The Basic Story

Runaway Pond
    The first white settlers came to the six square mile town of Glover in northeastern Vermont in 1798 and by 1810 there were 385 souls living in two small settlements and on scattered farmsteads. Aaron Willson had brought his family from Keene, New Hampshire, and had built a gristmill and a sawmill on the Barton River near the center of his 160-acre lot. These mills served the settlers in Glover and parts of neighboring Wheelock and Sheffield. The Barton River had its headwaters in a small pond, near the southeast corner of Glover, then unnamed but since called Mud, Tildy's, or Clark Pond.
The valley is narrow and the flow of the stream is not large. Several other small streams join in before the river reaches the mill site, but even there the flow is limited except during spring melt or after a good rain. According to the old stories, 1809 had been a dry year and the spring of 1810 was following suit.  The river was low enough to cause concern about Willson's ability to continue to provide his essential services of grinding grain and sawing logs for his neighbors.
There was a second and larger pond a very short distance south of Mud Pond and about 200 feet higher in elevation. This was called Long Pond. Shaped like an arrowhead, with its apex pointing south, it was a mile or so long and one-half to three-quarters of a mile wide at the widest and about one hundred feet deep at its deepest. It drained south and formed the headwaters of the Lamoille River. It was at an elevation of about 1400 feet above sea level and was bordered by steep hills on the east and west. Its north end was held by a sort of natural dam built of sand and gravel.
For many thousands of years the area had been covered by ice up to a mile in thickness. The ice retreated at last some 8,000 years ago having transported, in its tenure, enough material to make even the mountain-top-removal men of today jealous. It had left behind large deposits of loose material, carefully sorted by size in some places and piled in complete confusion in others. This natural dam at the end of Long Pond was a remnant of the glacier's project. Its top was fairly level and only a few feet above the surface of the water. It extended for between one and two hundred feet from the shore and the surface was a sandy soil supporting a thin growth of small trees and bushes. At its northern edge it dropped steeply down toward Mud Pond and this hillside was more heavily wooded.
Aaron Willson, in his early 50's in 1810, had been involved with water-powered mills and at least one small canal project in his hometown of Keene, a center of early industry. Either he conceived, or others suggested to him, the idea of digging a ditch across the bank at the north end of Long Pond and letting some of its waters flow north into Mud Pond to augment the Barton River and keep his mill wheels turning. In the community-spirited style of those days of a few families struggling together to civilize the wilderness, a work bee was planned for able-bodied men and boys with picks and shovels. Willson agreed to supply whiskey to "sloken" their thirst and the 6th of June was set as the appointed day.

June 6th, 1810
It was a fine, clear summer's morn as the 40 or 60 men assembled early and set off for the four mile walk through the woods from the mills to Long Pond. The pond had a plentiful supply of fish, and some of the men, who knew the way from previous trips, led using tin horns as signals for the followers. The digging was relatively easy, no rock ledge being encountered. In fact, the bank was predominantly sand. As the diggers reached the shore of Long Pond they encountered a more solidified material, a crust of concreted gravel a few inches thick which held the waters like a bowl. The men broke through the crust and the water began to flow in the ditch. The whiskey may also have begun to flow.
At this point the story takes a dramatic turn. Instead of following the ditch and then cutting its own path down the steep hill toward Mud Pond as planned, the water seemed to be sinking into the ground at the bottom of the ditch. One of the company, Spencer Chamberlain, jumped in to investigate and immediately found that the water had turned the sand into a sort of quicksand. Fortunately, his fellows were at hand and hauled him out by his hair and clothing. In a very short time the banks of the ditch began to collapse and the men could see that the concreted gravel bowl that held the water was being undermined.
What the glacier had left, in this part of the bank, was well-sorted very fine sand about the consistency of flour. Adding water to this sand made a very unstable mix and the banks continued to collapse as well as larger portions of the concreted bowl, which was breaking out as its support was washed away. Each addition to the waterflow increased the speed of the undermining and it wasn't long before the breach was so wide and deep that Long Pond forsook its hereditary bed and hurled itself down the wooded hillside completely overpowering the smaller Mud Pond and forcing it to flee to the north up the narrow valley.

The Flood
    A later estimate put Long Pond's volume at 2 billion gallons. The waters of the two ponds, loaded with all the sediment, rocks and broken trees that they could carry, moved downhill encountering narrows where huge jams were formed, temporarily blocking the way until enough pressure built to blow the jam to smithereens and the wild cascade resumed. Where the valley widened the waters slowed and dropped the heavier parts of their load, only to jam again at the next narrow. By the end of the afternoon, the deluge had reached Lake Memphremamgog 25 miles to the north. It had changed the face of the river valley, cutting down to bare rock here and leaving huge piles of broken trees and sediment there.
    Because this disaster occurred so early in the settlement of Orleans County, it did not become a tragedy. No human lives were lost. Willson's mills were completely destroyed as well as several similar mills in Barton. Some crops were lost and some fields seemed ruined, but as the sediment dried and the trees were burned off, some fields proved to be more fertile than before. The early settlers favored farming on the hillsides overlooking the narrow and wetter valley bottoms, so most farmsteads were above the path of the flood. One settler's cabin, on the valley floor in Barton, was flooded but was not washed away. The occupants escaped unharmed. All the wooden bridges in Glover, Barton and Coventry were destroyed.
    I am indebted to Wayne Alexander's Runaway Pond: The Complete Story, published by the Glover Historical Society. This volume makes available most of the various accounts of the events as they have been told and retold over the years. For a more in depth discussion of the sources and various aspects of the story, please see the other pages of this blog.


  Below is an essay on the various stories of Runaway Pond. Clicking on the titles above will open pages with other essays and a page of images and maps. The Basic Story gives the bare facts. The Sources of Runaway Pond reviews the printed source material. The Big Oops elaborates on the story. Thoreau and the Chamberlain Lake Connection explores aspects related to other Chamberlain family stories.  Enjoy the reading.

 The Story of the Stories of Runaway Pond
   Writing  about the events at Runaway Pond on June 6, 1810 is an old custom in Orleans County and since 2010 brings us the bicentennial of that famous day I would like to open the floodgates once again. Some people might think that Runaway Pond is all just water over the dam, but not so. There are smoldering questions still to be answered, and maybe a few yet to be asked. In this day and age when a couple of guys can't even go out and cut their own ski trail or build a wind farm without all sorts of legalistic and bureaucratic complications, it might prove refreshing, or at least nostalgic, to glance back at an earlier time when a few Vermonters took their destiny in their own hands and set out on a bright spring morning to "git 'er done".
    I can't claim that my great-great grandfather was there, shovel in hand, on the fateful day, or that I heard the story so often around the fireside growing up that I came to believe that I was an eyewitness myself. I can claim that I've been plowing through the old accounts and letters to the editor for the last year or so. I have been digging around in the archives of the Glover Historical Society and in the old record books of the Town of Glover. And I have been climbing the hills and walking the bottoms where Long Pond used to be. What have I found?
    Most of the old accounts do agree that 40 or 60 men and boys were enlisted by Aaron Wilson, Glover gristmill and sawmill owner, to cut a trench from Long Pond, on the Glover-Greensboro line, to what is now Clark's Pond, to add to the flow of the Barton River because it was not adequate to keep the mill wheels turning. But there were dissenters. A certain Deacon Frost later claimed that it was just a dozen young men and boys who got bored while fishing and started pulling up bushes and scratching a ditch to watch the water flow in a new direction, and at least one old-time resident of Glover thought the whole story was a "humbug".
    I think it may be reasonable to believe that Aaron Wilson arranged the work party with incentives of pay and whiskey. The result was a catastrophic flood that altered the Barton River valley from Greensboro to Lake Memphremagog in Newport.  One new bit of information I have in this regard is that the record of the Glover town meeting in March 1810 indicates that Aaron Wilson, along with Ralph Parker and John Webster, was chosen to serve as Selectman for the ensuing year. Can anything be made of this fact?
    The June 1810 town meeting was warned on June 5th, the day before the "letting out" of the pond and the meeting was held on June 18th. The record of this meeting makes no mention of the flood of June 6th, and the ensuing meeting records also make no mention of the flood. It must have been talked about, but no action was taken. On June 18th the freemen "voted to an act of Aaron Wilson @ $10.29" paying him for a bill he presented to the town. They also "voted that there be a tax of two and a half cents on the Dollar of the Present years list and be paid in Vermont bills".
    Aaron Wilson had come to Glover in 1807 and bought lot 112, consisting of 160 acres centered just north of where Green Mountain Fence is now, from Timothy Hinman for $320.00. He was in his early fifties and he took the Freeman's Oath in December 1808. Five months after his mills were destroyed in the flood he sold lot 112, "being the farm I now live on", to Simon Piper of Fitzwilliam, NH for $525.00. Piper sold it to Joseph Owen of Barton and John Boardman of Glover in 1812 for $850.00. Joseph Owen  was with the digging party on June 6, 1810 and some of his fields in Barton had been covered with piles of debris left by the raging waters.

The First Account
    Owen wrote the one known eyewitness account of the flood. This is included in a letter written to his sister in Connecticut on June 25, 1810. He starts out "I intended to have written before but got out of paper and there was not any In town the want of paper and many other things caused me to neglect writing until now. I have not much news to write we are all well here." He goes on to give news of neighbors and various financial affairs. Finally, he writes, "I must inform you of the flood we have had here lately". He says the party gathered "in order to drain a pond for the purpose of Catching fish and partly to help mr wilsons mills which lay in that part of glover and the stream was so small that he could not saw and grind much in summer Season. Wilson had offered a weaks work atords draining the pond and find them some spirits to drink while they were to work".
    He gives a description of Long Pond and of the digging of the trench, then of the flood itself and of the damage done down the valley to Lake Memphremagog including many very interesting details. His letter ends with an intriguing postscript: "I shall be glad to know what has become of John Cowen  tell Mr arnold hand that he left a brace of pistols here with Mr Cobb that belong to him and they are used in the exercise of the cavalry wich is better I think than to be garding out counterfit money though he may not agree with me". Where was that counterfeit money?

    In the story of Runaway Pond as told today, one of the key elements is the hero who runs ahead of the flood to warn and save the miller's wife. Spencer Chamberlain is usually named as the runner/hero, though another version names Solomon Dorr, who was married to Wilson's daughter Elizabeth, and who usually operated the gristmill. Chamberlain and Dorr were in their mid-twenties and had both taken the Freeman's Oath in September 1808. At the March 1809 town meeting Chamberlain was chosen to serve as one of Glover's five Haywards.
    It is interesting to compare the various accounts on the question of a runner. Joseph Owen's letter, the oldest account, describes the flood coming down the valley tearing up trees and carrying all before it. "There was a man agrinding [at the mill]. As soon as he discovered it [the sound of the flood coming] he took his grist and tried to make his escape but was obliged to leave his grist by the way and jist make his escape to the bank. The warter struck him up [to the] waist but the mills went down and there has not a vestag of any of them been seen excepting once in a while a stick of timber". No runner appears here.
    The two contemporary newspaper stories, in the Concord Gazette and the Montpelier Press, neglect to mention a runner or anyone at the mill. The Rev. Sereno Edwards Dwight, who came to Glover from Boston in 1823 to see the aftermath of the flood and interview eyewitnesses wrote an account that was published as a letter to the American Journal of Science and the Edinburgh Review in 1826. He gives a very complete description of the scene and narrative of events. He corroborates Owen's version "it not only swept away the grist-mill and saw-mill of Mr. Wilson, with the mill dams, but the mill-sites, with all the ground beneath them for many feet, as well as the bed of the river by which they had been imperfectly supplied. A man in one of the mills, hearing the noise of the approaching flood, ran to save himself; and had just but escaped from its path, as it went by. His horse, tied at a post near the mill, was swept away, and was afterwards found a great distance below, literally torn to pieces". This horse is usually listed as the one victim of the flood, but most accounts say it was never seen or heard from again.
Zadock Thompson published a short version in his 1842 History of Vermont. He gives the basic story but doesn't mention a runner or anyone at the mill. He does mention the famous boulder, which makes an appearance in many accounts from Dwight on down: "a rock supposed to weigh more than 100 tons, was removed half a mile from its bed". He does tell us "there are [1840], in town, three grist, and six sawmills, one fulling mill and one tannery. Statistics of 1840. -Horses, 276; Cattle, 1,507; Sheep, 4,797; Swine, 944; Wheat, bushels, 3,129; Barley, 1,163; Oats, 9,323; Rye, 136; Buckwheat, 515; Indian Corn, 1,947; Potatoes, 54,708; Hay,tons, 3,448; Sugar, lbs., 61,430; Wool, 15,718; Population -1,119". The flood was not a fatal setback for Glover.

An Historian's Address
    The next account is in the form of a speech researched and written by the Rev. Pliny H. White for the 50th anniversary celebration of Runaway Pond in 1860. Rev. White was a well respected minister and local historian who had spent many an hour  talking with the old timers and collecting the stories of the early days of Orleans County. He writes "very fortunately some of the leading incidents were recorded by an eyewitness at the moment of their occurrence, and the faithful memory of some of the actors in the scene has preserved other incidents which are now for the first time committed to the care of the art preservative of all arts". The preservative art he refers to is History and it would be very interesting to know what written eyewitness account he had on hand, it may have been Joseph Owen's. His own text mysteriously couldn't be found in 1910 at the time of the centennial celebration, but turned up a year later and was reprinted in the Orleans County Monitor February 1, 1911.
    Rev. White does include the story of a runner. He recounts that John Crane, who had several thousand board feet of lumber stacked outside Wilson's sawmill began to worry when the water first started to flow out of Long Pond that it might rise high enough at the mill to float off his boards. He started off toward the mill with two or three men to move the lumber. White says some of the other men "laughed at him for what they considered an act of supererogatory [superfluous] prudence".  One of the men with him was Solomon Dorr, son in law to Wilson and his employee at the mills. These men were traveling through the woods toward the mills when the bank of Long Pond broke away and the waters began their impetuous escapade. Dorr heard the sound and, thinking his young sons might be at the mills, where they often played, began to run. He was uphill and ahead of the water. He stopped a moment at John Crane's house and "threw off his coat and vest and hastily swallowed a glass of whiskey to revive him from his exhaustion". He rushed into the mill just before the floodwaters, saw that no one was there, and made his escape.
    White adds that Dorr "snatched up a bag of meal and attempted to carry it off but was obliged to drop it and scramble up the steep hillside with the waters following him so closely as to wet his legs half way up to his knees" A man named Ripley had been grinding his own grist at the mill, but heard the flood coming and made his escape though he lost his horse. This explains the presence of a horse at the mill.
    Wayne H. Alexander collected all the material he could find relating to Runaway Pond and the Glover Historical Society published it as Runaway Pond: The Complete Story (second edition, 2001). At this point in Pliny White's narrative Mr. Alexander inserted a note in which he points out an apparent contradiction and concludes "this, written 50 years after the event, is more reason to attest that Spencer Chamberlain was the true runner. -W.H.A.".
    I think that Mr. Alexander may have been mistaken in seeing a contradiction in White's text. The sentence in question starts "Solomon F. Dorr, who was one of the men accompanying Mr. Crane to the sawmill, (which, by the way, they never arrived at)".
The gristmill was south of the sawmill so the flood hit it first. According to the story, Dorr entered the gristmill, found it empty, and just escaped with his life. He didn't get to the sawmill, but he had changed his destination in the course of his run. Instead of trying to save John Crane's lumber, he was now hoping to save his sons. The sawmill was swept away immediately after the gristmill, as he was climbing the hillside with the water almost to his knees.
    Only one of the accounts reviewed above has named a runner. Pliny White named Solomon Dorr running to save his sons. Pliny White does tell of one incident involving Spencer Chamberlain. "When at last a current was fairly established through the whole length of the channel, the sand was rapidly washed away, and the trench widened and deepened every moment. At the waters edge [at the shore of the pond], the widening of the channel was prevented on one side by the cedar stump already mentioned, until some of the company cut its roots and turned it over into the channel. It stood erect and was gently moved along, when Spencer Chamberlain, exclaiming, 'I'll have a ride,' jumped on to it and clasped his arms around the trunk, but the force of his leap overthrew the tree and he was thrown into the water, to the no small merriment of the spectators".

The Plot Thickens
The next document in Wayne Alexander's collection is a poem written in 1860 by Jeanette Chamberlain Phillips, the daughter of Spencer Chamberlain. This poem exists in two versions, a handwritten version, thought to have been the original (this version will be included in the 2010 reprint of Runaway Pond: The Complete Story) and a typed version which is included in the earlier editions of Runaway Pond. Both poems were given to the Glover Historical Society by Alonzo Phillips, the great grandson of Jeanette. The typed version has a short introduction. "The following was composed by Jeanette Chamberlain Phillips, shortly after the semi-centennial [1860] of Runaway Pond while it was fresh in her memory, thinking it would be of interest to her descendants as time rolled on, for Spencer Chamberlain her Father was called the hero on that occasion".
    I would note that Rev. White did not call Spencer Chamberlain the hero. In fact, the one mention of him in the speech is for conduct not exactly "heroic". Up to this point, in the surviving printed sources, the story of Runaway Pond has not been a hero tale. It has been the story of the dramatic consequences of a seemingly small project gone wrong. The prevailing interpretation has been that the "deceitful" sandbank at the north end of Long Pond would have given way sooner or later and it was God's providence that it happened in 1810 when there was little settlement in the Barton River valley so very little property and no lives were lost. Rev. Dwight reports that he was told that a similar sort of natural dam existed at the south end of Lake Willoughby. He didn't travel to Westmore to inspect it, but he did conclude that it might be best to drain that lake as well so that a road could be built north through its bed. Fortunately this scheme was never implemented.

In Verse
    But back to the poem. The two versions are different. The typed version has been shortened from 61 to 45 four-line verses. The wording has been changed in places to make it slightly more polished. The poem starts off with a strict disavowal of poetic license:

"Will tell you a story that is literally true,
For its nothing but truth I deal out to you,
How in eighteen hundred and ten to a day
Men trembled in fear for the earth it did sway."

Three verses later we read:

"In searching to find to make up these lines,
Rhetoric was so scarce, scarce any could find,
This work in the spice of homemade compound
Then when it is done will pass it around."

It seems like we are in for a mix of the "literally true" and the "spice of homemade compound." The last verse of the poem gives a hint of the origin of the homemade compound:

"In after years when winter was cold-
Piled high the wood fire, the children at home-
In the light of the blaze,  _____out the young fawns
'Father, tell us about runaway pond!' "

    So finally, after all these years, we are going to get the real deal - Spencer Chamberlain's version of Runaway Pond. It probably shouldn't surprise us that there is a hero in this version. Mr. Chamberlain grew up in a family that preserved the story of a heroic ancestor. John Chamberlain joined a company of militia in New Hampshire in 1725 to pursue a band of Native Americans who, led by Chief Paugus, had been raiding white settlements in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The pursuit ended at the shore of a pond in western Maine. As Alonzo Chamberlain Phillips, Spencer's grandson, tells the story "During the battle [John] Chamberlain went to the pond to wash out his gun as it had become fouled and he met Paugus there for the same reason. They finally agreed to wash and wipe their guns dry and begin loading at given signal and the outcome should decide the battle. The Indians and the Whites began to collect to witness the outcome. When all was ready, Chamberlain said: 'now Paugus I'll have you now' Paugus replied: 'me get you'. Chamberlain got in first with no time to spare. Paugus, with his last spark of life, fired his gun and shaved the hair from the top of Chamberlain's head. The Indians declared that Chamberlain was a big man and were satisfied with the outcome, all except Paugus's son who said that when they returned in the fall he would hunt up Chamberlain and shoot him".
    The son does come to Westmoreland, NH in the fall looking for revenge, but Chamberlain is forewarned and lays a trap by setting his coat up on a stick in the window of the mill where he works. The son shoots the coat and Chamberlain shoots young man through the heart. "That was the last time he was molested by Indians". It is interesting that Chamberlain's son, also named John, "became acquainted with an Indian girl by the name of Red Wing, they were married and named their oldest son John. When he became a man he married an Indian girl by the name of Winona and she was Spencer Chamberlain's mother". These quotations are from a document written by Alonzo Chamberlain Phillips and found in the Chamberlain genealogy file at the Glover Historical Society. All this is just to establish the importance of oral tradition in the Chamberlain family.
     One example of how the two poems differ is in the treatment of Aaron Wilson's wife, who is called Maria in the poems but whose name was actually Dorcus. (The Wilsons did have a daughter named Mary who was born in 1800 and would have been 10 years old at the time of Runaway Pond.)  The original version of the poem introduces "Maria" as Aaron Wilson is setting off on the morning of the big day:

"Then he said to his wife, 'Maria my dear
Go down to the mill, you've nothing to fear
If the mill should start up in a clatter,
Fear not, my dear, its a little more water."

A few verses later, when the ditch is dug and the flood begins:

"The miller aghast stands silent and still,
Till some one says where will you find your mill?
My wife, Maria, if she should be there
Would be swept away, no one could tell me where.

At any time of night, surely be awake,
But in the daytime stupid as a stake,
Unless, filled up with gin to the chin
Then she will buzz like an old spinning wheel."

    These last two verses are not included in the edited version of the poem. The characterization of "Maria" is certainly not flattering. Was there some rivalry between Spencer Chamberlain and the Wilson/Dorr families? Was this brought in later by Jeanette?
    The poem now turns its focus on Spencer Chamberlain. Fear and age disable the miller; someone else must run:

"They looked for one with a nerve and a will
One that would not stop, if the world it stood still.
Above the waters a chorus of voices
Run Chamberlain! run, run Chamberlain, run.

If swift on the foot, it was not his game
Sedately by nature genial and kind
Though fair was his face and soft was his hair,
The blood of the red man flowed in his veins."

    The edited version combines these two verses and eliminates the doubt cast in the first line of the second verse. It also gives a hint of a divine calling:

"Above the roar of the water a loud voice was heard,
Run Chamberlain run, you are as swift as a bird
Though fair in the face and soft was his hair
The blood of the red man still lingered there."

    Chamberlain sets aside whatever misgivings he may have had about the miller's wife and sets off through the forest. He loses his hat and coat and is wearied by the heat:

"A hut by the way he hailed it with cheer,
He stops for a drink - perhaps it is beer,
Then with a thank may you ever be blest,
Blessed in your storehouse with blessings be blest."

A few verses later:

"Not a city to save - he wearley goes.
Or fortress to save from a deadly foe
But a poor lone toiler of no renown,
Perhaps in the mill a grinding of corn."

    His strength holds and he makes the mill just before the flood arrives. He grabs the miller's wife and a bag of meal and heads uphill. But:

"He drops the meal grist, their lives for to save-
Grasping a saplin, swings up from their graves-
Breath of a monster is on their pale brows-
Panting for vengeance, as onward it goes.

Now they are safe from an untimely grave,
They look at the monster, hissing with rage
Seething and foaming and tossing of trees
Dropping by the wayside, like sowing of seed.

The old mill sets sail, at captains command,
A life boat afloat - no mortal can man -
On a wild sea, down a whirlpool it flew -
To this day see ghosts from that sinking crew."

    This last verse does contain a few interesting contradictions. The previous two verses use the word "monster" to characterize the flood. This image is used three times in the original version, the first is at the start of the flood:

"An infernal monster, in its winding
Strikes with deadly fang, in its devouring.
Onward it goes with a serpentine bound,
With a bellowing sound, lashing the ground".

    It would be interesting to know what Jeanette Chamberlain had been reading, or what sorts of poetry were read aloud in the Chamberlain household in between re-tellings of Runaway Pond. I find, for example, in a Reader published in Rhode Island in 1831, a poem titled The Vulture of the Alps - A Fact, which recounts the story of a babe carried off by a vulture, in the sight of its father and siblings, and left to die on a high mountain crag. I quote part of one verse:

Oh, what an awful spectacle to meet a father's eye,
His infant made a vulture's prey, with terror to descry!
And know with agonizing breast, and with a maniac rave,
That earthly power could not avail, that innocent to save!"

    The references to the monster are all cut from the edited version of the poem. Might Jeanette's poem give a hint at the origin of Memphre, the monster of Lake Memphremagog? Was there one survivor of that wild ride down the valley? And what about the story of the mysterious eggs, as told by Loring Frost to Frederick Baldwin in 1910: "large quantities of eggs of a light green, some yellow, some dark gray, were left in the bottom of the [Long] pond; some seemed to be nearly as large as hens' eggs, and some very small". Did any of those eggs ever hatch?
Heroic Rivals
    There is another interesting parallel between the stories of John and Spencer Chamberlain. There was a second contender for hero of the day in 1725 when the militia under Captain Lovewell met Chief Paugus and his band. He was Ensign Wyman. As told in the anonymously written Ballad of Lovewell's Fight

"Good heavens! they dance the powwow dance;
What horrid yells the forest fill!
The grim bear crouches in his den,
The eagle seeks the distant hill.

'What means this dance, this powwow dance?'
Stern Wyman said. With wondrous art
He crept full near, his rifle aimed.
And shot the leader through the heart.

John Lovewell, captain of the band,
His sword he waved, that glittered bright,
For the last time he cheered his men,
And led them onward to the fight."

    The Chamberlain family had experienced others trying to steal their thunder and perhaps had learned the true value of verse in keeping the "facts" in the popular memory. Almost all the later versions of the Runaway Pond story, and there were a number of them published through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, include mention of the sources from which material was gathered. All of the versions that name Spencer Chamberlain as the runner and hero can be traced directly back to Spencer Chamberlain himself. The versions that name Solomon Dorr as runner can be traced to the Wilson/Dorr family or to "Barzilla French and others".
    Many of the elements, no matter who is named as runner, are the same. He stops for a reviving drink. He arrives just before the flood. He either finds no one there or grabs and saves someone. He also grabs a bag of meal, but is forced to drop it to escape the quickly rising water. The water wets his pants as he takes the last few steps to safety. And sometimes, his extreme exertion leaves him somewhat disabled for the remainder of his life. Though two years later Spencer Chamberlain enlisted during the War of 1812 and took part in the Battle of Plattsburgh, firing bullets cast from the lead weights of his old family clock.
    In his address given at the centennial celebration in 1910, Frederick W. Baldwin discusses the various versions of the story. He was inclined by his research to believe that there was a man at the mill who had come on his horse and was grinding his own grist by prior arrangement with Dorr, the miller. Many of the old accounts agree on the basic elements of this story. He concludes the neither Mrs. Wilson nor Mrs. Dorr were at the mill.
    He is inclined to believe that Chamberlain was the runner, but his conclusion is based on the fact that he heard or read more accounts which named and could be traced back to Chamberlain and less that named Dorr. Getting one's version of a story out as often as possible has long been and remains a way to prevail.

A New Generation Joins the Fray
    We now come to Harry Alonzo Phillips, Poet Laureate of Glover, grandson of Jeanette Chamberlain Phillips and great grandson of Spencer Chamberlain, who penned the epic History of Glover and Runaway Pond - A Poem in Two Cantos. His father, Frank Samuel Phillips, took the unusual precaution (readers might recall John Crane's "supererogatory prudence" when he set off to save his lumber at the mill) of appearing before a notary public in 1929 with a copy of the poem and signing a letter stating that he had often heard the story of Runaway Pond from his grandfather Spencer Chamberlain and "that the facts as narrated by his son Harry Alonzo Phillips and a part of this document, are a true and accurate story of what took place in Glover, Vermont, June 6th, 1810".
    Harry Alonzo, in his foreword, also informs us that the story he tells comes from his grandmother "Janet" Chamberlain Phillips. So, we should not be at all surprised when we read:

"Chamberlain, a man of brawn and brain,
Came from New Hampshire's wild domain:
Was born in seventeen 'eighty-six;
Half red, half white, as blood did mix:
Of comely form and stature grand:
His birthplace was at Westmoreland;
Was grandson of New Hampshire fame -
Of John E. Chamberlain by name,
Who was of indian fighting fond,
And joined the crew at Lovell's Pond:
By his own rifle aimed so well,
Chief Paugus backward reeled and fell.

Spencer, the son of braves of yore,
Made this long run at twenty-four;
Descending from a dauntless race,
He met the Devil face to face;
And conquered death here in the dell,
Which on that summer day befell.
Chest-high, he finds a fallen tree;
Yet, running with velocity,
He leaps and clears it like a deer;
So blithe, so young, he knows no fear:
He now must cover five long miles
Of quite obstructed forest aisles:
His object is the miller's wife -
Each nerve is strained to save her life."

    There are also two versions of this poem in the material Wayne Alexander collected. One is typewritten and seems to be earlier; the other, the source of the above quoted verses, was published in 1946 by the Northeastern Vermont Development Association. Comparing the two poems I find intriguing differences. The language in the new version is tighter, but many lines have been added. The section Lines of Farewell, a sort of elegy for Long Pond, grows from 6 to 16 lines. In the early version, as Chamberlain enters the mill, we read:

"The woman is dazed - she does not stir,
It puts her vision and mind ablur;
He takes her in his supple arms,
And carries her safely away from harm.
To see the mill sail down the glen,
Sickens the hearts of the strongest men."

The published version reads:

"Like marble white, she does not stir:
It puts her sight and mind ablur:
He takes her 'neath his supple arm,
And bears her from the way of harm:
To watch the mill sail down the glen,
Breaks hearts of e'en the strongest men."

    Also, in the second version many periods and commas are replaced with colons and semi-colons; the price of this more complex punctuation must have fallen since 1929. This is really the third time this poem has been rewritten by the Chamberlain family. We don't know who rewrote Jeanette's original poem, but it seems likely that it was Harry Alonzo who recast his own poem for publication seventeen years after it had been written. Perhaps it is time for it to be rewritten again, updated for the bicentennial. 
    At the beginning of this I said that I had been plowing back and forth over the old accounts of Runaway Pond for the last year or so. I had hoped to unearth some ancient nugget that had been buried so long it had carbonized and, when brought forth into the clear air of the 21st century, it might spontaneously burst into flame and illuminate some dust-bunnied corner of humanity's Gloverian history. Have I succeeded in this impossible dream? Only time will tell. The votes are not yet in. The candidates have, however, long ago announced their desire to run, or to have run. They and their proxies have been out on the stump shouting and whispering "did run" and "did not". When the dust settles, we will surely see that we are here. All else is provisional - at least until the truth serum rumored to have been implanted in cell phones finally takes effect.
    There are those who have said that the story of Runaway Pond is all a "humbug". According to the dictionary (I feel that I should consult the dictionary at least once in the course of this investigation) a "humbug" is a hoax, a fraud, a sham. But it is also a kind of sweetmeat. Now, according to the dictionary, a sweetmeat is sweet food, preserved or candied fruits, or sugared nuts; but it is also a varnish used in the preparation of patent leather. And, according to the dictionary, patent leather is a kind of leather with a hard, smooth, glossy, usually black surface finish. Here I must confess that I had been hoping that the dictionary would tell me that patent leather was a product made to imitate leather, that is, a fake or fraud. Then I could sit back and say  - “see, we have come full circle in our dictionary trip”. But not so.
    It does occur to me that perhaps history, that art preservative of all arts, may be a bit like sweetmeat, like that sugar preservative of all fruits, and that varnish preservative of some leathers. The mirror like qualities of patent leather are well known; and so is history like a mirror that, held at the right angle, allows us a glimpse before, behind, above, or below. We see a bit of ourselves in these strange characters from the past and often a bit of them in us. The image in the mirror can be sugarcoated, or etched in acid, it may be reversed left-to-right or top-to-bottom; but it draws us in.
    The story of Runaway Pond can be read as an example of the Creator's overarching Providence under which all things happen at the best of all possible times. This was the usual interpretation for the first 100 years A.R.P., and probably still holds water for a good number of people.  It could also be read as a story of good intentions run amok; of guys let loose with shovels and a jug, having no intention to cause harm to anyone or anything; something akin to "honey, I shrank the pond".
    Was Thoreau thinking of Runaway Pond when he wrote: “I have said that Walden has no visible inlet nor outlet, but it is on the one hand distantly and indirectly related to Flint’s Pond, which is more elevated, by a chain of small ponds coming from that quarter, and on the other directly and manifestly to Concord River, which is lower, by a similar chain of ponds through which in some other geological period it may have flowed, and by a little digging, which God forbid, it can be made to flow thither again”. (Walden , or Life in the Woods, 1854) He loved to resort to any of Concord’s five ponds and reflect on the life within and around them. There were no grist mills on Concord’s ponds, but he writes: “these, with Concord River, are my water privileges; and night and day, year in year out, they grind such grist as I carry to them”.
    I have heard loose talk about humankind's ambiguous motivations and the sometimes tragic, unforeseen consequences of human acts. This is no time to go wading out into the farther reaches of such a swamp. But someone with a contemporary turn of mind might look at the story of Runaway Pond and think they see justification for the sorts of checks and balances that our society has tried to build into the decision making process in regard to human intervention in the natural world. Some people might even say that we humans have made such sweeping changes in the environment since 1810 that the "natural world", like Runaway Pond, exists now only in memory.
    They might argue, as Bill McKibben has, that we have so altered the earth's atmosphere that every spot on earth, no matter how infrequently visited by humans, is changed, is different, is no longer "nature". Others rejoin that man is part of nature and anything that mankind does is, therefore, "natural". We can't settle this discussion here.  We can, however, go look at the site of Runaway Pond now and try to imagine one hundred feet of water over our heads. We can read the descriptions of it in the old accounts, and we can fantasize having one more Orleans County lake, at 1400 feet above sea level, one to one and a half miles long, one half to three quarters of a mile wide and 100 to 150 feet deep, with steep hills on the east and west, and no development along its shore.
    Or was there no development along the shore? None of the Glover accounts mention development, but I have recently been given an article from the Newport Daily Express of April 16, 2009, which gives a full page to the history of Greensboro and mentions Runaway Pond in passing. The new information here is that there was a village at the outlet on the south end of Long Pond. This village was called North Greensboro and "the results of the runaway pond left the mills in North Greensboro out of luck and the direction of settlement changed as people moved close to viable energy and functioning businesses". This is real news to the people of Glover. Our minds, as well as our water, must tend to flow in a northerly direction.

An Invitation
    Runaway Pond, Long Pond, does exist only in memory, and even those memories are twice or thrice removed from the actual body of water which was home to who knows how many swimmers, crawlers, jumpers, and layers of eggs left mysteriously in the mud. I sometimes think that I hear the call of the two loons who were floating on the surface of Long Pond on that now long gone day in June. When the waters started to move in an unusual way and, before their heavy bones could be lifted into the air, the birds were swept over the breach and into the maelstrom of rocks and trees and 2 billion gallons of water starting its headlong career down the valley, tearing up everything in its path. Sometimes, even now, a glass of water from our spring tastes like it might have some Long Pond in it.
    How must those men and their families have felt when they were re-united at the end of the day? Like the angel of death had passed, but their own names were not yet inscribed on the list? Did it change them in some unforeseen way? Have we built any new Runaway Ponds in our midst? Will their dams be breached when we least expect? Are they leaking a little everyday, right now? What would it take to change us in some unforeseen way?
    One might wonder why the story of Runaway Pond has been so fascinating to generations of Gloverites and others? What is it about this story that inspires people like Mrs. Singer of Caledonia County who came across a copy of Pliny White's 1860 speech a few years ago and was moved to re-write it in verse (34 pages) and send it off to the Glover Historical Society with good wishes for the upcoming bicentennial?
Perhaps the Bicentennial Committee should announce a contest for the best re-writing of an already existing Runaway Pond poem or the setting to verse of any other historical document relating to the momentous events of June 6th, 1810. I am certain a distinguished panel of local poets could be found to act as judges and the prize could be the opportunity to read the winning poem aloud during the 3-day festivities planned in June. Surely no one will write a poem that will take more than three days to read! Perhaps it could also be published in the next edition of Runaway Pond: the Complete Story to give future poets hope that their lives will not pass in anonymity like the poor author of the Ballad of Lovewell's Fight.
If you are inclined to investigate or reflect on Runaway Pond or its aftermath, I hope you will take occasion of this bicentennial year to share those thoughts as they come. Honk, if you've seen our pond!