The Big Oops

Although the various surviving accounts of the letting out, or breaking away of Long Lake disagree in some significant elements, they do agree on one very important detail: the north end of the lake, where the fatal ditch was dug, was a low bank, fairly level for some distance from the shore. This contrasted with the steep mountainsides on the east and west and the long-tapering, shallow south end where the waters flowed out as one of the headwaters of the Lamoille River.

This bank had a sparse growth of small trees on it, the largest being a 6" cedar, and the smaller trees being readily pulled up out of the sand and gravel. Accounts written by men with some acquaintance with the geology of the area give the glacier, which once covered Vermont, credit for constructing this bank, or, at least, leaving it in its wake.

Many accounts of June 6, 1810, the fateful day, preparations for which had been laid long eons ago by the hoary glaciers, state that the men started digging their ditch a few feet from the edge of the water and proceeded across the narrow plain to where the "declivity" toward Mud Pond began. Apparently, and correctly, they assumed that once the waters were flowing they would cut their own path down the incline and augment the flow out of Mud Pond and toward Aaron Willson's mill. When the main part of the ditch was dug, they returned to the bank of Long Lake to cut through the remaining few feet and celebrate the gratifying results of their work.

As the digging approached the water's edge the soil was a very fine sand overlain by the thin hard shell described as "resembling frozen gravel". Pickaxes were needed to break the shell and once a small break was made the water began to flow. Then the unexpected happened. Instead of following the course of the ditch prepared for them, the waters of this beautiful but seemingly willful lake sank into the ground and were gone. One of the diggers, Spencer Chamberlain, jumped into the ditch to investigate. He began to sink as fast as the waters and was saved when his fellows pulled him out by the hair and laid him on the bank. The water, added to the very fine sand under the "frozen gravel" was turning it to a sort of quicksand.

This sand, which can still be found in the remains of the bank at the north end of Runaway Pond, and in large deposits on the steep hill to the east, is about as fine as flour. I have an old mason jar of it, which has been in my family for years, and I can attest that when water is added it makes a sloppy, soupy, runny mix indeed. As the water flowed into the sand, the sand flowed away from under the hard shell that held the lake in check, and without this support the shell began to break away. It broke in small pieces at first and the men watched with curiosity piqued. But as the water flow increased, the undermining increased apace and larger pieces of the shell began to break away.

The men soon became aware that they were in the presence of real danger as the ground under their feet started to slide into the widening, deepening gully. They moved away toward higher land and watched as the unanticipated outcome of their outing unfolded. Within a short time the breach had enlarged to a critical point and the mass of the water, feeling the pull of freedom, burst through the remains of the glacier-made dam and descended the wooded declivity, tore out the earth and trees, and hit Mud Pond as a roiling tsunami of water, wood, rocks and soil. This was only the start of its wild career.

But let us revisit that moment when the men returned from the main digging to cut the last few feet at the edge of the lake and start the flow. According to the accounts there were from 20 to 100 men and boys present, the common number is set at 60. (One account lays the whole affair at the feet of a dozen or so boys who had resorted to the lake for some fishing, as the settlers often did especially in the spring.  Their angling was unsuccessful and they turned their energies to pulling up little trees in the north bank and scratching a ditch with the butts of their fishing poles.) But what about the men, if, as most agree, it was men and not just boys.

Some were in their twenties, like Spencer Chamberlain at 24. Aaron Willson, the mill owner, was born in 1758 and was 52 in 1810. These were practical men, farmers and tradesmen who had come, mostly, from other parts of New England to make homes for themselves and their families on the northern frontier. They were neither rude backwoodsmen nor back-to-the-land city folk. They had experience working the land and assessing the prospects of an enterprise. In New Hampshire, Aaron Willson had worked on excavating a canal and building bridges. He had owned a mill there and had built his gristmill and a sawmill in Glover. This particular water diversion project had been under discussion at least since 1809, which had also been a dry year. The men involved were familiar with Long Lake and environs and had often fished there.

 John Crane is recorded as having had doubts about the success of the venture and had forbade a young man "bound to him till of age" to participate. John Crane himself was among the diggers, but whether as a workman or as an observer is not recorded. A Mr. Jenness, of Sheffield, who absented himself because he feared evil, heard the roar and crash of the flood in its fury and recognized what it was at a distance.

 Lewis Mumford, American historian of technology and culture, famously wrote that "all civilization is playing with water." The interplay of gravity and water can fascinate young and old alike from the rills of the falling stream, to the mud season meltwaters by the side of the road, to the raging cataract of Niagara Falls (once upon a time the cultural equivalent of Disney World). Undoubtedly these men had experience with the power of running water.

Rev. Pliny White, Orleans County historian, in the address that he researched and wrote for the centennial celebration at Runaway Pond in 1910, relates that as the water first started to flow the men "were beginning to speculate as to how much the pond would be lowered by the new outlet. Some declared that it would not be at all perceptibly lowered, others that it would be lowered a foot before night, and a person who hazarded the opinion that it would be lowered three feet, was silenced by the emphatic reply, accompanied by an oath; 'You ______ fool, this might run three weeks without lowering the pond that much.' "

Were serious questions raised when the fine sand was found underlying the "frozen gravel"? If so, how were those questions handled? Were they debated pro & con, as at town meeting, and a considered decision reached to open the breach? Were they only spoken by some in hushed tones at the edge of the group? Were they raised by one and loudly dismissed with an oath?

Why is it so difficult to abandon a project, after time and treasure has been invested (in this case it was less than a half days work and some whiskey) when serious doubts are raised as to the ultimate efficacy of the task at hand. We know it takes a certain threshold of optimism to start any project. Without it, the problems that can be foreseen would abort most attempts. Is that optimism wired into us? Or at least into most of those who strive and succeed? Once we are in its thrall why are we so loath to step back and reconsider?

No permits were sought or issued for this particular Water Diversion Project at Long Lake, in the Town of Glover, County of Orleans, State of Vermont, in the Year of Our Lord 1810. Is the tangled maze of bureaucracy that such a project would have to negotiate today some attempt to check and balance the innate, unbridled, contagious, quasi-religious optimism we have come to love?

Oops, we lost the lake……….