Mill River (Northampton, Massachusetts)

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View of Mill River, Northampton, MA circa 1910 Mill River Northampton c 1910.jpg
View of Mill River, Northampton, MA circa 1910

The Mill River is a 13.5-mile-long (21.7 km) [1] tributary of the Connecticut River arising in the western hilltowns of Hampshire County, Massachusetts. It is notable for dropping in elevation, along with its West Branch, more than 700 feet (210 m) over 15 miles (24 km).

Connecticut River river in the New England region of the United States

The Connecticut River is the longest river in the New England region of the United States, flowing roughly southward for 406 miles (653 km) through four states. It rises at the U.S. border with Quebec, Canada, and discharges at Long Island Sound. Its watershed encompasses five U.S. states and one Canadian province, 11,260 square miles (29,200 km2) via 148 tributaries, 38 of which are major rivers. It produces 70% of Long Island Sound's fresh water, discharging at 19,600 cubic feet (560 m3) per second.

Hampshire County, Massachusetts County in the United States

Hampshire County is a historical and judicial county located in the U.S. state of Massachusetts. It has no county government. Instead there is a Hampshire Council of Governments. As of the 2010 census, the population was 158,080. Its most populous municipality is Amherst, its largest town in terms of landmass is Belchertown, and its traditional county seat is Northampton. The county is named after the county Hampshire, in England.

Massachusetts State of the United States of America

Massachusetts, officially the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, is the most populous state in the New England region of the northeastern United States. It borders on the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island to the south, New Hampshire and Vermont to the north, and New York to the west. The state is named after the Massachusett tribe, which once inhabited the east side of the area, and is one of the original thirteen states. The capital of Massachusetts is Boston, which is also the most populous city in New England. Over 80% of Massachusetts's population lives in the Greater Boston metropolitan area, a region influential upon American history, academia, and industry. Originally dependent on agriculture, fishing and trade, Massachusetts was transformed into a manufacturing center during the Industrial Revolution. During the 20th century, Massachusetts's economy shifted from manufacturing to services. Modern Massachusetts is a global leader in biotechnology, engineering, higher education, finance, and maritime trade.



Dozens of mills were built along the Mill River in the early to mid 19th century to take advantage of the available waterpower. To maintain sufficient summer water flow four reservoirs were built in the higher tributaries of the river.

Mill River Flood of 1874

A dam holding back the Williamsburg Reservoir burst causing a flood along the Mill River on May 16, 1874, killing 139 people. [2] The flood destroyed much of the villages of Williamsburg, Skinnerville, and Haydenville in the town of Williamsburg, and the village of Leeds in the town of Northampton.

Flood Overflow of water that submerges land that is not normally submerged

A flood is an overflow of water that submerges land that is usually dry. In the sense of "flowing water", the word may also be applied to the inflow of the tide. Floods are an area of study of the discipline hydrology and are of significant concern in agriculture, civil engineering and public health.

Williamsburg, Massachusetts Town in Massachusetts, United States

Williamsburg is a town in Hampshire County, Massachusetts, United States. The population was 2,482 at the 2010 census. It is part of the Springfield, Massachusetts Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Leeds, Massachusetts human settlement in Massachusetts, United States of America

Leeds is a village in the western portion of the city of Northampton, Massachusetts, United States, bordering Williamsburg—along the Mill River—and Florence.

This flood was widely covered in contemporaneous newspapers across the United States.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.9 million square miles. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the largest city by population is New York City. Forty-eight states and the capital's federal district are contiguous in North America between Canada and Mexico. The State of Alaska is in the northwest corner of North America, bordered by Canada to the east and across the Bering Strait from Russia to the west. The State of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The U.S. territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, stretching across nine official time zones. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.

The Great Flood of 1936

In the two weeks that elapsed between March 9 and March 22, 1936, two record-breaking storms showered the eastern United States in heavy rainfall. From Virginia to Maine, towns and cities in river basins all along the east coast experienced extensive flooding. [3] :1 A survey undertaken by the United States Geographical Survey the following year estimated that between 150 and 200 people were killed as a result of the floods. The same report tallied material damages in the hundreds of thousands. [3] :2 The monumental nature of the 1936 flood, along with another massive flood in 1938, led to the decision to re-divert the Mill River away from downtown Northampton. [4] [5]

Virginia State of the United States of America

Virginia, officially the Commonwealth of Virginia, is a state in the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States located between the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachian Mountains. Virginia is nicknamed the "Old Dominion" due to its status as the first English colonial possession established in mainland North America and "Mother of Presidents" because eight U.S. presidents were born there, more than any other state. The geography and climate of the Commonwealth are shaped by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Chesapeake Bay, which provide habitat for much of its flora and fauna. The capital of the Commonwealth is Richmond; Virginia Beach is the most populous city, and Fairfax County is the most populous political subdivision. The Commonwealth's estimated population as of 2018 is over 8.5 million.

Maine State of the United States of America

Maine is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States. Maine is the 12th smallest by area, the 9th least populous, and the 38th most densely populated of the 50 U.S. states. It is bordered by New Hampshire to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the southeast, and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec to the northeast and northwest respectively. Maine is the easternmost state in the contiguous United States, and the northernmost state east of the Great Lakes. It is known for its jagged, rocky coastline; low, rolling mountains; heavily forested interior; and picturesque waterways, as well as its seafood cuisine, especially lobster and clams. There is a humid continental climate throughout most of the state, including in coastal areas such as its most populous city of Portland. The capital is Augusta.

Causes and Regional Impact

The quantity of rainfall from the storms was described as among the greatest in concentration ever recorded in the country. [3] :2 In New England, the ground was still blanketed from the previous snowfall, and the warmer weather and heavy downpours melted the snow, significantly increasing the volume of floodwaters. [3] :2 [6] Along the Connecticut River, communities were hit by two waves of surges. The first occurred when the Vernon Dam in Vermont gave out, sending an “enormous wall of water” downstream, and prompting the evacuation of Sunderland, Massachusetts. [6] A second occurred when ice jams along the river began to break apart. [6] In Northampton, flooding of the Mill River was compounded by the flooding of the Connecticut River, whose waters allegedly backed up as far as the dam at Paradise Pond by Smith College. [7]

Sunderland, Massachusetts Town in Massachusetts, United States

Sunderland is a town in Franklin County, Massachusetts, United States, part of the Pioneer Valley. The population was 3,684 at the 2010 census. It is part of the Springfield, Massachusetts Metropolitan Statistical Area.

Smith College private womens liberal arts college in Massachusetts

Smith College is a private, independent women's liberal arts college with coed graduate and certificate programs in Northampton, Massachusetts. It is the largest member of the Seven Sisters. In its 2018 edition, U.S. News & World Report ranked it tied for 11th among the best National Liberal Arts Colleges. Smith is also a member of the Five Colleges Consortium, which allows its students to attend classes at four other Pioneer Valley institutions: Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Local Impact

On March 19, 1936, the Daily Hampshire Gazette reported that “Northampton and environs faced the second serious flood within a week as heavy rains began today to swell the Connecticut river and its tributaries to menacing proportions.” [8] The Mill River was reported to be rising a foot every hour while the Connecticut River flooded “wide areas of the city and nearby towns.” [8] Later that evening, the Mill River had broke past Old South Street, flooding the area around Maple Street and prompting state police to order the evacuation of hundreds of families. [9] On Pleasant Street, floodwaters reached as far as the Plaza Theater at Hampton Avenue, a mere two blocks south of Main Street. [6]

Flooding and damage resulted in highway closures, the suspension of rail and bus service, and impacts to the sewer system, as well as gas and electric services. The Northampton-based Gazette, which reported extensively on the catastrophe, was forced to set up temporary offices at the neighboring Holyoke Transcript, publishing several editions on the Transcript’s presses. [10]

Impacts on public utilities and transportation raised concerns about water-borne diseases and other sanitation issues, [11] [12] [13] as well as potential supply shortages. [9] [14] Commissioner of Public Safety Paul G. Kirk prepared for the possibility of food shortages and Mayor Charles L. Dunn issued a cautionary statement saying that persons engaged in “food profiteering” would be prosecuted. [15] On March 21, the ‘’Gazette’’ reported that food supplies were being transported by boat through flooded areas. [16] Following the evacuation of local residents, looting of flooded homes quickly became a problem. In response, Mayor Dunn deputized 50 citizens to protect houses in the Maple and Pleasant Street sections of town. The patrol was assigned 20 boats to accomplish the task, and only residents and persons with official business were permitted to be in the area. [17] [6]

Response and Relief Efforts

At the national level, President Roosevelt mobilized federal agencies and the American Red Cross to provide immediate aid to impacted areas. [18] He also issued a blanket authorization for the use of WPA workers in flood zones. [18] By March 20, 38,000 families from 11 states had been forced to flee their homes, and the Red Cross was seeking to raise three million dollars for the necessary relief fund. According to historian Joseph L. Arnold, “In Massachusetts, where scores of large cities and small towns were pounded by water and huge chunks of ice, 56,000 people sought Red Cross aid.” [19] The Hampshire County chapter of the American Red Cross was enlisted to raise $2,000 toward the three million dollar fund; however, it was soon after determined that the chapter would need “at least three or four thousand dollars over the $2000 quota stipulated by the national Red Cross… because of the acuteness of flood distress in this vicinity.” [20] [21] The flood created 3,000 refugees from Hatfield and the lower parts of Northampton. [6] Along with the Red Cross of Hampshire, the American Legion and numerous other organizations and private individuals extended aid to people left homeless by the flood. [22] [23] [24]

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Lockville Historic District

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Moore Dam dam on the Upper Connecticut River in Vermont and New Hampshire, United States

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On March 17 and 18, 1936, the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania witnessed the worst flood in its history when flood levels peaked at 46 feet (14 m). This flood became known as The Great St. Patrick’s Day flood, and also affected other areas of the Mid-Atlantic on both sides of the Eastern Continental Divide.


  1. U.S. Geological Survey. National Hydrography Dataset high-resolution flowline data. The National Map Archived 2012-04-05 at WebCite , accessed April 1, 2011
  2. Sharpe, Elizabeth M. (2007). In the Shadow of the Dam, The Aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874. Simon and Schuster. ISBN   1-4165-7264-3.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Grover, Nathan C.; United States Geological Survey.; United States Department of the Interior. (1987). “Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper 798: The Floods of March 1936, Part 1. New England Rivers.” (PDF). Washington: United States Government Printing Office.
  4. Sinton, John (April 1, 2012). "A Short History of the Mill River Watershed 1650-1940". The Mill River Greenway Initiative.. Retrieved March 28, 2016.
  5. "Northampton Local Protection Project". U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New England District. Retrieved March 31, 2016.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Klekowski, Edward J. (2003). The Great Flood of 1936: The Connecticut River Story. Springfield, MA: WGBY.
  7. "On the Flood Front". Northampton, MA: Daily Hampshire Gazette. March 21, 1936.
  8. 1 2 "City is Facing Second Serious Flood Threat Within the Past Week". Northampton, MA: Daily Hampshire Gazette. March 18, 1936.
  9. 1 2 "2000 Residents Flee Raging Waters; '27 Record Shattered". Northampton, MA: Daily Hampshire Gazette. March 19, 1936.
  10. "Gazette Printed in Holyoke for Third Day in Succession". Northampton, MA: Daily Hampshire Gazette. March 21, 1936.
  11. "Bad Sanitary Condition May Prevail in City as Aftermath of Flood". Northampton, MA: Daily Hampshire Gazette. March 19, 1936.
  12. "Board of Health Advises Drinking Water Be Boiled". Northampton, MA: Daily Hampshire Gazette. March 20, 1936.
  13. "Reported Typhoid Fever Outbreak in Chicopee Denied". Northampton, MA: Daily Hampshire Gazette. March 21, 1936.
  14. "Present Hookup Make-Shift One; Gas Main Breaks". Northampton, MA: Daily Hampshire Gazette. March 21, 1936.
  15. "Food Problem Here May Become Serious Soon, Says Commissioner Kirk". Northampton, MA: Daily Hampshire Gazette. March 20, 1936.
  16. "Food Supplies Being Transported by Boat in Northampton Flood Areas". Northampton, MA: Daily Hampshire Gazette. March 21, 1936. p. Front Page.
  17. "Patrol Guards Against Looters". Northampton, MA: Daily Hampshire Gazette. March 21, 1936.
  18. 1 2 "F.D.R. Acts to Aid Flooded Areas". Northampton, MA: Daily Hampshire Gazette. March 18, 1936.
  19. Arnold, Joseph L. (1988). The Evolution of the 1936 Flood Control Act (PDF). Fort Belvoir, VA: Office of History, United States Army Corps of Engineers. Retrieved March 28, 2016.
  20. "Red Cross Chapter Here is Asked to Raise $2000". Northampton, MA: Daily Hampshire Gazette. March 20, 1936.
  21. "Red Cross Here Will Need $3,000 or $4,000 More Than Its Quota". Northampton, MA: Daily Hampshire Gazette. March 23, 1936.
  22. "Rescue Work is Continued Here". Northampton, MA: Daily Hampshire Gazette. March 20, 1936.
  23. "Boy Scouts and Sea Scouts Busy in Flood". Northampton, MA: Daily Hampshire Gazette. March 20, 1936.
  24. "Chairman Dunn of Water Com. Supplies Pumps for Gazette". Northampton, MA: Daily Hampshire Gazette. March 20, 1936.

Coordinates: 42°23′59″N72°43′57″W / 42.39972°N 72.73250°W / 42.39972; -72.73250