The Mill River Legacy of 1874

(This is an excerpt from my historic fiction/non fiction, I’ve been working on for about 20  years in between all of the other life issues. It’s written in the vernacular of the times–the times spanning 1860 to 1966. Arthur Miller is my great grandfather on my mother’s side. )

Had the rains not beat down so badly that early morning, had the reservoir dam been built of better materials or as one of the building crew mentioned later at the coroner’s inquest, “We probably didn’t get enough of the organic matter out;” had Mr. Logan, the overseer for the first six years of the dam’s short existence, the person who knew the Williamsburg Reservoir Dam inside and out, not died the previous November, then in all likelihood, the dam might have held and Williamsburg might not have lost so many and so much. Goshen, the town just upriver had successfully dammed the Mill River and “Burgy’s” three mills along with the other four mills downstream in Haydenville and Leeds and Florence, wanted similar good water flow in dry seasons. The river valley mills were enjoying a particularly innovative post-war run; many of the mill owners were inventors themselves, devising new means to turn their factories into faster and better manufacturers.

Before the flood the morning of May 16, 1874, there were plenty of jobs, good schools, nice buildings. The town was growing continually; people came from cities like Brooklyn, to work in Williamsburg. It was a place with a future, moving with the times. The wall of water—some say 10 feet tall, others say 20 to 30 feet tall—losing 600 million gallons of water in just an hour’s time changed all that.

Reporters from the Springfield Herald came up faster than one can imagine given the means of travel of the day. They spread out, breaking into a reconnaissance team, ferrying news back to one of the men who sat in the telegraph office tapping in a continuous flow like the floodwater itself. Thunderstruck survivors were found and interviewed, telling tales of entire houses with their kin still in them being lifted off their foundations and swept into the raging waters. Their stories were hastily written down in words, then transformed into dashes and dots, translated back into words back in Springfield and with that, whatever was found downstream—if it was identifiable—was captured on film, printed into black and white photographs, then screened into halftone dots of varying diameters that would hold ink in near proximity to one another thereby creating the photographs people craved to see.

People loved the stories the dots conveyed. They stood in line as newspapers came off the press to read more of what had become of Williamsburg and see the unbelievable destruction. The Civil War had been over for nearly a decade, and it had elevated people’s desire for news. They were eager for spectacles, especially disasters—natural and man-made. This disaster, being very man-made was big news. Downstream everybody talked about the flood. In Williamsburg survivors told their stories, then told them again, and several more times before the reality of what had happened to them, to their families and to their town just left them with no more words to tell.

The aftermath of a flood such as the one that swamped the center out of Williamsburg is not pretty. One hundred and thirty seven lives of family members were caught in the current and nary a one wasn’t precious. Besides the obvious—the collection of bodies and burials and mourning—the sadness piles up like the delta of wreckage and mud stacked all along the widened banks of the Mill River and the newly formed estuaries made in its overflow down through the valley. There are things people lose that can never be replaced and there are things that survivors are left with. Volunteers waded amongst the debris to begin the cleanup of the things that could be cleaned, but it would take several lifetimes for the people of Williamsburg to get beyond that breech.

Annie Gage was eighteen years old as was her betrothed, Arthur Payne Miller, a machinist in the ironworks plant that sat above the Mill River. Annie lived with her parents, up beyond Cemetery Hill, northwestward of where the Williamsburg Reservoir Dam broke. The Gages sitting at their breakfast table heard the roar of water that morning of May 16, but didn’t fathom the proportion of the mouth from which the roar was uttered. It was only after the warning bell on the mill tower had been rung that they managed to get themselves down the muddy road to witness what the commotion was about.

Already that morning, Arthur, Annie’s sweetheart, was at work. Leaning over his workbench on the high side of the river he could see out his window the swollen stream and hear the unnatural rumble of boulders being tossed down the white-capped river in the wake of the deluge. He rallied the rest of the workers from throughout the small brick building, urging them to “Take to the hills!.”

Most of the men who worked the ironworks were able and strong enough to fend for themselves; only Mr. Esterbrook, the shop foreman’s uncle, needed help with his “darn bum knee”. Coworkers hoisted him, chair and all, up the treed embankment onto the other side of Mill Road to a point of safety. Mill girls and townspeople were beginning to stream from the cotton mill and flooding clapboard houses on the downhill side of the river. Some of the ironworkers raced to the water’s edge in search of a crossing that would allow them to help the workers from the cotton mill, which stood directly across from the ironworks. Knowing Annie was probably home on high ground, Arthur too waded down to the water with a coil of rope from the now soggy ironworks floor. He and two men on the other side were able to secure the rope, tying it to trees on either side, which they hoped would allow them to cross the deepening ravine made by the now cresting river. Unbeknownst to them, this early pouring was only the leaking precursor to the rift about to follow.

Water was pouring in high above the banks and widening downhill, onto the town side of Williamsburg. Maybe they would be able to ferry people uphill. But people able to run were running away from the river out into the plain of seeming safety, unaware of the wall of the water about to send greater and swifter torrents their way.

Arthur felt helpless, realizing the futility in his rescue attempt as the cascading water left him dangling, barely holding to the rope over his head. The next minute the water dragged him, rope and all, several feet downstream, soaking him completely, but still able to hold on and grab a footing again. Arthur heard the sudden creaking and crashing of trees and buildings falling in the force of the floodwaters and knew the current was too swift for him to be of help. Amid the sounds of destruction were cries for help that he could not accommodate. Feverishly, Arthur pulled himself up, stumbled into the water, rolled with it for a few yards, got up again spitting the muddy water from his mouth, and afraid to look any longer at the horrific scene unfolding on the south side of the river, he climbed the embankment to safety.

Once on the road that led up to Annie’s house, Arthur turned to survey the maelstrom that had overtaken the tranquil hamlet of Williamsburg as cows and carriages, rooftops and rain barrels were uprooted with trees and whatever else was in the way, painting a picture so vivid, he would find it too hard to forget for the rest of his life.

Sometimes, emotions can get chiseled out of one’s heart by something so traumatic that the love that was inside that heart spill out and are wasted. Then too, disasters such as the one Arthur Payne Miller endured that day can unite two or more witnesses, and their shared emotional experience will bond them for eternity. For Annie and Arthur, the bonding was evident. Arthur Miller could not sleep through the night without Annie beside him, and the Gages—Sanford and Maria, as Puritanical as they could be, allowed it. Before the month was out, the two were joined together in the still-standing Congregational Church with every available Burgy town folk turning up to celebrate the affair, the first cause for celebration since the flood of the 16th. That’s not to say that the gouge in Arthur’s heart from his failure to save anyone had healed. It scarred over, that’s all. But Arthur Miller knew it was there, every time he caught a glance of himself in a looking glass, he saw it.

The Mill Valley was certainly well worth redeeming and throngs of volunteers made their way up to Williamsburg when the washed out roads were passable again. The coroner’s inquiry was certainly part of the upriver lure; then too, folks downstream would come across something in their gardens that they knew had come down with the flood, and those things started to be returned and exhibited outside the church to be reclaimed by their rightful owners.

Burgy wasn’t the same Burgy as it used to be. A pall hung over the town and would have grayed it down even more than the gray place it had become, except for the fact that whole forests of trees—evergreens and budding orchards as well as grand, syrup-bearing maples—had been lost wherever the flood’s path meandered. That left sunny openings throughout the river town, a welcome circumstance to some. Nothing much came of the coroner’s inquiry in the way of placing guilt on the mill owners who had financed the dam and filled it with its lethal legacy. It took a few months for the inquiry to be capped off, and then the real work of putting the town back together ensued.

Annie and Arthur Miller started their family almost immediately. Annie proved to be as fertile as the flooded banks along the Mill River Valley bearing evidence of the closeness of their marriage. Baby Fred was born only ten months after the deluge, followed shortly thereafter by Helen Louise, Sherwood, Blanche, Howard, then Alice, who would be called Ethel (her middle name), Marjorie (called Daisy) and lastly Olive Thorne Miller, born twenty years after the flood of emotions that brought Annie and Arthur together.

In the struggling years after the flood when inhabitants were cobbling together what was left of Williamsburg, Arthur and Annie found a home out on South Street beside an abrupt Berkshire-like foothill in the backyard with plenty of room for a big garden and a place for a couple of cows and a dozen or more chickens to mill about in the field to the left of the old structure. In need of a whitewash, the old house hadn’t been lived in for a few years, but it hadn’t been deserted as a number of old houses that survived the flood had. Structurally, it rambled back on a slight slope from the front lawn, having been connected over time to the barn out back by two different additions, the kinds that were customarily built after dreadful New England winters. So there never really were outbuildings per se, rather extensions of the original structure with doors on either side that allowed for the circulation of people not only to the barn, but from one side yard into another. This satisfied Arthur who, by virtue of his ever-increasing role in the family, had become known as Papa. Papa wasn’t exactly fond of the cold; he had developed arthritis in his right hip that made it difficult for him to walk long periods of time, especially up or downhill.

Subsistence farming is what the Millers called their lifestyle though it was a term Howard, their son, coined for himself more as a slur than an actual known way of life at the time. Being the last of the few Miller boys, much of the chore work fell to him, especially in light that the older son, Sherwood who’d been given Maria Gage’s middle name to live with, was a child prone to breathing problems, egged on by the barn smells. Howard’s relationship to the homestead and the Miller’s way of rural life didn’t bode well. His schoolmates in Burgy tended to be from non-farming, working class families—those who had stayed to rebuild Williamsburg, who had the money to live in town in remodeled clapboard and more substantial brick buildings. Many of the farming families had evaporated from town when their marketplaces dried up what with the decreased populations imposed by the flood.

The demographics of the public school changed for each of the Miller children, reflecting subtle changes to the population in the twenty years post-flood. Olive’s schoolmates would be very different from Howard’s, but for Howard who felt part of the underclass of Williamsburg, the subtlety was missed. Howard could still recall the refuse remaining on the banks of the Mill River and the town’s countless efforts to remove them. As long as the remnants of the murky days of Williamsburg remained, Papa too might be found staring off at the distance, trapped in his memories, the lethal roll of boulders calling out to him.

“What’s the matter, Pa?” Howard called to his dad as the two of them worked putting up some chicken wire.

“Nothing,” came the answer a little too late to be believed, and barely audible.

If Arthur could have put a name to what hampered him, he would have. Had he known how his behavior would feed his youngest son’s longing to connect, he surely would have dropped it. But deep pain resurfaces through tiny pores, and he had no way of knowing his behavior would fuel his son Howard’s choices to be in direct contrast to his own way of life. Howard grew to loathe the farm and neither of them could support each other’s longings. Their exchanges grew perfunctory, even early in Howard’s life, for as the family grew, and with each new personality needing one more facet of him, Arthur grew more and more to himself, and like his farming, Arthur Miller subsisted.

© 2014 Martha Voutas Donegan


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