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View of Williamsburg, Mass. reservoir dam ruins after the 1874 Mill River Disaster
TitleView of Williamsburg, Mass. reservoir dam ruins after the 1874 Mill River Disaster
Full Size Image
SubjectDam failures--Massachusetts; Disasters--United States; Disasters--Massachusetts--Williamsburg; Dams--design and construction; Cheney, George, 1844-1918; Spelman, Onslow, 1821-1905
DescriptionStereographic view of the ruins of the Williamsburg Reservoir Company Dam 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 souenir-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 western remnant of the dam, including the 30-foot tower of stone at the west edge of the 250-foot-wide breach in the center of the dam. The view is from the scoured valley immediately below the dam site, looking upstream, with the reservoir bed at far right mostly outside the picture. In the foreground is the downstream end of the waste pipe that passed perpendicularly through the base of the dam at its center, and near the end of the pipe is the rectangular housing for a gate valve that regulated the flow of water through the pipe to the mills downstream. At the first sign that the dam was failing, dam attendant George Cheney (1844-1918) ran from his little cabin, safe on the adjacent hillside and just outside this picture to the left, down to the gate valve at the foot of the crumbling dam and opened it all the way, in the vain hope of reducing pressure on the dam. Then he embarked on a frantic, bareback ride of three miles to town to warn his employer, button factory owner Onslow Spelman (1821-1905), that the dam was failing - a ride that saved hundreds of lives. Note the various visitors seen here gawking at the dam's remains from above and below. Those at upper left are standing atop the intact remnant at the dam's west end. A straight line extended from the ground where they are standing through the top of the tall stone pinnacle at center, and continuing up and out of the picture to the right, would approximate the top of the dam before the disaster. It was 600 feet long, and stood 43 feet above the original streambed at the waste pipe.
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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