A once-deadly river’s hushed voice

JIM CAHILLANE     May 16, 2014       Daily Hampshire Gazette

     As a Northampton native I was largely unaware, until we found a building lot in Williamsburg 20 years ago, of the May 16, 1874 Mill River disaster. I joked we would soon own the best house by a dam site, i.e. a few hundred yards into the woods on City of Northampton owned land, which today is posted No Trespassing.

Occasionally, historian Ralman Black leads groups there.

Today, as an informed member of the Historical Society I know that the loss of Burgy’s defective water power dam never was a joke and is not one today. It’s sour negligence writ large; our town’s unique major disaster recalled with both pride and sorrow.

Pride in the heroes who saved so many lives and sadness at those lost. 2014 marks 140 years since the dam burst. I can count a full seventy-five of them since the Mill River’s flow became my watershed of memories.

In the 1930’s Northampton center was flood prone. The Mill River flowed behind City Hall down Pleasant Street under the Wright Avenue Bridge and into the meadows to join the Connecticut. Something had to be done and the Army Engineers took on the task of diverting the river at West Street to follow a new cutting behind South Street to the Ox Bow.

That same year, 1939, my parents moved their growing family from Glendale Avenue to lower South Street. I remember a canvas lean-to extending the length of our glassed-in back porch to protect us from the blasting necessary to construct the new river channel.

The river’s been a constant in my life ever since.

Everyone swam at the bridge; dad built a backyard stairway over the riprap to a wooden dock, connecting we kids to the water. That his effort was optimistic is obvious—given that the river was, as I recalled in “The Best Place of All” (City/Northampton 2004): “a toxic tapestry of colorful industrial waste from the McCallum Hosiery a quarter mile away, as well as Prophylactic Brush and every plant upriver in Northampton, Florence and Leeds, plus all of Williamsburg’s sewage system.”

Miraculously, we avoided polio during the ‘40’s and 50’s. In 1951 my sixteen-year-old brother Steve became a hero when he rescued a boy from drowning. The river flowed cleaner and was a presence as we raised five children on nearby South Park Terrace.

Daily as I head out for my morning paper I hear the failed dam’s Mill River Ext. source over the hill. Its volume varies based on total rainfall.

Mole meets Ratty in the opening pages of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows.” Unfamiliar in his new surroundings and alive with the coming of spring, Moley comprehends: “So – this – is – a – river!”

The river,” corrected the Rat. “By it and with it and on it and in it,” said the Rat. “It’s brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing. Lord! The times we’ve had together!”

Ratty speaks for all of us who pause to appreciate the great blessings of New England’s rivers and streams. Take Paradise Pond for example. The Mill River refreshes it daily, leading to a picturesque waterfall next to Smith’s playing fields and running track, creating a matchless campus ideal. It’s a peaceful boating venue most days and perfect for celebratory flotillas. Shockingly, in January 1950 a stolen Hudson convertible was rolled into the pond; Harold’s Garage recovered it in their first tow job.

A few of us pre-teens once skinny-dipped there, a la Norman Rockwell.

Continuing up stream we find ourselves in Florence and Look Park. There the river is low and easily accessible to toe-dipping children. Its ripples relax picnicking families in Northampton’s beautiful backyard. Look Park became the 1874 flood’s riotous endpoint.

The Valley was never quite the same again.

Poet W. D. Howells compared our Northampton and Florence rivers to those of Florence, Italy, “That beauty’s home beside the Arno’s flow.” I’ve seen the Arno. It flows green like our hosiery-dyed river once did.

Well, rivers have a beginning and an end. Our Mill stream ends at the Ox Bow where literate boaters often quote that wise river resident, Ratty: “Believe me my young friend there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

On Friday May 16th I will be thinking about the 139 people, half of them Irish and Canadian immigrants, who lost their lives to the flood.


(Burgy Poet Jim Cahillane’s house plaque “Mole End” celebrates Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 masterwork: “The Wind in the Willows.”)


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