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Water turbine on site of William Skinner's silk mill, Skinnerville, Williamsburg, Mass., after the 1874 Mill River Disaster
TitleWater turbine on site of William Skinner's silk mill, Skinnerville, Williamsburg, Mass., after the 1874 Mill River Disaster
Full Size Image
SubjectDisasters--United States; Disasters--Massachusetts--Skinnerville; Dam failures--Massachusetts; Water turbines; Skinner, William, 1824-1902
DescriptionStereographic view of William Skinner's water turbine in Skinnerville after the Mill River Disaster On the morning of May 16, 1874 the huge earthen dam holding back a 100-acre water power reservoir three miles above Williamsburg on the East Branch of the Mill River failed catastrophically, causing vast destruction and the loss of 139 lives in the factory villages of Williamsburg, Skinnerville, Haydenville and Leeds. It was the worst disaster of its kind in North American history up to that time, and it made national news. The event was such a sensation that many thousands of gawkers and souvenir-hunters descended on the ruined villages by the trainload, turning the misery of bereaved and destitute families into a tourist attraction and helping themselves to anything they could carry away. Photographers from all over New England arrived in the stricken valley to record the destruction in stereographs, then the primary medium for disseminating photographs to a national audience hungry for images. An estimated 500 different stereo images of the disaster's aftermath were shot by at least 14 different photographers, and most were very widely reproduced and distributed. The Meekins Library collection includes at least 84 different views, all mounted on heavy cards for use in handheld stereo viewers. This stereograph shows the water turbine that provided most of the power to William Skinner's (silk mill in Skinnerville. Perhaps the heaviest item in the mill as well as one of the lowest, the turbine was left half buried on the site when everything else except the equally ponderous steam engine disappeared downstream. The turbine was fed by a penstock, or closed inflow pipe, that extended several hundred feet downstream from Skinner's dam to the mill's wheelhouse and entered the turbine housing through the S-curved section at left. The cylindrical housing seen here enclosed the turbine and ensured that all the water entering the penstock had to pass through the turbine, maximizing the power extracted from every cubic foot of water that could be impounded for use. This was one of the ways in which iron turbines improved on the efficiency of open waterwheels. The second half of the 19th century saw steady refinements in the design of water turbines for increased efficiency, making it possible for mills to operate and prosper on ever smaller streams. Skinner's ability to build and then to enlarge his mill on a relatively flat stretch of a very small river was made possible first by an efficient turbine, and then by the building of the reservoir that ensured enough water to drive the turbine at or near its peak capacity most of the year. After the reservoir was gone, the turbine couldn't have sustained the operation of a rebuilt mill as large as the one he had lost, and Skinner would have had to rely far more heavily on costly steam power than before the disaster, when it had only been an occasional supplement to water power. So instead of rebuilding in Skinnerville, he moved to Holyoke and had a new factory in operation there - with almost limitless water power - by the end of 1874. He is believed to have vacillated for a while about whether to transport this old turbine to Holyoke for reuse, but to have decided against it in the end. Perhaps it was too small for the mill he built there. Or perhaps he was able to sell it where it lay to another Williamsburg mill owner, and save the expense of transporting it. The houses seen in the background were among the very few in Skinnerville that stood high enough above the riverbed and the valley floor to escape destruction by the flood, though the bridge that had connected them to the rest of the village was swept away.
CreatorBelieved to be Knowlton Brothers Photographers, Northampton, Mass.
IdentifierMeekins Library - Local History - Historic Photographs Collection - Mill River Disaster 1874 - Stereographs
RelationPart of the Meekins Library, Williamsburg, Mass., Local History Historic Photographs Collection.
RightsPermission to publish the image must be obtained from the Meekins Library by writing to or Meekins Library, Williamsburg, Mass., must be credited as the original source of the item for all use.
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