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At about one o'clock in the morning of Sunday, January 7, 1770, commenced a rain storm, with the wind blowing from the southeast, which caused the greatest freshet perhaps that ever occurred in New England. The weather had been very cold and dry through the month of December, and ice had formed extremely thick and strong. The storm continued with violence all through Sunday and until the next day at noon, when the clouds rolled away, and the sun again appeared. A very high tide occurred at this time and the combination of storm, wind and tide produced a freshet which caused the water to rise in many places ten feet higher than usual, and to remain at that height for several days.
For fifteen years the Connecticut river had not risen so high. The ice was quickly broken up, and the stream overflowed its banks one-half of a mile on either side, doing great damage in many ways. At Hartford, the river was impassable for several days. In the Tunxis, or Farmington river, which flows into the Connecticut, the torrent was much swollen and very rapid. At Simsbury, the buildings at the iron works of Richard Smith were carried away, and the whole plant was entirely destroyed.
On the Androscoggin and Kennebec rivers the freshet was greatest and most injurious; at Bowdoinham the tide rose from thirty to forty, and some placed it as high as fifty feet above its usual height. On Monday evening, the river had not perceptibly risen, and people were passing back and forth on skates and with horses, the ice appearing solid and strong, and as smooth and clear as glass. At about eight o'clock the spectators heard an uncommonly heavy rumbling sound, which slowly increased in loudness till shortly after eleven o'clock, when it quickly became louder and heavier, until, in the opinion of the people who heard it, it resembled the sudden approach of an earthquake, or the roar of the ocean in a storm, beating its mighty billows against a bold and rocky bluff, or a crushing like the fall of lofty ruins, or the continuous reports of cannon, or frequent bursts of thunder; and the earth trembled with the movement of the great body of water which endeavored to burst the thick, strong ice that like iron bound the stream to its channel. The waters swelled in volume and force, and the ice trembled and groaned as probably no one now living ever heard it. The people could not understand what it all meant, and some were more frightened than they had been when the earthquake of 1755 came upon them with its fearful noises and terrible commotion, being apprehensive that something dreadful was in store. The otherwise quiet and weird hour of midnight was at hand. The noise constantly grew louder, and the trembling of the earth increased, until with a last gigantic throb the seething water burst the icy shackles that bound it and spread itself over its banks, tossing the cakes of ice high above its angry billows as though they had been shavings, and carrying destruction in all directions. Iron-hearted oaks and pines two feet in diameter, that had withstood the storms of nearly a century, were ground off by the ice or broken, and went down in the boiling flood. The inhabitants never forgot the horror of that night.
Morning dawned at last, and presented to the beholders a scene of ruin and desolation that cannot be described. Ice had again blocked the way of the current of the river, and nothing could be seen but a mass of ice, some of it consisting of vast floes of various shapes. Other sections rose like large pillars above the general level to the height of ten or twelve feet, while the great mass of it was crumbled into small pieces, most of them being the size of pebbles. In the bright sunlight of the morning, the colors of the prism showed beautifully from each angle of the infinite cakes and particles of ice, and by reflection caused such a variety of designs and an intermixture of colors and shades that it was one of the most beautiful sights that mortals ever witnessed. But the people had no eyes for beauty that morning. Desolation had come upon them, and the stream was now simply gathering strength to continue its work of destruction, rising four feet in fifteen minutes. No trace of the underlying water could be seen through the compact body of ice, though it was then surging and throbbing and striving to be free again. Along the banks and in upon the land, huge cakes of ice weighing several tons each had been driven, and the bushes and trees had been torn away and buried beneath the deluge.
The great quantity of ice dammed the river until nine o'clock in the morning, when the force of the accumulated water became strong enough to push it away, and for two hours it rushed down with terrific rage. Men and women stood awe stricken at the sight and sound, and the stoutest heart was moved to the uttermost. Huge cakes of ice rose high into the air and tumbled one over another, and great masses were tossed up, while many tons of fragments were violently forced in on the land. In the moving mass were also whole trees, immense logs, timbers, boards, shingles, clapboards, canoes, boats, gondolas, barns, houses and small buildings, crushing and grinding against one another, and rushing, tumbling down the thundering torrent. Before twelve o'clock the ice again stopped, and the river fell two feet, continuing at that height until night.
Swan island causes the river to divide into two channels, and the ice and other debris which came down with the flood formed gigantic dams across both of them, about half way down the island. These caused the water to flow over the land on both sides of the river. At one place, behind the point on the road to Richmond, the water ran in a stream as wide as the eastern river, and ten feet deep, sweeping away the trees and everything else before it. The water also swept around Cushing's point, and left Judge Cushing's house standing on an island. This stream carried large quantities of ice, trees and timber, as it went dashing and foaming over the flats into the eastern river. Nothing could equal its fury as it swept away the ice below in an instant.
The Cobbessecontee stream was but slightly swollen; but in the Androscoggin river, which empties into the Kennebec, the freshet was most destructive. At the Brunswick falls, all the mills consisting of two double saw-mills and one grist-mill, and two other saw- mills a little farther up the stream were entirely destroyed, the monstrous dam at the falls also being partly carried away. Vast quantities of logs cut from the forests farther up the river were annually floated down to Brunswick to be converted into lumber. At the time of the freshet there were several thousand there, and when the dam gave way they swept down with the raging torrent. The damage at the falls was estimated at thirty-thousand dollars (or, at that time, ten thousand pounds old tenor). After the river had resumed its usual height, the ridge of along its banks was measured below the falls and found to be sixty feet high perpendicularly above the water. Nearly a month afterward the site of the falls could not be distinguished, because the river was filled with ice forty feet thick, the great mass consisting of huge cakes lying one upon another as they were tossed by the torrent.
Many buildings were carried away. One of these, a large store at Cobbessecontee belonging to Doctor Gardiner of Boston, was swept down the river a little below Richmond, and lodged at the Narrows on the back of Swan island. His potash house was removed to the rear of the Glidden, which was afterward known as the Smith house, and his chimneys were also demolished. His grist-mill, however, remained on its foundation though the water came almost to its roof. Henry McCausland's house was carried down and left upon the great sands. Several barns, in which were hay and grain and sheep and other animals were swept away in the flood.
The Brunswick falls are situated at the head of tide water, and large vessels have been built there. At the time of this freshet several vessels in various stages of construction were upon the stocks, and the water floated them upon the high land, where it left them. Nearly all the gondolas, of which there was a large number, and the boats and canoes along the Androscoggin and the Kennebec were destroyed. Almost every family at Pownalborough -that lived near the river suffered more or less damage. Martin Hayley's old house, which was filled with hay, was carried into the woods. The sheep belonging to the Nantucket people were drowned and their fences destroyed.
Six loads of hay were carried off from Bluff-head, and all the timber, boards, canoes and the gondola of Major Goodwin were swept down with the flood. Besides his hay, Mr. Ridley lost twenty thousand shingles, Mr. Lovejoy's wharf was shattered to pieces, his warehouse moved from its foundation, the stores being much damaged, his cellar and kitchen filled with water, and his blacksmith shop demolished.
It must have been thought before reading thus far that a flood of such great dimensions, which came so suddenly and at midnight, involved more or less personal danger. The people were indeed distressed, some of them being taken out of their beds and rescued in canoes. Henry Smith resided a short distance from the river, and his large house was filled with water to the chamber floor, he narrowly escaping out of a chamber window. Frederick Jacqueen and Merrick also barely escaped being drowned, and their families were obliged to be out in the open air all through the cold night. Deacon Chase's house and barn were both filled with water, his family being compelled to leave, and the torrent rushed with such violence over Call's point that old Mr. Call and his wife were saved with great difficulty.
The road from Deacon Chase's house to Bowman's was impassable for ten days after the freshet, the bridges having been carried away and the causeways covered several feet deep with ice and parts of trees. At this time, also, the cakes of ice were so piled one above another all along the shore that it was almost impossible to climb over them. In some places they seemed like mountains, and in others rose like magnificent towers with perpendicular walls. One of these ice hills situated on a point was forty rods in length, twenty feet being under water and twenty-five above. At a distance it resembled huge craggy boulders tumbled promiscuously upon one another. A great number of caverns were formed among the floes, some of which were of great length, and others so high studded that a man could walk upright, with a firm shelter overhead.
For a month, the Kennebec river, especially below where the Androscoggin joins it, was nearly filled with ice, trees, logs, ruins of buildings, .boards, shingles, hay, canoes and debris.
Source: Historic Storms of New England by Sidney Perley, 1891
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