Mill River Disaster, 1874
These images were taken in the aftermath of the flood of 1874, when the Mill River dam broke.
The Mill River flood was the first major dam disaster in the United States and one of the greatest calamities of the nineteenth century. It happened early one May morning in 1874, in the hills above the western Massachusetts towns of Williamsburg and Northampton, when a reservoir dam (used for waterpower) suddenly burst, sending an avalanche of water down a narrow valley lined with factories and farms. Within an hour, 139 people were dead, and four mill villages were washed away. The Mill River flood instantly became one of the nation’s big news stories. Newspapers and magazines recounted survivors’ daring escapes from the floodwaters and described the horrors of the week-long search for the dead among acres of debris. Investigations showed that the dam had collapsed because it was poorly and negligently constructed, but, like many other disasters of the nineteenth century, no one was held accountable. The flood’s legacy was that it prompted Massachusetts, and nearby states, to grasp the hazards of unregulated reservoirs and to pass landmark dam safety laws.
For Further Reading:
Sharpe, Elizabeth M. In the Shadow of the Dam: The Aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874. New York: Free Press, 2004.