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Today in Nutmeg History: Staffordville Dam Burst Causes Cascading Chaos

An illustration depicting the Staffordville dam break and ensuing flood, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine, 1877.

As the number of mills and factories along the Willimantic River's northern branch in eastern Connecticut increased in the second half of the nineteenth century, a group of factory owners banded together to create the Stafford (or Staffordville) Reservoir Company with the intention of controlling the flow of water that powered their manufacturing machinery. The company paid for upgrades to an existing dam five miles outside of the bustling village of Stafford Springs in late 1876, enlarging the reservoir behind it to over 1 1/4 mile in length and 600 acres in area.

Following several days of heavy spring rain, the new earthen-and-granite dam constructed to hold back this newly expanded reservoir proved inadequate just months after it was built.

Observers found a number of leaks in the sides of the earthen dam on March 26, 1877. To stop a total failure, engineers were forced to completely open the dam's floodgates. Despite the engineers' best efforts, the Staffordville Reservoir dam burst around 6:45 a.m. on March 27th, sending a wall of water down the narrow, winding Willimantic River valley.

As the floodwaters raged downstream into Stafford Springs, they overwhelmed a series of eight smaller dams that lined the river, allowing the wall of water to rise to a height of 20 feet by the time it smashed into the village's center. The roaring torrent washed away bridges, tenements, farms, stables, and factory outbuildings. The floodwaters poured under the venerable edifice, which “rocked for two or three moments on the flood like a paper boat, and then, toppling over, went entirely to pieces,” according to newspapers the next day.

A freight depot for the New London Northern Railroad was also destroyed on the other side of Stafford Springs, with many freight cars and miles of track destroyed. As the floodwaters eventually receded, two people had died and the city had been damaged to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. As local factories, many of which were textile mills, scrambled to recoup their losses and rebuild, nearly 1000 workers were laid off. Today in Connecticut history, a wall of cascading chaos washed away homes and livelihoods in eastern Connecticut.

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