When the dam gave way

Posted 5/12/21

By KELLY SULLIVAN Caleb Battey Jordan, a carpenter, was on his way home to Johnston during the late afternoon of Aug. 25, 1889, when he stopped his horse at the Spring Brook Reservoir. The reservoir, which belonged to the Pawtuxet Valley Water Company,

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When the dam gave way


Caleb Battey Jordan, a carpenter, was on his way home to Johnston during the late afternoon of Aug. 25, 1889, when he stopped his horse at the Spring Brook Reservoir.

The reservoir, which belonged to the Pawtuxet Valley Water Company, had a brook running from it where Jordan led his horse to drink. The 54-year-old man’s attention was suddenly caught by a concerning sight. From the stonework at the bottom of the dam, a stream of water about 3 feet wide was bursting through. Jordan barely had time to consider the danger before about 20 feet of the dam gave way.

Jumping on his horse, Jordan raced to the nearest house, shouting out an alarm as he went. When he arrived at the home of 51-year-old stablekeeper John Battey, he enlisted Battey’s help in spreading the news.

Jordan and Battey rushed to the house of 65-year-old meat market clerk Russell Mathewson, who wasn’t home. A horse was in the barn and the two men set it free as a surge of water was already making its way down the hill. Mathewson’s house and barn sustained damage, his wagons, sleds, vegetables and corn fodder were washed away and his property strewn with debris.

The flood than pushed toward the property of Daniel Steele, washing away his fencing before carrying off the hens of William Saunderson. Fifty-eight-year-old farmer George Yeaw saw his potato field washed away and debris scattered over his yard.

The water then divided itself in three directions, one of the powerful streams taking out the two dams, ice house and sash and blind shop of 52-year-old farmer Charles Fiske. It rushed into homes, washed out roads and carried away buildings. While two of the streams resulted in thousands of dollars worth of property damage, the third brought much greater loss.

A peaceful summer walk had been planned that day. Recently widowed 67-year-old Mary Tew wanted to go into the woods and gather spearmint. She brought her two grandchildren with her – 4-year-old Stella Tew and 7-year-old Ruffloyd Tew. She was also joined by 90-year-old Mary Hawkins, 9-year-old Edward Dodge and 6-year-old Pearl Dodge.

As the party passed the home of Grace Jenkins, Mary Tew saw her and raised her cane, motioning for Grace to join them. Grace explained that she was nearly done reading a Bible chapter and wanted to finish it but would catch up with them.

As they reached the road leading to the Thayer cemetery, Pearl and Stella announced they had tired of walking and were going to turn around. The two elderly ladies and the two little boys continued on, passing the cemetery and crossing the brook until they arrived at the path leading to Arkwright. There, they decided to rest.

The four of them sat down atop a stone wall. A noise quickly caught Edward’s attention. “I hear a noise that sounds like the dam gave way,” he announced. Mary Tew laughed. “That’s just the water going over the rocks in the brook,” she said. But she was wrong. “There comes the water,” Edward said.

Seeing the flood coming through the woods, Mary ordered the two boys to climb a tree. She then gripped onto the wall and attempted to shield Mrs. Hawkins but the water carried the women away.

It rushed through the woods, reducing the property of 67-year-old blacksmith Joseph Briggs to nothing but dirt and rocks. It washed out the garden and the orchard and removed his carriage shed and buggy. On the land of 64-year-old widow Susan Bowler, it left hundreds of pounds of rocks and sand.

The tree the boys had climbed was beginning to sway. Ruffloyd jumped into the water and was swept away. Terrified, Edward began to scream for help. He held on until the water rose high enough to grasp him. He reached out for branches as the force of the water continually pulled him under.

Covered in bruises and blood, Edward finally washed up in George Yeaw’s cornfield. He ran into the house yelling that he had gotten out of the flood but that the two women had been carried away. A search party went out which included Mary Tew’s son Elisha.

Before long, Elisha returned carrying the dead body of his son Ruffloyd. He then went back to the scene with his wagon to retrieve the body of his mother. Mary Tew had been washed a quarter of a mile away. She’d suffered two broken arms and a skull fracture. Her body bloodied and battered, nearly all of her clothing had been torn off. After Mrs. Hawkins’ was located, friends arrived to transport her body home.

It was estimated the cost to repair the 45-foot wide break in the dam could reach $10,000. Lawsuits were soon filed.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


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