the Mill River flood from the New York Public Library [Public domain]

Early on a rainy Saturday morning in May 1874, the Mill River dam in Western Massachusetts burst without warning,  leaving death and devastation in its wake.  Within an hour, the flood took 139 lives,  destroying 67 mills and many houses in the villages of Williamsburg, Skinnerville, Haydenville and Leeds, leaving 740 people homeless.  When the entire contents of that reservoir engulfed a valley lined with factories and farms,  this was considered the largest man-made disaster in our nation’s history.  

Historian Elizabeth Sharpe, whose grandfather lost his shop in the flood, describes how the Mill River became the backbone of local industry:

The Mill River is a slim rocky stream, just fifteen miles long, that tumbles down the foothills of the Berkshires into the Connecticut River. By the mid-nineteenth century, it powered small-scale industries that made brass goods, grinding wheels, silk thread, buttons, and cotton and woolen fabrics.

As the century wore on, the Mill River manufacturers, like their counterparts around New England, required more water to sustain profits. Increased flow allowed them to scale up production to stay competitive in the nation-wide marketplace created by railroads. And, it enabled them to counteract the effects of upstream deforestation as eroding soil washed downriver and silted in mill ponds thereby reducing water storage capacity at the mills.

The solution was to build an upstream storage reservoir which could be tapped as needed to provide a steady flow to the factories downstream. Thus, in 1864, eleven manufacturers formed the Williamsburg Reservoir Company to dam the upper reaches of the Mill River in Williamsburg. Completed in 1866, the earthen embankment dam consisted of a stone wall (meant to keep the dam watertight) supported by massive banks of packed earth. It stretched 600 feet between hillsides and rose 43 feet above the river. The reservoir covered 100 acres.

Signs of erosion were willfully ignored by local businessmen more concerned with profits than with making the necessary repairs. The original design was faulty and the company hired contractors so incompetent they made the situation worse. As  Sharpe notes in her book,  In the Shadow of the Dam, the structure “leaked and slumped for eight years. Anxious valley residents who questioned the dam’s safety were reassured by the manufacturers that (it) would hold.” 

The mill owners’ arrogance, and recklessness led to the dam’s failure. And we are bound to see similarities in today’s world, where we routinely hear of little people suffering for the sake of profit. “It was incidents like the Mill River flood,” Sharpe concludes, “that started to open people’s minds to the idea that well dressed, impeccably mannered gentlemen, who were great benefactors to libraries, schools, and churches, could be crooks.”
I was moved by this heartbreaking interview with Mrs. Edward Mocker, an Irish immigrant from Haydenville, who lost her husband and invalid son in the flood.

Oh, that I should live to see this night! An’ the boy cried to me,‘sure you won’t leave me, Mother, to be carried away in the flood an’ I rushed and snatched him out of bed and got between the houses, and as God hears me, I couldn’t get farther, an’ I stood there an’ the boy in my arms an’ the water going over me…but I’m alive and I saved the boy, but he’ll die in the morning an’ the man’s gone. Edward’s gone. Oh, my darling, my darling God help us.

People from all over the country showed up to lend support, as well as to pick through the wreckage. The dam was never rebuilt.  A few businesses tried to hang on, but eventually they closed or moved away. The question we come away is this: Why did those normally intelligent and civic minded businessmen commit a gross act of negligence which devastated their own families and fortunes, as well as their neighbors’?

Painting the disaster

As a landscape painter, I immersed myself in the story of the Mill River disaster, considering the impact it had on the region where I’ve lived for 45 years. Our house is on the Mill River, as is my studio building, an old factory five miles to the south. Each day I head to my studio, I trace the path of the flood. After reading Sharpe’s book, a riveting and well researched account of the event and its aftermath, I began to do my own research in local archives, and eventually made a series of drawings and paintings as an elegy to those who suffered.

While working on these paintings, I became fascinated by the strange forms that torrents of water can take. One survivor said the flood-wave looked like a hay roll, but instead of strands of hay, the roll was comprised of timber, roofs, boulders, mill wheels, furniture, animals, and people, with no water visible. As Sharp notes

Minutes after the flood passed, survivors began searching for the dead by culling through 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.

I used earth tones (black, white, yellow ochre and burnt sienna), to convey the devastation caused by the dam. Working with this minor key palette, I squeezed greens from ochre and black, violets from black and burnt sienna. In this muted world, grays appear amazingly blue!

These paintings, recently shown at the Oxbow Gallery in Northampton, are a reminder of the link between human error and natural disaster. Today, there is no polluting industry on the river and the area is known for its many artists and artisans. The five colleges nearby (Smith, Amherst, Mt. Holyoke, Hampshire, and the University of Massachusetts) are the main employers. The Mill River burbles along peacefully, except during heavy rains. Yet only once, in the 45 years we’ve lived beside it, has it threatened our home. During hurricane Irene the water came within inches of our front door. The river is stocked with trout and wildlife abounds: blue heron, black bear, herds of deer, fisher cats, raccoons and coyotes. But we see signs of climate change, another danger linked to human selfishness. This year, we had the wettest spring and the hottest July on record.


Frances Kidder received a B.A. from Vassar College and an M.A. in teaching from the University of Massachusetts. She has also studied at the Vermont Studio Center and the Boston Museum School and for 40 years has taught painting to adults and children. She now lives in Williamsburg, MA with her husband, Tracy Kidder, and is represented by the Oxbow Gallery in Northampton, MA and Yvette Torres Fine Art in Rockland, ME. Her work is also featured at franceskidder.com.

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