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The True Heroes.

The Daily papers, especially the Republican, have taken the occasion to belittle the Gate-keeper, Cheney, in the part he took in saving the lives of those exposed by the reservoir calamity. But if there was ever a man who acted with promptness and decision on an important occasion, that man was the Gate-keeper, George Cheney. We copy from the Northampton Gazette a truthful statement of the parts performed by Cheney and Graves, whose promptness and decision was the salvation of hundreds of lives.

George Cheney for three years was the watchman and gate-keeper at the dam. He was at breakfast on the morning of the 16th, when his father, looking out of the house, discovered earth sliding down the embankment, on the outside of the eastern half. There had been at that spot- near the water pipe in the center of the dam- for three years at least, a leak resembling a spring. The water was always clear, but the flow constant. When the discovery of the falling earth was made, Cheney sprang for the key to the gate-house, and as soon as he could reach the dam, hoisted the gate. The water then was coming through the dam, at the bottom, in half-a-dozen streams, of the size of a man's arm. He told his father "the dam was going- there was no help for it." He at once- in obedience to orders, that if any trouble happened to the dam that he could not control, to notify Mr. Spellman at the village-started for the barn, 100 rods from the dam, to get his horse. Previous to Gov. Hayden's death, he received his orders from him; since then, from Spellman. The barn was locked and the horse had not been fed. He bridled the horse and told his father to cut a stick. He mounted and started, going through the lot to the highway, a distance of one-third of a mile, at a lively trot. When he reached the highway, he struck into a run, and applied the stick freely, so that when he reached Williamsburg it was nearly used up. The horse did not stop running until he arrived at Spellman's house, nearly three miles from the dam. The horse was then covered with foam and nearly used up. When he left the dam, the only evidence that was that the dam would break was the half-dozen streams of water and the sliding down of a section of earth about forty feet long. But that was enough to satisfy him that the dam was going soon. He neither saw nor heard any rush of water b before reaching the village. He ran directly to Spellman's house and told him the dam had broken. Spellman said it could not be possible and asked him about the break, where it was, how large, &c., endeavoring to learn the particulars. He did not seem to believe that the break was a serious matter. (There was a report about three years ago that the dam had broken, which created considerable excitement in the village. This probably led Spellman to disbelieve Cheney's story.) Cheney, however, was in earnest, and saw that no time was to be lost. He therefore asked Spellman what he should do. Spellman told him to go to Haydenville and notify the people. Cheney said his horse was used up and could go no further. Spellman then told him to go and get Belcher to go. Cheney did so, ran his horse down to Belcher's, and found him dressing himself. Belcher flew around lively when he was told the dam had broken and told him to ride his own horse to Haydenville, so as to lose no time. Cheney told him his horse was not fit to go, and Belcher brought form his stable another and was putting a saddle on him when Graves drove up, inquired the matter was, and on learning that the reservoir had broken, started for Haydenville at full speed. Belcher then went to the church and rang the bell.

As soon as the fresh horse was ready, Cheney mounted and also started for Haydenville. He had gone to nearly to Culver's blacksmith shop, or a little below the site of the old school-house north of the Dea. Bodman place, when the water was sweeping across the road before him and it was useless for him to attempt to go further.

Cheney thinks he was ten minutes in coming down to Spellman's- says the road seemed a long one to him. He thinks he was at Spellman's three to four minutes and that it seemed a long while. Graves, he thinks, started for Haydenville two minutes ahead of him. He then went home and found the water all out of the reservoir when he arrived there. Thinks, from what his folks at home said, that the dam burst about twenty minutes after he started for the village. The water seemed to burst out all at once. He could not give the exact time that the first signs of the break appeared, but thinks it was soon after 7 o'clock.

Cheney's horse is a sharp-boned animal, poor in flesh, and not a pleasant animal to ride. Yet Cheney rode him, without saddle or blanket- bareback- all the way, over a rough road, three miles, at a terrible pace, from the effects of which he suffered severely for several days. Yet notwithstanding, he was anxious to push on to Haydenville. Let no many say that Geo. Cheney was unfaithful to his trust.

Collins Graves, the milk-peddler, son of Elinathan Graves, was near Cartier's store when Cheney passed by on his way from Spellman's house to Belcher's. Knowing the speed at which Cheney's horse went, that there was trouble at the reservoir. Graves immediately followed him, drove into Belcher's yard, and inquired what the matter was. Cheney said the reservoir was breaking away. Graves then said:- "Ain't you wild?" "No," replied Cheney," "I ain't wild a bit; it is right here." Graves then said, "If that is so, the people below must be warned at once;" and without saying another word, he started for his horse, still attached to the buggy in which he peddled his milk, at full speed toward Haydenville. His purpose was to go at once to the factories, where the noise and din of the machinery would prevent the operatives hearing any alarm in the streets, or the noise of the coming waters, and notify them.

He had a fleet horse and urged him on at his topmost speed. His first stop was at James' woolen mill. He saw no one on the way. Met Tom Brazill at the mill and told him to inform the hands, and hunt up Mr. Birmingham and notify him. He then sped on to Skinner's silk factory, where he saw William Rhoades and Nash Hubbard and notified them. A little further on he met Geo. E. Smith, the fish peddler, and without stopping, gave him the warning. Smith barely escaped. Next he saw Mr. Keplinger's boy, two houses below, and notified him, the horse still going at full speed. He first heard the roar of the waters when below Skinnerville. The next place where he stopped was at the office of Hayden, Gere, & Co. Here he notified the clerks, and they notified the hands in the brass works. Still on he went and stopped at Hart's barber shop, near the upper iron bridge in Haydenville, and then on to Dea. Elam Graves' store, notifying Dea. Graves and his son Charles. He then turned around to return home, and had proceeded as far as the "dugway," (a roadway on the river bank, made by walling up on the river side and digging out the hill for a distance of 75 to 100 rods.) Here he first saw the coming waters. He was about 15 rods along that way when he saw the on-rushing column, 20 feet in hight, bearing trees, timbers and houses, and creating a roaring which he described as resembling heavy-rolling thunder. He then turned around and ran his horse through Haydenville street, toward the hotel, yelling as he went. Having done all that he could do, he turned up the street running back of the church where up one high ground a large number of people were gathered. He says the advance of this monster torrent was accompanied by a heavy black smoke above it, like that seen above a great conflagration.

From this truthful account the reader will notice how remarkable was the escape of the 100 persons, mostly females, in Skinner's factory, and of the over 200 men in the brass works. Graves saw Cheney riding at full speed from Spellman's to Belcher's and knew from that that there was trouble at the reservoir. He immediately follows-inquires-learns the fact that the reservoir has broken-and, without a moment's loss in questions suggested by curiosity, dashes on to warn the people below. Cheney follows as soon as a fresh horse can be bridled and saddled, but it is too late- the mighty torrent has intervened between him and Graves, and he retreats. Graves is two minutes ahead of the water! Only two minutes between the flying messenger and the great destroyer! Precious minutes! Those two minutes served to empty two factories of over three hundred souls, so that only one person of all that number was lost. A most remarkable record. Not in a hundred times could a chain of circumstances be more favorable for the preservation of life. And as long as the life shall last with those now living, ought the blessings of the good and just to be showered upon these two faithful men, and their names handed down to the coming generations, as of those who unselfishly and fearlessly did their duty.

(c) Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield MA. All rights reserved.
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After the Mill River flood, the stories of Cheney and Graves racing downstream ahead of the floodwave to warn the valley captured the nation's attention. Their tales were repeated in newspapers, magazines, and in a small book. In a civic ceremony held in Northampton, Cheney and Graves (and two others) were honored with music, speeches, and gold medals engraved with images of them racing down the valley. Poems praised them as heroes for the ages, in a league with Paul Revere and Civil War hero General Philip Henry Sheridan. When the Williamsburg reservoir dam broke on May 16, 1874, it flooded a valley lined with factories and farms and killed 139, making it the deadliest dam failure in the U.S. at the time.


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"True Heroes" article from scrapbook kept by Celia M. Kimball

publisher   Hampshire Gazette
maker   Celia Mann Kimball (1828-1911)
date   1874
location   South Deerfield, Massachusetts
width   2.25"
height   14.5"
process/materials   printed paper, ink
item type   Personal Documents/Scrapbook
accession #   #L05.009

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See Also...

"Reservoir Disaster" article from the Gazette and Courier newspaper

"Terrible Horror" article from the Journal of Industry newspaper

"Mill River Calamity" from "Harper's Weekly"

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