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History Corner: Flooding in Middlesex Before Building the Dam

Aerial view of Wrightsville Reservoir. The dam at Wrightsville Reservoir in Montpelier is located on the North Branch of the Winooski River. From Montpelier, the dam is three miles north on Route 12. The project provides flood protection. Photo was taken in April 1990. Photo courtesy of US Army Corps of Engineers.
Summer is upon us, and many people head to Montpelier’s closest beach at the Wrightsville Reservoir in Middlesex to swim, boat, fish, and picnic. 

This bucolic spot was once home to 30 buildings and a cemetery with 651 graves. But these were all displaced when the Civilian Conservation Corps built the Wrightsville Dam between 1933 and 1935 as a method to protect the populations of Montpelier and Barre from another great flood like the one in 1927. In that flood, we lost over 1,200 bridges, countless houses and buildings, and hundreds of miles of railroad tracks. There were also 84 deaths and tens of millions of dollars in damage. 

Of course, that flood was not the first along the river. In fact, Stephen Herrick, Esq. (1795–1885) wrote a section on Middlesex in Abby Hemenway’s Vermont Historical Gazetteer published in Montpelier in 1882. He mentions several such deluges. “In May 1818, a freshet swept away the clothing works, but they were soon built up again.” Then, in September 1828, a freshet “swept away the (woolen) factory, grist mill, oil mill and saw mill.” 

Those mills were rebuilt and operational within two years, but could not withstand the freshet of 1830, when water in the Winooski was the highest known to settlers. “All the mills were raised from their foundations, and sailed off together like a fleet, taking the bridge below with them, until they struck the high pinnacle of rocks a few rods below the bridge, when, with a deafening crash, they smashed, and apparently disappeared in the rolling flood.” 

Also, in 1869 a freshet did “considerable damage,” but no buildings were demolished. However, roads were washed out, bridges carried away, and Mr. Ainsworth’s sawmill would have been taken had it not been chained to the trees and ledges. But then came the flood of 1927 — the “greatest natural disaster in Vermont History,” according to the National Weather Service. So the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built three retention reservoirs in the Winooski River basin to mitigate that level of damage in the future. They built one in Waterbury, one in East Barre, and one in Wrightsville. The Waterbury and Wrightsville reservoirs are enjoyed as summer playgrounds, but the East Barre one … not so much.