During the second half of the 19th 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 1 1/4 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 only months after it was built, following several days of heavy spring rain.
On March 26, 1877, observers noticed a series of leaks in the sides of the earthen dam. This forced engineers to open the dam’s floodgates completelyin an effort to prevent a total collapse. Despite the engineers’ best efforts, at around 6:45am on March 27th the Staffordville Reservoir dam burst, sending a wall of water down the narrow, winding Willimantic River valley.
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 20 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 torrent. 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 1000 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 were washed away by a wall of cascading chaos, today in Connecticut history.
“Bursting of the Staffordville Reservoir,” connecticuthistory.org