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In the Shadow of the Dam: The Aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874 Paperback – August 10, 2007

4.7 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Sharpe, the former director of education at the Smithsonian's American History museum, delivers a compelling account of an 1874 disaster in Massachusetts that became a turning point in the history of American capitalism and technology. Sharpe is a skilled historian who does a superb job presenting the details of the careless planning behind what became at that point the most deadly dam failure—a reservoir dam situated high above a number of factory and farm towns that suddenly burst, unleashing 600 million gallons of water that destroyed most of the communities in just four and a half hours, leaving 131 dead and 750 homeless. She gives sympathetic, closely detailed descriptions, from a range of historical sources, of the terror faced during and after the disaster, as people searched for bodies "amid wreckage so dense and snarled that mattresses and quilts were knotted with belting and machinery, and hanks of raw silk were lodged with toys and potatoes." She also provides an excellent historical context for the event, including the lack at that time of any standards for dam construction, the general public's ongoing cultural preoccupation with disasters and the unfortunately common belief that disasters were "part of the unavoidable and necessary cost of industrial development." She nicely details the lasting social changes that came in the wake of the flood, such as how it galvanized public opinion in support of better building standards and how it gave an important boost to the emerging engineering profession in the U.S.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

On May 16, 1874, the Williamsburg reservoir dam broke, sending an avalanche of water from the Mill River over five villages that lined the valley in western Massachusetts. In 30 minutes, the villages and their brass and cotton factories were destroyed, leaving 139 people dead and 750 homeless; one-third of the victims were under the age of 10. Sharpe, who grew up a few miles from the disaster, spent many years researching the story. She chronicles the building of the dam, the tragedy itself, and its aftermath. Word of the flood traveled fast, bringing aid in the form of money, clothes, blankets, and search teams, as well as looters. Sharpe also documents the efforts to rebuild the towns with the help of hundreds of volunteers. She describes the inquest that followed and the resulting verdict, and what was done to prevent another such disaster. The author has done an incredible amount of research, drawing on newpapers, magazines, and journals of the time, along with manuscripts, maps, photographs, books, and interviews. George Cohen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (August 10, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416572643
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416572640
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,010,081 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Janet McGowan on October 4, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is a great book. In the Shadow of the Dam tells a surprisingly intimate, gripping story about the failure of the Willaimburg Dam in 1874. Although the reader starts the book knowing its end -- 139 people will die from a break that was inevitable since the dam was so poorly built -- Elizabeth Sharpe deftly builds suspense with her careful, compelling details. She animates the long dead and the time in which they lived. As I read, I came to care about people living in the towns and villages under the dam. Sharpe brings to life the factory owners who built the dam on the cheap, the people who labored in their factories, the doomed children and families living below the dam, and the rescuers who warned as many as they could. I felt for the many people who spent weeks and weeks digging out the corpes and debris fused into the dense muck which settled in Florence Meadow. Sharpe's recounting of the ball of tree limbs, mud, broken houses, livestock, rocks and bodies created by the floodwaters is riveting. It is a story of real people and the time in which they lived -- when industrialists could build almost anything without safety requirements, when communities reflexively helped each other, when companies were almost totally unaccountable for their recklessness, and when there was virtually no help for the poorest victims.
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Format: Hardcover
A very well written and obviously well researched book, In The Shadow Of The Dam tells the whole story of this disaster in such an engaging and intense way that it's a real page-turner. I'm local to the Williamsburg area, grew-up in town and have been waiting for such an in depth examination of the event.

Johnstown, PA has a 165 acre National memorial park while Williamsburg has a small plaque affixed to a rock in the woods near the old spillway behind no tresspassing signs. Thank you for telling the tale it seems no one wanted to tell...

An absolute must for history buffs!
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The more things change . . .
Greed and hubris lead a group of businessmen to cut corners building a dam. After it breaks, causing loss of homes and lives, it turns out the men responsible don't think it was their fault and, indeed, instead of being punished, they rebuild their factories and end up with homes even grander than before.
UPDATE after a year
As I mull over this book and it's lessons for today, what haunts me is that virtually everyone knew this could happen. Even though it could wash away their families, homes, businesses, no one took action to prevent this disaster.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Like most historical treatises, this book was quite dry. I found it very interesting because the setting is very familiar to me. The book is well researched and written. I think the author attempted to tell the story as an objective reporter. As you might expect, she wound up sounding much more sympathetic to the victims than the mill owners that designed and built the dam at the heart of the story. She also sums the situation up with a bit of editorializing that is less than objective, but on the mark. The story and the circumstances around it resonate with the modern world in that it's ultimately one of greed versus safety and the potential for those who are charged with looking after the interests of the public at large to fail miserably.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Joel Hayden Jr. was my great grandfather. My siblings and I grew up with bits of information regarding the flood but no real history of what had happened. My mother spent summers during her childhood in Haydenville (she is a Hayden), and we visited Haydenville regularly. But I don't think even she knew many facts.

It was very moving to read my great-great grandfather's dying words, and know that although he was a businessman, he was a decent man. In my reading Joel Jr. spent most of the family fortune trying to rebuild the business on site in Haydenville instead of abandoning the town and people.

I am very grateful to Elizabeth Sharpe for having written In the Shadow of the Dam. It was well written and provided me with information about my family that may have otherwise been forever unknown to me.
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Dear Readers:
I recently finished reading "In The Shadow of The Dam" - including the Epilogue and Appendixes A, B and C. A truly, a marvelous and comprehensive piece of research, rendered in a readable and engaging way. Elizabeth Sharpe's exhaustive gleanings must have been a Herculean task but as a descendent of one of the victims, no doubt a labor of love.

Having grown up in Holyoke, Massachusetts in the 40s and early 50s, I'm quite familiar with the area but regrettably never learned about this tragic and historically significant event while attending the local public schools. Moreover, even though I've driven through Leads, Haydenville, Skinnerville and Williamsburg Massachusetts numerous times, I was never aware of what took place there in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

I was particularly struck by Ms. Sharpe's Epilogue beginning on page 227 as she whetted my appetite to revisit the area and view it through new eyes, as it were. As a young man I was enrolled in General Electric's "Apprentice Program" and traveled weekly to Pittsfield for four years via route #9 ... long before the opening of the Massachusetts Turnpike. Additionally, my family had a cottage on Lake Damon in Chesterfield which again took me through that same area. I wish I knew then what (thanks to her book) I know now as I would have examined the area and simply arrived at my destination later than anticipated.

I thank Elizabeth Sharpe for all her hard work in putting this book together. I'm confident it has been and will continue to be, appreciated by students of local history in general and water power specifically.

It is well known we all drink from wells we did not help to dig. Thank you Elizabeth for letting me drink from yours.

David T. Cousineau
Cape Neddick, Maine and Naples, Florida
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