Events to mark 150th anniversary of Mill River Flood

People survey the damage around what was the Williamsburg Reservoir following the flood of May 16, 1874.

People survey the damage around what was the Williamsburg Reservoir following the flood of May 16, 1874. COURTESY HISTORIC NORTHAMPTON

Staff report

Published: 05-14-2024 4:48 PM

On May 16, 1874, the sudden collapse of the Williamsburg dam on the East Branch of the Mill River let loose a flood that swept away parts of Williamsburg, Skinnerville, Haydenville and Leeds. It killed 139 people, all within an hour, and was the first major dam disaster in the U.S.

On the 150th anniversary of the flood, a working group from across the Mill Valley has planned a series of events to remember the disaster and honor the victims. Here is a rundown of the events.

Thursday, May 16 Cascade of Bells

12:10 p.m.

There will be a relay of church bells from Williamsburg to Northampton, ringing a total of 139 times, once for each flood victim.

■Williamsburg Congregational Church

■Haydenville Congregational Church

■Our Lady of the Hills

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■Leeds Chapel

■Florence Congregational Church

■Smith College Change Bells

■Churches in Northampton

■Smith Handbells (in front of First Churches)

Floods Past and Present

5 to 6:30 p.m.

Grow Food Northampton Community Farm, Florence

John Sinton and Gaby Immerman of the Mill River Greenway will lead a discussion on the natural and human-driven hydrologic cycles of life on a floodplain farm.

From the era of Glacial Lake Hitchcock through 10,000 years of Indigenous land stewardship, to the Colonial era, and to our current period of global warming, attendees will reflect on the natural cycle of flooding along the Mill River.

Registration at growfoodnorthampton.org.

The 1874 Mill River Flood

First Congregational Church of Williamsburg
7 p.m.

Mill River Flood historian Eric Weber will give a public lecture on the 150th anniversary of the Mill River disaster.

For decades, Weber has searched archives and libraries to locate all photographic stereoscopic cards made of the destruction. Over 450 different stereoviews were marketed to the American public, which was eager for news of the catastrophe.

Based upon the photographic record, Weber has a detailed knowledge of the path of the flood.

Saturday, May 18 Commemoration of the Mill River Flood

First Congregational Church of Williamsburg
2 p.m.

The program will feature new musical compositions by Nick Reid and Louise Mosrie, the “May 16th, 1874” ballad by Lynne Bertrand and Penny Schultz, with cellist Stephen Katz, and the story of the disaster in the words of witnesses (arranged by Elizabeth Sharpe) with a reading of the victims’ names.

A re-enactment of dam keeper George Cheney’s frantic horseback ride to warn the village will follow on North Main Street. Two trees will be planted at the church honoring the first two victims of the flood.

The event will be livestreamed. The link will be posted on the Historic Northampton website.

Flood Memorial Tree Project, 2024-29

A total of 144 trees (one for each of 139 victims and five heroes) will be planted along the river as a living memorial.

Each tree will be dedicated to an individual flood victim, the entire family that perished, or a hero of the day. The plantings will take place over five years as the Mill River Greenway shared-use path along the river is developed.

Two red maples will be planted at the Williamsburg Church on Saturday for the first two victims of the flood — Sarah Collyer Bartlett, age 24 and her daughter Viola Collyer, age 3.

Sunday, May 19 Leeds Commemoration Gathering

Church lawn,
195 Main St., 1 p.m.

There will be a recounting of Myron Day’s heroic ride warning Leeds, a reading of the names of the 51 Leeds victims, and the performance of an original song by John Daniel.

River-inspired art pieces by Leeds artists, original illustrations from “Millicent and The Day it Rained Buttons” by Nancy Meagher, and an art piece made by the Leeds After School Enrichment River Arts Club will be on display.

A memorial tree will be planted to honor Myron Day.

Later and ongoing Who Was Responsible for the Mill River Disaster?

Old Hampshire County Courthouse

May 31 at 7 p.m.

June 1 at 1 and 4 p.m.

A readers’ theatre presentation about the coroner’s inquest into the cause of the Mill River disaster will take place in Hampshire County’s historic courtroom.

The audience will be invited to participate by reading some of the testimony and commentary from the inquest.

Elizabeth Sharpe, author of “In the Shadow of the Dam: The Aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874,” will narrate.

Register at Historic Northampton.

Guided Walks to the Dam Ruins

May, June and September

Historians, naturalists, and engineers will lead walks and discuss the design and construction of the dam, the dam break, and the changes in the natural landscape.

The trail is approximately 1.5 miles total, of moderate difficulty, with some steep, slippery and rugged portions.

Registration at Historic Northampton is required.

Each hike is limited to 20 participants.

Follow the Flood: 76 Markers and Online Story Map

May and June

An interactive, online story map, designed and hosted by Smith College, will show the length of the Mill River, the span of the flood, and the locations of 76 historical markers that describe what happened at each site.

Markers will be posted in the villages of Williamsburg, Haydenville, Leeds, Florence and Northampton and at victims’ graves in five cemeteries. The markers will be on display for two months.

Exhibits Paintings by Frances Kidder

Meekins Library,
Williamsburg,

May 1-31

Frances Kidder’s paintings of the Mill River Disaster will be on exhibit at the Neil Hammer Gallery at Meekins Library. Living beside the Mill River in Williamsburg, Kidder was moved to create artwork as “an elegy to those who suffered.”

Artwork and Poetry Exhibit by Dunphy School 3rd Graders

Meekins Library, May 1-31

Artifacts pulled from the Mill River after the 1874 flood inspired 10 third graders in Nicole Derby’s classroom at Anne T. Dunphy School to learn about local history.

Their research and the artwork and writing they created helped them to further understand the Mill River’s history, and its connection to the production of silk thread, brass faucets, buttons, and more.

Photo Exhibit in Former Faces Store Windows

175 Main St., Northampton

Large historic photographs will show the path of destruction from Williamsburg to Northampton.

Videos about the Flood

Historic Northampton, 46 Bridge St.

May and June

Wednesday-Sunday
noon to 4 p.m.

Visitors to Historic Northampton can select from among five videos about the disaster, its impact, and its artistic representations, including the 18-minute 1993 film by Art Donahue for Chronicle, WCVB-TV Channel 5 Boston.

The events schedule can be downloaded from Historic Northampton.