John Sinton © February 2015
“Rivers aren’t constrained by human desires and stories; they sing the beauty of their own randomness and drift.” — Jeremy Denk
1801 The Jefferson Flood
After what appears to have been an uneventful final quarter to the 18th century with no notable floods, the 19th century began with one of the region’s greatest events in historical memory – the Jefferson Flood in late March of 1801. “As heavy a fall of rain, as was ever remembered, commenced of Tuesday night last, and continued with very little intermission until late on Thursday: The rivers and brooks were raised to a height hardly ever known before, and the damage done to Mills, Bridges, Fences and roads is incalculable. The earth near the surface, is full of water, and much inconvenience is experienced from water in cellars, which is in many places two and three feet deep, where none was ever known to stand till [this] rain.” We have from the Gazette only a brief description of lost and damaged goods and property, but, as subsequent descriptions recount, the Jefferson Flood vied for “flood of the century” status.[ii]
The Jefferson Flood was accompanied by the same adventurous, festive spirit that attends all such disasters. As we read in this 1836 retrospective description, “The water was so high, that a boat, or scow, started from Pleasant-street, not far, we understand, from the meadow gate, freighted with a goodly number of citizens of Northampton, sailed to Hadley into Front-street, and was fastened to the bar-room table of the house then kept by Mr. Elisha Cook… The crew then went in and regaled themselves with the contents of the bar, it being before the days of temperance, and then they went with their boat through the street, not by water, but probably by steam [original italics], launched it at Baker’s ferry, and came down the river home. On the west side of Hadley street, which is lower than the other, the water flowed up nearly to the meeting house.”[iii]
The only mention of a flood in this year comes from an article in the 1859 Hampshire Gazette, which mentions bridges over the Connecticut River. “The first bridge erected at this crossing was built in 1804. This was an open bridge. On the 12th of February, 1824, this bridge was swept away during a freshet, and the covered bridge, a part of which now remains was erected.”[iv]
While not as high as the Jefferson Flood, that of September 1828 did extraordinary damage. There is no mention of an 1828 hurricane in the literature, so it may well have been a slow moving nor’easter. After a month of excessive heat and drought, “the windows of heaven opened,” and a deluge continued almost uninterrupted for four days. “Mill river, which flows through this village, and which had dwindled down to a placid rill during the dry weather, was swelled to a broad, deep and impetuous stream, overflowing its banks, and covering the road north of the bridge to the depth of three feet. The ruins floating on its surface indicated that extensive ravages had been occasioned by its waters.” White and Thompson’s mill dam at Florence was destroyed, and the factory, bridge, and canal at Leeds were damaged. Williamsburg was hard hit when Taylor’s dam was swept away and two bridges demolished. “It was a fearful time in the village – it was a night of Egyptian darkness; the rain poured down incessantly and vehemently; and the angry flood raged and roared on every side.”
Most crops in the Northampton Meadows were destroyed when between 3,000 and 3,500 acres were flooded by four to eight feet of water from one to three days. This was a true “Pumpkin Flood,” such as the one in 2005. “Many of the inhabitants of both sexes, went to view the Connecticut at the bridge, and the flood upon the meadows. The spectacle presented by the waters was novel and interesting, yet melancholy. On both days, a large portion of the surface of the river was covered with wrecks, carried swiftly down the muddy current. Logs, trees, boards & other lumber, ruins of fences, mills, bridges and dams, hay, pumpkins, apples, &tc. were continually floating along, and gave plain indications of the devastations of the freshet in Franklin county, and in New Hampshire and Vermont. A part of a bridge, said to be 100 feet in length, was towed ashore at Hockanum; and a barrel of rum, found floating, was stopped near Northampton bridge; it might have been as well, perhaps, to have let it gone over the falls. The pumpkins were innumerable – enough, it is presumed, to supply half the state with thanksgiving pies.”[v]
We now come to the first flood that Sylvester Judd documented in his manuscripts, as he followed the height of the water day by day from January 27 to January 31.[vi] It began to warm up and rain on the 26th, he wrote, and the ice on the big river was still a foot thick. While not as notable as the floods of ’01 or ’28, nor as damaging in its impacts, it nonetheless created an awesome scene.
“Mill River presented a rough, desolate aspect – the ice is piled up on its banks, many of the trees shattered & some prostrated, and the banks apparently undermined. The bed of the river is also encumbered with fragments of ice. The Connecticut presented a more grand & terrific appearance. For some distance on this side, the river & flats or beach are covered with immense masses of ice, piled up on each other at various inclinations from horizontal to perpendicular, though most of them are within 10 or 15 degrees of horizontal. These great cakes of ice are from 1 to 2 feet thick – most of them not much over a foot or 15 inches – and they are to appearance heaped up from the bottom of the river 8, 10, or 12 feet thick in all… No water is to be seen; the whole river and banks are covered with ice in all shapes. I have never seen the like, & cannot make a comparison. It reminds one of the fabled transformations of the Genii in the Arabian Nights; or one may imagine that he is viewing the ruins of Palmyra or Balbec, the wrecks of a vast marble city or a vast cemetery whose marble monuments have fallen upon the earth.”[vii]
“Northampton Bridge Gone!” read the Gazette headline writer. This was the great February flood that changed the course of the Connecticut River. “[On February 24th] about 9 o’clock, an immense sheet of ice started above the bridge, came down with tremendous force against one of the middle stone piers, and swept away the top of it, to a level with the water, as though it had been constructed of pebbles. The two reaches of the bridge, of which this pier was the central support, immediately settled to the water and were carried off. The remainder of the bridge was thus far uninjured. But soon a large portion of the Sunderland bridge, together with immense masses of ice, came against the two reaches of the bridge which remained on the Hadley side of the river, and so damaged the piers, that in the course of an hour, this part of the bridge settled and went off. Two pieces of the Sunderland bridge, one quite long, perhaps 100 feet, came down in an erect position, and apparently not very much damaged. The longest struck the Northampton bridge endwise, wheeled about, and was completely crushed against it, by the floating masses of ice, the Northampton bridge apparently resisting the shock without trembling. But the concussion was too great, as the subsequent event fully proved… Three reaches of the bridge, or little less than half, remain uninjured.”[viii]
The result was the closure of the river channel at Hockanum Meadow, thus creating the current Oxbow. On February 25th, Sylvester Judd went down to inspect. “To day the Connecticut made the long threatened inroad across the neck of Hockanum meadow a little west of the narrowest place, & where the neck is 25 or 30 rods wide, and in a few hours most of the river took that channel, & the water fell rapidly on the meadows in Mill River.”[ix] In the Gazette’s recounting, “This noble stream, in her anxiety to reach the deep ocean, has shortened her course thither about three and a half miles.”
Blockage of the river channel meant that some 300 acres of land that used to be on the left bank, which Hadley farmers still owned, had moved to Northampton on the right bank of the river, while, simultaneously, the Connecticut immediately began eroding Hadley’s left bank, further damaging Hadley farmers. (see Cestre’s map of diversions) “It makes bad work for the Hockanum & Hadley people,” wrote Judd, “taking away some of their land & reducing the value of all that is cut off by the new channel. The Northampton people are almost all rejoicing at the event – which is the effect of their selfishness.”
The cause of the flood? “…few had expected this disastrous occurrence. There had been no storm of rain, and although the large quantities of snow had disappeared rapidly, it was almost wholly through the agency of mild weather.”[x] Thus, there was no damage from the Mill River, since it contained insufficient blocks of ice to crush dams and buildings.
While the 1840 flood changed the course of the big river, the one in 1843 did severe damage along the Mill. It started raining on April 14th and continued for several days, prompting the Hampshire Gazette to report that “We are in the midst of a flood, such as has no parallel within the range of forty-two years, if it has any period within the memory of any now living. The lower parts of the town are almost immersed. Maple and Fruit streets are covered with water, to a depth of from one and a half to three feet. All the houses are completely surrounded, and are inaccessible except by boats and horses and carriages. All the cellars are full of water, and barns and out-buildings are so flooded, that it has been necessary to remove many animals to higher ground”
The Gazette called for community support as it continued, “But the worst part of the story remains to be told. Early yesterday afternoon, the cellar wall to the valuable brick house, in Maple St. owned and occupied by Messrs. Warren and James Reed, began to give way.” After describing the dire condition of the place, the author wonders, “What will be the fate of the house?”
A series of reasonably large freshets marked the years between 1845 and 1850, floods that barely hit the pages of the Gazette, but which Sylvester Judd reported as sufficient to cover the railroad bridges, while the usual flooding occurred in Wright, Maple, and Fruit streets. Judd noted that in 1847 “a lot of musquash [muskrat] hunters were out.”[xi]
At decade’s end in April, 1850, Judd noted that “Mill River is high; it is probably higher than the Connecticut, for it has considerable current… At the brick culvert made for the brook between Hawley & Pleasant streets (old bridge) the water is within 8 or 9 inches of the interior of the arch.” Contrary to common sense, people were still building down Maple (Conz) street, and, of course, those houses were flooded, as were the adjacent meadows where the muskrat hunters “were about in small boats or skiffs. They are commonly 2 in a boat with a dog and gun.”[xii]
The floods at mid century presaged even worse to come, inundations that would surpass anything in prior times. If the residents of the watershed were prepared for the future, they showed no signs of it in 1850.
[i] You will notice that descriptions of floods become more detailed and dramatic as the 19th century progresses. This is likely due to two causes: the source materials and an increase in flood intensity. Flood descriptions come from 2 sources – the Judd notebooks and manuscripts and the Hampshire Gazette. We are fortunate to have Sylvester Judd’s descriptions of floods in the mid-19th century, for Judd was a great diarist and stickler for detail. It’s simply a quirk of history that he left us such a wealth of material. The Hampshire Gazette, originally published to combat Shays’ Rebellion, also saw its purpose in providing real “news” to the public, news that they could not otherwise get, which meant articles about the nation and the world, not local material. In 1790 there were about 1,600 people in Northampton and by 1860 there were almost 7,000. Most people knew each other in 1800, and local news traveled by word of mouth, so floods and other local events passed from person to person. Thus, local weather events were seen less as “news” than as immediate experience.
Furthermore, there were comparatively few buildings in the flood plain, and destruction tended to be limited to dams, mills, bridges, and, of course Fruit and Conz streets near the Manhan meadows. Through time, however, flooding intensified as the forests were stripped for potash and lumber, increasing runoff and making flood events more dangerous both on the Mill and the big river. A larger population also created demand for more buildings, especially factories and particularly in the upper watershed. Thus, one finds increasingly severe flood damage.
[ii] Hampshire Gazette 4/8/1801
[iii] Hampshire Gazette 4/20/1836. This story, 35 years after the event, is likely apocryphal, especially given the reference to steam, yet it provides a sense of the times.
[iv] Hampshire Gazette 3/22/1859
[v] Hampshire Gazette 9/10/1828
[vi] Judd edited the Gazette from 1822-35, so he may well have written the flood descriptions of 1821 and 1828. The news reports, especially in 1828, reflect the style of his manuscript writings in their detail and syntax.
[vii] Judd Notebooks: Jan. 27-31, 1939, pp. 238-243.
[viii] Hampshire Gazette 2/26/1840
[ix] Judd Notebooks, 2/25/2840, p. 292.
[x] Hampshire Gazette 2/26/1840
[xi] Judd, Northampton vol 4, 4/23/1847
[xii] Judd, Northampton vol 5 4/28-5/3 1850 Judd was a fanatic measurer of flood heights, taking his measuring rod through town, asking residents about historic floods, and noting it all down. Here is an example from the 1850 notes: “Flood of 1843 – 2’1” above top of Conn. River/Hadley Bridge abutment as determined by the mark on the storehouse, since there was no abutment for the bridge in ’43.
1845 flood – 4.5’ lower than ‘43
1847 flood – 2’2” lower than ‘43
1850 flood – 2’7” lower than ‘43
“It is certain that the flood of 1847 was from 5 to 6 inches above that of 1850 at the abutment. It is certain that the flood of 1845 was from 2’4” to 2’8” below that of 1850. It is certain that the flood of 1843 at the storehouse was 2’ and 7” or 8” below that of 1850.”