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.

What was the fate of Skinnerville?
It was obliterated from the face of the earth. That’s what they said. Skinnerville suffered the worst destruction in the valley, perhaps because it was the smallest village. The wave hit and swept away nearly everything. Like so many other people, Skinner escaped with his life by seconds, running up a railroad embankment with his family. When he turned around the village was underwater. He said it was like standing on the deck of a ship in a violent storm.

Afterward it was an expanse of mud and detritus. There wasn’t a brick left of Skinner’s silk mill and hardly a building to be seen. Skinner’s house was the only one left standing. Some said it survived the floodwaters because it was made of board, not brick, and rooted to the ground by its five chimneys. The house is now a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s called the Wistariahurst Museum.

All the water in the reservoir took just fifteen minutes to pass through Skinnerville. It was all over by about 8:15 in the morning. But in that quarter of an hour, Skinner lost nearly $200,000 — the equivalent of $35 million today. He lost more financially than any other individual in the valley. Many considered him ruined.

Was there any disaster relief aid back then?
No, it didn’t exist. One Congressman did bring the issue of relief to the floor of Congress and tried to get aid for the sufferers but he was shot down. And the state was very reluctant to get involved because it didn’t want to set a potentially bad precedent. It took a lot of persuasion for the state to step in but ultimately it did, recognizing that it needed to help these communities recover if they were ever again going to contribute to the Commonwealth.

What critical decisions did Skinner make in the wake of the disaster?
He remained a realist and totally honest about the situation. There were no false shows of bravado. It was bad and he said it was bad. He also made no hasty promises, realizing he wasn’t in a position to promise anyone anything. He took his time. He trusted his gut. He didn’t dwell on what had happened. Instead, he turned his attention to what he could still achieve. In his heart he wanted to rebuild in Skinnerville. But he wasn’t convinced that was the smartest choice because the village was quite literally gone, and he would have been stuck with the expense of rebuilding most of it, in addition to the already overwhelming challenge of rebuilding his mill and business.

But he had left a terrible situation once before in his life — when he left England — and knew that sometimes leaving home was less of a sacrifice than staying. He traveled throughout the Northeast looking at potential mill sites and entertaining offers. What’s critical to note is that he didn’t explore his options thinking, “Where am I least likely to fail?” For Skinner, it was about, “Where am I most likely to succeed?” A totally different mindset. And when he eventually settled on Holyoke and began to build a new mill, he was thinking: If I have to rebuild now, I’m going to plan for the future. I’m going to build the mill of my dreams.

So he did several things that set him apart: he accepted reality, he remained optimistic, he was willing to change, and he continued to dream. This allowed him to be open and creative in what could have been a very limited situation.

What made Holyoke attractive?
What Skinner needed in order to rebuild was money and waterpower, and Holyoke gave him both to an exceptional degree. Holyoke was an up-and-coming industrial city with very ambitious capitalists who recognized that the Mill River Valley’s loss could be their gain. And they had much to offer. Holyoke had been planned specifically for industry with an ingenious three-tiered canal system that provided safe and reliable waterpower 365 days a year. If Skinner moved there, he would never have to worry about waterpower (or reservoirs) again. The Holyoke Water Power Company masterminded a deal to build Skinner a new mill and have it up and running in six months. Six months! The terms were these: Beginning in early 1875 Skinner would be responsible for interest payments on the cost of the mill and in five years he could buy it back at its original cost. He was also given property along the canals rent-free for five years and an entire city lot on which to build a new home. Skinner had no money to invest in anything after the flood. What Holyoke did was give him money and time. He had five years to get back on his feet before having to address the expenses of rebuilding. Holyoke made offers to all the other manufacturers in the Mill River Valley. Other towns did too. Skinner was the only one to accept an offer.

Could he have succeeded again if he had rebuilt Skinnerville?
No. The cost would have been prohibitive. And the losses from the disaster — in real and economic terms — were too great. Within a few years every manufacturer who had suffered from the disaster found himself in financial distress, with some in bankruptcy. Eventually all lost their businesses. In 1877 a local historian wrote: “Men of abundant means who seem to withstand the first shock of disaster proved to be more embarrassed than what was expected.” By that time, though, Skinner was beginning to see returns in Holyoke.

But starting over wasn’t easy. Skinner needed those five years. But he built his mill for the future, with the latest technology, and once his business turned the corner it never stopped growing. Moving to Holyoke would prove to be one of the best and most significant decisions of Skinner’s life. Thanks to Holyoke’s waterpower, its abundant supply of labor and housing, its proximity to railroads, and its real estate along the canals, Skinner’s mill was able to grow and expand without limitation. Ultimately, his company boasted the largest silk mill under one roof in the world and employed more than a thousand people. That would never have been possible in Skinnerville.

But because of the choices he made after the flood he became one of the most successful silk manufacturers in American history. He died a multi-millionaire.

How did Skinner’s personal history influence his outlook on life?
He learned very early on that perseverance was mandatory for any kind of success. And that hard work was necessary to achieve whatever he wanted to achieve. He didn’t believe in luck; he believed you had to make your own luck. He was born into abject poverty, where people often didn’t live to adulthood. If anything he was born into bad luck. When he left England at the age of twenty, he did the unthinkable. Immigration was a kind of death back then because it totally severed you from your family, usually forever. Where he grew up in London, most men had never ventured farther than two miles in any direction. Skinner went across the ocean to the United States. That says a lot about what he was willing to do to survive. It also exemplifies that he seized opportunities when they came. He didn’t look backward. He was always looking forward and thinking of creative ways to get ahead. Skinner was a survivor.

What were some of his favorite sayings?
He didn’t believe in failure so he would say things like, “There is no such word as ‘fail,’” and “Succeed. You cannot afford anything else.” He’d also say, “The smartest horse jumps the ditch.” In other words, believe in yourself and be willing to take leaps of faith. The most successful people always do.

One of my favorite things he used to say, which he would say, famously, to family members was: “What’s the biggest room in the world? The room for improvement.” No matter where you are in your career, no matter what rung of the ladder, there is always room for improvement. That’s very empowering if you think about it.

What lessons do you hope readers take away from the book?
This is a book about resiliency and survival. It’s about believing in yourself and never giving up. It’s about trusting your own instincts and seeing the larger picture. What Skinner was able to do is to show that no matter where you come from and no matter what the situation there is always opportunity. You just have to look for it. Skinner not only survived disaster but he achieved his greatest success because of it. That’s a lesson we can all learn from.

What happened to William Skinner & Sons after Skinner’s death?
Skinner’s sons, Will and Joe, had become partners in the firm before he died and they took it over afterward, carrying on their father’s tradition of innovation. The company became one of the first textile houses to branch out into consumer advertising in 1903. In the 1920s and ’30s it became a darling of Hollywood with Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and the like wearing gowns of Skinner satin on screen. During World War II the company worked with the armed forces designing silk parachutes, as well as new fabrics to withstand the rigors of combat. In the 1950s Skinner’s bridal satin was arguably the most famous bridal satin in the country. By then Skinner’s silks could be found in so many products that Reader’s Digest put Skinner on a list of some of the most influential Englishmen to land on American soil. The company remained in the family until 1961 — 113 years after Skinner founded it.

Sarah Kilborne dot-com