The Mill River Flood, Disaster

In 1874 a tragic industrial disaster wiped out Skinnerville, Massachusetts — and set the stage for one of the greatest business comeback stories in American history.

The Mill River Flood, Disaster

May 16, 1874, was just like any other rainy Saturday morning in the western Massachusetts mill village of Skinnerville. That is, until an oft-criticized, eight-year-old dam — the only thing standing between the village and the 600 million gallons of water in nearby Williamsburg Reservoir — suffered a catastrophic failure. Minutes later a deafening inland tidal wave swept away most of Skinnerville and several other towns in the Mill River Valley, killing 139 people and leaving over 800 others homeless. It was the worst industrial disaster in the U.S. to date, making news as far away as England, which had experienced a similar tragedy (the Great Sheffield Flood) a decade earlier.

But one businessman — silk manufacturer William Skinner (1824-1902) — lost more than anyone else. Having arrived in the U.S. as a penniless immigrant nearly three decades earlier, he had grown his silk dyeing and manufacturing business to the point where it sustained the company village that bore his name. With his factory and most of his property destroyed, he faced the prospect of rebuilding from scratch at the ripe old age of forty-nine.

In “American Phoenix” (Free Press), Skinner’s great-great-granddaughter, author Sarah S. Kilborne, recounts the disaster and relates how Skinner made the bold decision to leave Skinnerville behind and move twenty miles south to Holyoke, Massachusetts, where he built a bigger, better mill and went on to achieve his greatest success. In the following Failure interview, Kilborne explains how Skinner orchestrated his comeback, and describes his personal philosophy about success and failure.

Who was William Skinner?
He was an immigrant who became one of the leading silk manufacturers in American history. He was born in a slum in East London and came to America at age twenty. He arrived with little more than the clothes on his back, but he did have one extremely valuable possession that no American had at the time — a knowledge of how to dye silk. He became a pioneer in establishing a silk industry in America and demonstrated that American silk could be just as beautiful and high quality as that which came from Europe and the Far East.

What were some of the challenges of dyeing silk in Skinner’s day?
When Skinner was growing up there was no such thing as artificial dye. Every dye came from a natural source so he was creating dyes from berries and bark and flowers. Dyeing silk was a supreme and ancient art. It involved a cocktail of ingredients and a thorough understanding of chemistry. Recipes for making colors were passed down from generation to generation and always kept secret, as recipes distinguished one dyer from another. Dyeing silk was an extremely difficult thing to do, and to master, but Skinner knew how to do it because his family had been in the silk trade for generations. He himself had been working since about the age of four.

What about the challenges of producing silk in New England in the mid-nineteenth century?
The greatest challenge was that few people knew how to do it. Americans didn’t know what silk machinery looked like or what the tools to make the machinery even looked like. They didn’t know how to manufacture, weave, or dye silk thread. It wasn’t until foreigners like Skinner began to arrive with knowledge of the ancient traditions that silk became an industry in the States. It’s hard for us to appreciate today what a big deal silk was back then. But this was a time when fabric was fashion and silk was supreme. Everyone wanted it.

The second biggest challenge was foreign competition. Americans in general believed that everything of taste and refinement came from abroad. Few believed that silk of any quality could be made in America. The democracy was too new, too young. But American silk manufacturers persevered and eventually made a name for American silk. It became very, very big business.

Tell me about Skinnerville.
Skinnerville was a typical mill village of the mid-nineteenth century — a village that was centered on a factory that was the heart of the community. There were about 200 people who lived there and most of the families had members who worked at the mill. There was a school, general store, and railroad depot. There were farms, too, on the outskirts. Before Skinner established his mill there, the area was little more than a barren stretch of highway.

When Skinner came to the States, he first worked as a dyer for a fledgling silk mill farther down the river. He was fiercely ambitious and when the opportunity arose he took over the dyehouse, then became a partner in the mill. Then he branched out on his own, turning an empty building in the middle of nowhere — in the town of Williamsburg — into a silk mill. Within just a few years an entire village had grown up around his mill, and the townspeople began calling it Skinner’s village or “Skinnerville.”

Tell me about the dam that failed at Williamsburg Reservoir.
The Mill River was an inland stream that ran down through the valley and supplied all of the mills lining the river with waterpower. However, depending on the time of year and the amount of rain or snowmelt, the river could run so low it was almost dry. For this reason the area’s manufacturers built reservoirs in the upper reaches of the valley to provide additional waterpower when necessary. The Williamsburg Reservoir (1865) was the second of three reservoirs built. It covered 111 acres at the top of the east branch of the river and contained hundreds of millions of gallons of water. Holding back the water was an earthen dam roughly 600 feet across.

Unfortunately, the dam leaked from the get-go as a result of poor design and construction. The manufacturers wanted to cut costs wherever they could so they had designed an interior slope that was quite steep — the steeper the pitch, the less earth would be required, and the less it would cost to build. There were other questionable decisions but this was the worst. The contractors who built the dam didn’t agree with such a steep pitch — believing that it would not be able to resist the pressure of the water — but they built it anyway because they wanted the job. Then they cut even more corners as they were building the dam. But the state had sanctioned the dam when it gave the manufacturers approval to build it (without requiring any documentation about design) and the county commissioners signed off on it too. So ultimately, when the thing gave way, no single party was at fault for its failure because everyone, from the state on down, could point fingers at somebody else. There was an inquest, all were on trial, and no one was found guilty. It was considered an egregious failure.

Were its owners aware of the risk of a dam break?
Yes, but not a catastrophic one. These men were as skilled as any in their era regarding the building of dams and they were more than willing to experiment with this one, quite comfortably believing that if there were any problems they could fix them. And when problems manifested, they did fix them. For instance, they altered the interior slope to make it stronger. However, there were a number of leaks that no one could explain and while the dam seemed to be secure, the owners evidently weren’t convinced. They consulted a lawyer about relieving themselves from liability in the event that the dam failed. Something important to note is this: nobody thought anybody would die if the dam failed. The biggest concern was loss of property. Never before in the history of the country had a dam failed and killed scores of people. A few maybe, but even that had been rare.

Tell me about May 16, 1874.
It was a rainy Saturday and early in the morning, up at the dam, the gatekeeper was finishing breakfast when his father looked out the window and exclaimed, “For God sakes, George, look there!” George Cheney looked out and saw a part of the dam sloughing off and disappearing downstream. He ran down to the dam and immediately opened the drainpipe that ran through its bottom, hoping to release some of the pressure from the reservoir. The dam seemed dangerously waterlogged. Cheney could see rivulets of water the size of his arm beginning to poke through its face. He was certain the whole thing was about to give way.

He immediately took off on his horse for Williamsburg to warn his boss, Onslow Spelman, of what was happening. That must have been an interesting ride. Cheney’s horse had never been ridden before — it was a workhorse — and Cheney was too poor to own a saddle so he rode the animal bareback three miles to town. And he didn’t just ride it, he raced it. When he got to Spelman’s, he and his horse were spent, and Spelman wouldn’t believe him that the dam was in danger. Spelman thought Cheney was a small-minded farmer who didn’t know what he was talking about.

A few minutes later Cheney was at the livery stable trying to convince the livery keeper to give him a fresh horse so that he could take his warning down the valley when Collins Graves, a dairy farmer, came into town. Graves was the first person to believe Cheney and told him, in so many words, “You warn the people here in Williamsburg and I’ll warn the folks below.” Graves then took off in his buggy for Skinnerville. Nobody had any idea how close the water was. They thought it would take hours for the water to empty out of the reservoir. But the entire dam had given way by this point and hundreds of millions of gallons would hit town in about five minutes. Afterward, survivors exclaimed of the flood, “It was so sudden!”

The rushing water destroyed the entire Mill River Valley that day, fourteens miles of towns and farmland. It swept down through Williamsburg, Skinnerville, Haydenville, Leeds, Florence, and the town of Northampton.

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