The Sources of Runaway Pond

Since June 6, 1810 Runaway Pond has existed only in the memory and the imagination.  Of the accounts collected by Wayne Alexander in Runaway Pond: The Complete Story only one was written by a participant in the affair. This is an extract from a letter by Joseph Owen of Barton dated June 25, 1810. There are two contemporary newspaper accounts, but they rely on unnamed sources. Rev. Sereno Edwards Dwight wrote the most complete early account. He traveled from Boston in 1823 to interview participants and investigate the evidence left by the flood. His report on the "eruption…and desolation" was published as a letter in the American Journal of Science and the Edinburgh Review.

Succeeding accounts draw on the memories of participants and eyewitnesses, and previous publications, and vary from the historical to the journalistic, poetical and anecdotal. Many of these acknowledge their sources and most agree on the main points of the story, which has been told and retold so many times in Glover that, as one granddaughter of a participant wrote, "I almost feel that I was an eyewitness."

There is almost unanimous agreement that the men set out to dig a ditch to furnish additional water to Willson's mill and that 40 to 100 (commonly, 60) men and boys went along. One dissenter claims that a dozen young men and boys went fishing and to amuse themselves began pulling out saplings and scratching a ditch with the butts of their poles. There is also general agreement that June 6th was chosen  for the work bee because it was New Hampshire election day and celebrated by her expatriate sons. Some accounts add or substitute that it was a militia training day. Many accounts mention whiskey ("a very different article from the compound of drugs now used" Judge Parker, 1887) and a few mention pay as the inducements offered by Willson.

The details of the actual digging are generally agreed upon, though the topography of the north bank of Long Lake is variously described. There is also general agreement on the size and depth of the lake. The descriptions of the undercutting of the bank and the breaking away of the waters are all similar, as are the stages of the flood as it flowed north through the valley, and the descriptions of the resulting destruction. Some of the accounts include very vivid word pictures of particular scenes in the course of the flood, especially at points where the valley narrowed and great jams of trees and soil held the waters back for a time until the pressure burst the new-made dam and the flood continued its impetuous escapade.

The accounts also generally agree that it was "providential" that the flood happened when it did, because it would have certainly happened at some time (the north bank of the lake was "deceitful") and in 1810 there was so little settlement in the Barton River valley that relatively little damage was done to property and no human lives were lost.

Election Day, but who ran?
There are at least two significant details on which the accounts disagree: who was at Willson's mill on June 6th, and who, if anyone, ran the 5 miles through the woods to the mill to give the alarm. The later accounts, and the version generally accepted now in Glover, praise Spencer Chamberlain as the hero of the day who raced the floodwaters through the woods and arrived at the mill just in time to save Aaron Willson's wife by dragging her up the hill as the waters rose around them. He was the iron man of Glover in 1810, part Native American and a great runner and wrestler. He pushed himself to his limit and "felt the effects of the run for the rest of his life." Two years later he enlisted to fight in the War of 1812, melting down his grandfather's clock weights for bullets, and lived on until 1853.

It is interesting that the four earliest accounts (1810-1842) do not mention a runner. Two of these, including Joseph Owen's letter, state that there was a man at the mill, grinding his own grist, who heard the sound of the flood and made good his escape. Pliny H. White, lawyer, journalist, minister, and historian prepared an address for the 50th anniversary celebration held in 1860. He credits his sources thus: "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 art preservative of all arts," thereby officially entering the historical record.

According to Pliny White, when the bank was first cut through and the outflow of water was small, one of the men, John Crane, who had several thousand feet of recently sawn boards stacked outside Willson's sawmill, on the stream just north of the gristmill, began to worry that his lumber might be washed away by the rising waters. He engaged several men to run with him to attempt to save the boards. One of these men was Solomon Dorr who was married to Aaron Willson's daughter Elizabeth, and who usually operated the gristmill for Willson. As they traveled toward the mill the men heard the bank give way or saw the floodwaters coming toward them and realized that not just the boards but the mills were in danger. Dorr had two young boys who often spent their days at their grandfather's mills. Dorr became concerned about the boys safety and ran ahead stopping at John Crane's house to throw off his coat and swallow a glass of whiskey.  Now he had a good path to the mill, and "being alarmed for the possible fate of his children, as well as stimulated by his draught of whiskey", he gained the mill just before the flood, ascertained that no one was there, and scrambled up the hill as the water reached his knees.
White adds that a man named Ripley had been at the mill, grinding his own grist as arranged with Dorr. He heard the flood and ran to save himself but lost his horse that was hitched outside.

The plot thickens
The next account is a poem written in 1860 by Jeanette Chamberlain Phillips. It is prefaced with a note that it was "composed shortly after the semi-centennial 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."

We have seen above that Pliny White, reputable local historian and keynote speaker, had not named Spencer Chamberlain as the hero of the day. In fact, he had not named any hero of the day. Were there other speakers, whose remarks went unrecorded, who did name Chamberlain hero? Pliny White's 1860 text mysteriously could not be found at the time of the 1910 centennial, but resurfaced in 1911and was published in a local paper.

Jeanette Chamberlain Phillips starts her poem by asserting her veracity:

"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."

She has Aaron Willson sending his wife Maria to run the mill that morning though, according to the Willson genealogy included in Runaway Pond: The Complete Story, Aaron's wife was named Dorcas. In the poem Willson starts to run to save his wife but soon tires and returns. Then,

"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.

With sinews of steel like a deer in the race
Was off through the forest at a very fast pace,
 Over brush wood and logs that lay in his way,
The death hounds bayed as he passed on his way."

Chamberlain stops for a drink, "perhaps it is beer", and runs on to the mill. He rescues "Maria" just ahead of the flood and:

"They are safe on the hill, at the end of his run
She thanks her dear Saviour for what he has done,
The mill starts off at the captain's command,
A lifeboat afloat that no mortal can stand".

The last verse:

"When small children at home
And they wanted a treat,
Would gather round Father
For Runaway Pond to repeat".

is followed by another assurance of her truthfulness: "This is as authentic information as can be had of this event up to within a few months of the time that it happened".

The struggle is on

Although two accounts refer to a man on horseback riding to the mill and one names Zenas French as running barefoot with Chamberlain, Solomon Dorr and Spencer Chamberlain are the two principal contenders for the heroes crown. In his 1875 account Judge Isaac Parker states that Dorr ran to save the man who was grinding his own grist (Ripley) and names his sources as Deacon Loren Frost and Solomon Dorr. In an 1876 letter to a descendant of Dorr, Chapin Leonard, the town clerk of Glover, states that Dorr ran to save his wife or someone at the mill. He names his source as Barzilla French and others.

In a letter to the editor written in 1877 O.V. Percival names Spencer Chamberlain as the runner and Chamberlain and others present on the day as his informants. Of the remaining accounts and letters of reminiscence most name Chamberlain as the runner but a few continue to name Dorr.

A family matter

All but one of the accounts that name Chamberlain as the hero can be traced to Spencer Chamberlain himself or some descendant of Chamberlain. Most accounts that name Dorr can be traced to someone in the Dorr or Willson families. Jeanette Chamberlain Phillips was not the only poet in the Chamberlain-Phillips family. Her grandson, Harry Alonzo Phillips, published his 1929 History of Glover and Runaway Pond, a poem in two cantos, prefaced by a notarized letter from his father Frank Samuel Phillips, attesting that he and Harry Alonzo are indeed descendants of Spencer Chamberlain and that the facts in Harry's poem "are a true and accurate story of what took place in Glover, Vermont, June 6, 1810."

No poetic license here

Near the end of the first canto Harry Alonzo writes:

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."

Can we conclude that that it was the power of poetry that ultimately caused the Chamberlain-Phillips version of the story to predominate in the public mind? If the Willson-Dorrs had fathered, or mothered, poets would the battle for the hearts and minds of Glover still rage today? Was there some unrecorded rivalry between the young Chamberlain and Dorr? Can we read into the line "his object was the miller's wife"?  Another account describes Chamberlain (the Saviour) and the miller's wife as sitting side by side overlooking the destruction when the rest of the men arrived. Could a new film or TV docu-drama succeed in overthrowing the triumphant story?

Runaway Pond artistically expressed

As far as is known, no visual artist has taken up the challenge of creating drawings or paintings inspired by the actual scenes or the word pictures of the now lost Long Lake or of the flood and the resulting destruction. With all the publicity that this event received in the 19th century ("such unaccountable havoc, perhaps never was made in so short a time, and for such a distance, by an event so singular" or "perhaps the history of America does not record a more extraordinary event") it seems remarkable that no landscape painter took it up as a subject.

The Bread and Puppet Theater, based in Glover, has, however, created a puppet show based on the Harry Alonzo Phillips version of the story of Runaway Pond. The show has become a local favorite on Glover Day when runners race from the site of Runaway Pond to Glover Village. It may be unfortunate that the show touts the Chamberlain-Phillips version so uncritically, perhaps becoming a co-conspirator in the burial of the alternate versions.

The future is now
As the bicentennial of Glover's great event approaches, we might consider the words of S. Edwards Dwight written in 1823: "Had the waters of that lake been discharged two centuries earlier, its bed, and the gulley which it formed, would have been filled with a thrifty forest; and the evidence that it had ever been a lake, would have been no more satisfactory than we now possess, that the places to which I have alluded were once filled with water." Alonzo Chamberlain Phillips, after attesting that "I shall tell you nothing that I got from hearsay outside of my mother", wrote (1910): "I very well know that there are all manner of stories afloat that do not agree with my statement. One man in this town (Glover) says 'It is all a humbug from beginning to end.'"