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.

No comments:

Post a Comment