March 27: Staffordville Dam Burst Causes Cascading Chaos


During the second half of the nineteenth century, as more and more mills and factories popped up along the banks of the Willimantic River’s northern branch in eastern Connecticut, a number of factory owners banded together to form the Stafford (or Staffordville) Reservoir Company with the aim of regulating the flow of water that powered their manufacturing equipment.  In late 1876, the Company paid for improvements to an already-existing dam that sat five miles outside the bustling village of Stafford Springs, enlarging the reservoir behind it to a length of over one-and-a-quarter miles and an area of over 600 acres.

The new earthen-and-granite dam built to hold back this newly-enlarged reservoir, however, proved insufficient when several days of heavy spring rain put an unprecedented strain on it several months later.  On March 26, 1877, observers noticed a series of leaks in the sides of the earthen dam, forcing engineers to open the floodgates in hopes of preventing a total collapse.  Despite their best efforts, at around 6:45am on the morning of March 27, the Staffordville Reservoir dam burst, sending a wall of water down the narrow, winding Willimantic River valley.

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

As the floodwaters roared downstream toward Stafford Springs, they destroyed a series of eight smaller dams that lined the river, causing the wall of water to swell to a height of twenty feet by the time it crashed into the heart of the village.  Bridges, tenements, farm houses, stables, and factory outbuildings were all swept away by the raging stream.   Even the Congregational Church that proudly stood in the center of town was no match for the flood, with newspapers reporting the next day that the flood waters “…rushed beneath 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.”

On the far side of Stafford Springs, a freight depot for the New London Northern Railroad was also devastated, with several freight cars and miles of track destroyed.  When the waters finally receded, two people had lost their lives, and the community at large suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of damages.  Nearly a thousand people found themselves out of work as the local factories, many of them textile mills, scrambled to recoup their losses and rebuild.  Homes and livelihoods in Eastern Connecticut washed away, on this day in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Bursting of the Staffordville Reservoir,”