The Great Flood of 1886
By William F. Hanna
A cold winter rain began after dark on Wednesday, February 9, 1886, and with the temperature hovering around the freezing point, it hit the ground and quickly turned to slush, coating muddy streets and placing added stress on telegraph and electric wires. All night and through the next day it poured, finally stopping on Friday afternoon when the storm moved away. We have no idea whether anyone thought to measure the rainfall but considering the crisis the storm caused we can be sure it was a deluge.
On Friday evening, not long after the rain subsided, Charles Lovering, a man with a good deal of practical engineering experience, was already predicting trouble. Recognized as one of the leading textile experts in the U.S., he was the Treasurer and Director of the sprawling Whittenton Manufacturing Company, located on the banks of the quickly rising Mill River.
Lovering sounded the alarm and immediately set out for Morey’s Bridge, on Lake Sabbatia. This was the location of the first of four dams that had been established on the river during the early days of Taunton’s industrialization and it was from here that the flow of water from the lake was controlled. If the dam at Morey’s Bridge let go and released the waters of Sabbatia unchecked, the smaller dams downstream would also give way and send flood waters cascading into the center of the city’s business district.
Within minutes, Lovering and a crew of fifty men set to work securing Morey’s Dam. They began by digging a series of trenches to allow some of the rising water to run off into nearby pastures. They also piled sandbags along the west side of the bridge in an unsuccessful attempt to keep flood waters out of the road. In spite of their efforts the water continued to rise. Just over two miles to the east, in downtown Taunton, the angry river was already spilling flood water along its course and into Washington, Cohannet, Winthrop, and Weir Streets.
As Lovering and his men labored at the head of the Mill River, city officials were also taking note of the quickly rising Taunton River, which had overflowed its banks in many locations. Dean Street, near Arlington Street, was flooded and impassable and reports were coming in from the Weir that West Water Street would soon be flooded. From Myricks came word that a locomotive fireman on the evening train into Taunton had been killed when the railroad tracks suddenly washed away as the train approached. The engineer had jumped to safety, but the fireman had chosen to stay with the locomotive and both plunged down a steep embankment.
On Saturday, February 11, the situation grew worse. The Taunton Daily Gazette reported that there was not a road in the city that didn’t have a least one serious washout in it. The trains were no longer running and local hotels were doing a brisk business. West Britannia Street was flooded and workers poured out of Reed & Barton to watch the excitement. On lower Cohannet Street, the river had penetrated the bottom floors of many buildings, and the lane that led from Weir to Spring Street, passing in back of the Main Street stores, was a lake. Approaching the lane pedestrians saw a sign that read: NO PASSING EXCEPT BY STRONG SWIMMERS. At the Weir nearly every shop was in the water
and unreachable and small buildings floated in what just two days before had been streets. The bodies of farm animals, drowned by the torrent, were a common sight as they drifted amidst the rubble.
Back at Morey’s Dam, Lovering and his men worked feverishly against time. Several members of the crew believed that the dam couldn’t be saved, so Lovering sent word that if Morey’s dam burst, he would blow the whistle at the Whittenton Mill as a warning to those working downstream and in the city center. The Gazette reported that all night long those who knew the sound of the whistle listened for it, fearing the worst.
Trouble inevitably came on Saturday afternoon, when the dam at Lovering’s Whittenton Mill burst in a shower of lumber and, unable to withstand the added pressure, the next dam downstream, near Park Street, gave way as well. While not approaching the catastrophe that the loss of Morey’s dam might bring, this nonetheless caused the immediate flooding of Court and Washington Streets. Later in the afternoon the houses on Cottage Street and lower West Britannia Street had to be evacuated. On Pond Street, residents had to be taken out in boats. Not long after this flood waters penetrated the dynamos at the Electric Light Company and shut off electricity throughout the city.
By Saturday night, rumors were circulating that the flood had inundated the city’s water works and thereby contaminated the drinking water, but this was unfounded. The Taunton River had come up to within two inches of the Harris Street filters but had never actually reached the critical point. Farther downstream, the Neck ‘o Land bridge was completely submerged and Ingell Street was under several feet of water. Weir Bridge stood only about a foot above the swirling brown flood water.
Saturday night saw the city in total darkness. When the fire bell rang to signal a blaze on the west side of the Mill River, some of those who owned property over there had to be restrained from trying to swim across the raging stream. A Gazette reporter noted the severe stress under which the people of Taunton were living.
The next day, Sunday, February 12, 1886, was a day of anxious waiting. Heavy winds had come in to pound the Taunton area and it seemed as though everything still depended on Morey’s dam, where Lovering and his men continued their work.
The situation finally took a turn for the better on Monday night, when the weather turned suddenly colder. Once it seemed that the worst was over, the worry subsided and curiosity seekers from all around headed to downtown to get a look at the damage. As water drained from the first and second stories of buildings it left in its place several inches of awful smelling mud. In low lying sections of the city evacuees returned home — sometimes to find that their homes weren’t where they had left them. Residents also found that Mother Nature wasn’t quite finished. On Wednesday, February 17, W.C. Tripp’s large building on Franklin Street suddenly tilted and fell into the now-peaceful waters of the Mill River. There it joined tons of rubble and a large barn belonging to T.O. Falvey, which the river had claimed a couple of days before.
But the worst flood in Taunton’s history was over and as extensive as the damage was, it could have been much worse. Lovering and his crew were hailed as heroes; business resumed and for the rest of their lives it seemed that everybody had at least one favorite flood story to tell.