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"Scene of the Disaster at Danbury, Connecticut," Engraving accompanying article in Harper's Weekly magazine, Feb. 20, 1869, about the Jan. 31, 1869, reservoir disaster.

This immense and rushing volume of water came upon the town through the gorge above Flint’s Dam, bringing with it huge masses of ice and lumber. With terrible velocity it struck the houses on Main Street near the river bank, instantly sweeping them from their foundations. Rushing down the flats along the north stream and east of Main Street it swept all before it. The water seethed and roared fifteen feet above the bed of the river; the noise of wrecked houses mingled with the screams of drowning men, women, and children, and what the water did not overwhelm was demolished by the rushing ice and timber.

So reads a vivid account of the Danbury flood of 1869 in Harper’s Weekly.

In the 1860s, Danbury was home to a thriving hat industry that employed more than 2,000 people in 12 factories. Turning animal pelts into felt required massive amounts of water. As connecticuthistory.org notes, “To satisfy this demand the town built numerous dams and reservoirs, the first of which was the lower dam of the Kohanza Reservoir constructed in 1860. The earthen dam was 336 feet long and 27 feet wide, held 40 million gallons of water, and was located three miles from the town. To get the water supply into the town, residents built water lines from wrought iron, wood, and cement. By 1865, residents built the upper dam.”

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In the fall of 1868, according to Harper’s, a break was discovered in the upper dam, but was ignored. That was a terrible mistake. On Jan. 31, 1869, the Kohanza Reservoir froze, and by around 7 p.m. the icy surface broke, allowing the upper dam to burst, which flooded and destroyed the lower dam.

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"Scene of the Disaster at Danbury, Connecticut," Engraving accompanying article in Harper's Weekly magazine, Feb. 20, 1869, about the Jan. 31, 1869, reservoir disaster.

The horror for those who lived in proximity to the dams is difficult to fathom. An account in the Times of Danbury, reprinted in The New York Times, noted that “Just as the bells ceased to ring the people to their evening worship, the dam of the upper Kohanzie [sic] Reservoir gave way, and the immense body of water therein contained came sweeping down upon our unconscious citizens. Those who lived at the upper part of the town were startled by a sudden rushing, roaring sound, like the driving of a heavy gale of wind. Those indoors could not understand it, as their buildings were not racked, as they would be in such a gale. Many left their houses and went out to listen better, and then discovered before their very doors a boiling, hurling mass of water. The water came upon the village through the gorge above Flint’s dam, bringing with it huge masses of ice, and heavy masses of timber.”

Whole factories and entire families were swallowed up. A woman identified by neighbors as Miss Fanny Humphreys and an unidentified female companion clung to a tree on White Street as the water rushed around them. They cried for help but “the huge cakes of ice and masses of timber surging between them and those who endeavored to help, rendered all attempts ineffectual.” Before long the poor women lost their hold upon the tree and were swept to their deaths.

At least 11 people were killed in the flood, but some accounts put the toll as high as 13. The tragedy drew national press, but unfortunately it was neither the first nor the last time floods would take lives in Connecticut. In 1955, one of the worst floods in state history occurred after Connecticut was hit by two hurricanes in back-to-back weeks. The intense deluge of rain caused rivers across the state to flood, leading to widespread devastation and the deaths of 87 people.

The dams were rebuilt on a smaller scale and are today known as the Upper and Lower Lake Kohanza dams. They were not included in the list of 12 Connecticut dams that are in poor condition and would cause loss of life if they failed, according to a recent investigation by The Associated Press.


Speaking of dams …

A two-year investigation by The Associated Press of dams in 44 states recently found that 12 dams in Connecticut are in poor condition and could cause catastrophic damage and loss of life if they breached. However, officials say that none pose an imminent threat. Here are the 12:

Acme Pond Dam, Dayville

Crystal Lake Dam, Middletown

Fitchville Pond Dam, Bozrah

Freshwater Pond Dam, Enfield

Great Hill Reservoir Dam, Seymour

Hanover Reservoir Dam, Baltic

North Grosvenordale Dam, North Grosvenordale

Oxoboxo Lake Dam, Oakdale

Silvia’s Lower Pond Dam, Stonington

Sylvia’s Upper Pond Dam, Stonington

Staffordville Reservoir Dam, Stafford Springs

Williams Pond Dam, Lebanon

This article appeared in the January 2020 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.

The senior writer at Connecticut Magazine, Erik is the co-author of Penguin Random House’s “The Good Vices” and author of “Buzzed” and “Gillette Castle.” He is also an adjunct professor at WCSU’s MFA Program and Quinnipiac University