IN THE SHADOW OF THE DAM: The Aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874

Elizabeth M. Sharpe, Author . Free Press $25 (284p) ISBN 978-0-7432-2357-7

Sharpe, the former director of education at the Smithsonian's American History museum, delivers a compelling account of an 1874 disaster in Massachusetts that became a turning point in the history of American capitalism and technology. Sharpe is a skilled historian who does a superb job presenting the details of the careless planning behind what became at that point the most deadly dam failure—a reservoir dam situated high above a number of factory and farm towns that suddenly burst, unleashing 600 million gallons of water that destroyed most of the communities in just four and a half hours, leaving 131 dead and 750 homeless. She gives sympathetic, closely detailed descriptions, from a range of historical sources, of the terror faced during and after the disaster, as people searched for bodies "amid wreckage so dense and snarled that mattresses and quilts were knotted with belting and machinery, and hanks of raw silk were lodged with toys and potatoes." She also provides an excellent historical context for the event, including the lack at that time of any standards for dam construction, the general public's ongoing cultural preoccupation with disasters and the unfortunately common belief that disasters were "part of the unavoidable and necessary cost of industrial development." She nicely details the lasting social changes that came in the wake of the flood, such as how it galvanized public opinion in support of better building standards and how it gave an important boost to the emerging engineering profession in the U.S. Agent, Nina Graybill. (May)

Reviewed on: 04/12/2004
Release date: 05/01/2004
Genre: Nonfiction
Open Ebook - 304 pages - 978-0-7432-5864-7
Paperback - 304 pages - 978-1-4165-7264-0
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