1840 dam calamity a magnificent effort

Published on Wednesday, October 26, 2005 in the Holyoke Plus section of The Republican. Go to www.masslive.com for more interesting stories. 

“The scene was both magnificent and frightful,” wrote The Springfield Republican.

In 1847, George C. Ewing, a prominent Holyoke businessman, was ecstatic. Everything was moving along smoothly. Section by section, the massive wooden planks were being stretched across the Connecticut River, slowly becoming the much sought after dam he had worked so hard to build.

As the work progressed, he gave daily reports to the investors, who were Boston financiers and industrialists including George Lyman, Edmund Dwight, William Appleton, Samuel Cabot and Ignatius Sergeant (all of whom have their names memorialized on Holyoke street signs today).

In 1845, these stockholders voted to name their consortium the Hadley Falls Co. and to authorize a subscribed capitalization of $2.5 million to the dam project. “Most of them were on the Board of Directors of 22 cotton manufacturing corporations, situated all over New England- from Dover, N.H. to Taunton, Mass. Together they controlled four mills in Chicopee, eight in Lowell and three in Taunton,” according to “The Story of Holyoke” by Wyatt E. Harper, a history of the city which can be found at the Holyoke Public Library.

As the work progressed, conditions worsened for the laborers. They were especially upset about their wages being lowered and went on strike. Ewing tried to settle the dispute but was unable to do so. After 10 days of the Hadley Falls Company not restoring the original hourly wage, employees grew desperate, especially men with families to feed. They tried to go back to work, but their fellow employees did not want them to return until their wages were restored.

A fight ensued, severely injuring strikers, bystanders and policemen. By the evening, 29 Northampton artillerymen were called in equipped with arms and ammunition. Rioters were rounded up and arrested. Unfortunately, the men were forced to accept the lower wages. The clash was labeled by local writers as the “Battle of the Day’s Hill.” Ewing resigned soon after this tumultuous time.

Day after day, the men worked hard at the chore of building a huge dam. Eventually, additional men were hired to assure the workman would make their deadline. On November 17, 1848, the last plank was in place. Workmen pulled their tools out of harm’s way, then walked up the banks to look back at all of their hard work. The engineers opened the water gates slowly to protect against having the water come up the walls of the dam too quickly. All of the bystanders were anxiously waiting to see how it would react to the full strength of the Connecticut River.

Years of planning and construction were now put to the test. The water began to rise, rapidly at first as it filled the smaller basin, then more slowly as it spread out over the wider areas. By 2 p.m., the dam basin was almost filled. Soon crowds of people gathered to witness this magnificent manmade wonder. The Connecticut River Railroad even brought up a trainload of curious sightseers from Springfield. The women and children looked on from higher ground, while the men choose to watch from the riverbanks.

Most of these men had worked on the dam. They joked with each other, while keeping a close eye on the water as it climbed up the massive wooden planks. Engineers John Chase and Philander Anderson looked at their timepieces. It was 3 p.m. and all was well. Feeling confident about their work, one of them even said, “The dam was going to stand and that was what they had built it to do.”

At 3:10 p.m., the unexpected happened. Water began to spout through a pier on the western end. It was a small leak at first but rapidly gained force and shot out further and further with greater and greater force. The pier moved as the water pushed it over. A group of workmen picked up a length of railroad iron and banged down the stone. They brought another rail and another until the huge abutment was weighted down.

At 3:20 p.m., the situation was a disaster. Even the old-timers couldn’t quite explain how it happened.

“All at once a loud crackling noise was heard, as timbers started to split. The middle section of the dam began to bulge forward. Almost instantly it parted and folded over before a roaring rush of water. In a second the river was charging downstream in a raging, churning torrent, carrying the loosened timbers and planking along like match sticks,” according to Harper’s work.

A half an hour later when reality had sunk in, engineer John Chase sent by telegraph to Boston this famous message, “Dam gone to Hell by way of Willimansett.”

I can’t imagine the frustration and disappointment these businessmen must have felt as they tallied the wasted time, capital and human cost this huge endeavor involved.

Because of their trials and tribulations, Holyoke is fortunate to have a modern-day dam that is strong and infallible, thanks to the many struggles of these courageous men.

In the next issue, she will travel through a moment in time to show how these determined and steadfast businessmen finally succeeded in securing their investment.

© 2006 The Republican. All rights reserved. Used with permission