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Calamity on the Cocheco

February 29 - March 1, 1896

The city has lost three bridges: the Central avenue, $25,000, the lower Washington street  bridge, $6,000, and Whittier, $2000.

Three stores and offices above were torn away from Bracewell block. Fred. H. Foss, stationery, fancy goods, etc., total loss $4,500 to $5,000; Roberts Bros., boots and shoes, $12,000, the Misses Flinn, millinery, $3,000; Drew and Boomer, photographers, $2,000; Wm. Roberts, law library and office fixtures, $1,000. Mayor Nason got all the things out of his office on that floor and Dr. Reilly had previously moved away his dental outfit to go to Haverhill. Foss, Roberts Bros., and the Flinns saved nothing and can get no insurance as policies do not include damage by flood.

From fire the firm of Converse and Hammond will lose $10,000 worth of lumber, lime, etc., and one of their own store houses. All this is covered by insurance, the only loss in being the loss of business.

The Cocheco Mfg. Co. will be set back $100,000 or more as near as can be estimated this afternoon. Their machine shops have been flooded, their engine rooms likewise, a loss of chemicals and dyes in the print works is entailed that cannot be estimated for many days, two of their bridges gone so that no coal car can be carried by rail to the engine rooms, and no steam to be given to the printery until a new steam pipe is put across the Cocheco from No. 1 mill.

The loss by Col. John Bracewell, who owns Bracewell block, is estimated at $20,000: not only the three stores are completely carried away but the other stores are damaged considerably being wrenched out of place.

In this most awful destruction of property there is but one consolation and that is  that nobody was killed by drowning or by any other means, and no one met with serious personal injury.

Thousands of people are spectators of the work of destruction helpless to render assistance.

Yesterday and last night put together makes the most calamitous day that Dover ever knew. The immense rainfall, with the melting snow in the country about, precipitated a deluge upon this city carrying disasters of a fearful sort in its wake. The valley of the Cocheco River was the chief point at which all the waste found its way and very soon its banks overflowed and the current  became so rapid and vicious that nothing could withstand the rushing waters, floating acres on acres of ice in broken fragments of all dimensions.

The rainfalls that caused this began early Saturday morning, Feb. 29, and continued up to midnight, Sunday. Nothing was feared Saturday although  a high river was expected  and prepared for by those along the river banks, but early Sunday morning the water began rapidly to rise and continued to do so until 3 a.m. Monday, when it slowly began to fall. As Saturday night approached the storm increased in fury and kept steadily at it all day Sunday, on which day few ventured out and did not know until late that anything was wrong with the river. At four o'clock 70 inches of water was pouring over the dam, and at its height, from midnight to three o'clock this morning 10ft. of water was continually going over the flush boards. At noon the Bracewell store people found that the water was to the tops of the piers and began to be alarmed especially when they saw that the water was increasing in amount and velocity.

All through the night the rain fell, at times in torrents. It ate away the snow and ice not only from the streets, filling up the gutters to their utmost capacity, but also the snow  from the country along the water shed of the Cocheco which extends to New Durham ridge in one direction and to Bow pond in another direction, all centering here. The little brooks grew to be rivers , and yesterday grew to rushing torrents bound for this one common center. By daylight the river here was a roaring avalanche of ice and water. The rising currents during Saturday night caused alarm aboard the B & M R R here and very early, before daylight, section men were sent out to see if any damage had been done.

The first big washout

The crew that went up the D & W R R on reaching the site  of the old Pike mill found a very serious washout. About 40 feet of the track was gone. They returned quickly as possible, and word was sent out to Rochester stopping the early morning train down from Alton Bay at that point, and an hour later its coming further this way was canceled and the train sent back to Alton Bay for today. The canceling of this train caused the canceling of the early train to Portsmouth yesterday morning, and also the running of a special from Portsmouth to this city and return at noon.

Road washed away

The second big thing heard of was a big washout over on Portland street, just this side of Mr. Caswell's, where Rollins brook went under the road.

Mr. Roberts, one of the milkmen of Rollinsford, who comes here with milk, was on his way, when the water which backed up there, seemed to move, and with it the roadway, the willow trees and everything in that section, and in less time than it takes to tell it the road bed was washed away for fifty feet, and he was forced to go to the Eliot road bridge to get to this city.

Bellamy R.R. bridge

The next report was the ice had piled up about the Bellamy R R bridge, and a crew of men were sent out there to clear it. This was done and the big intervale along the track there was soon after covered with blocks of ice and the roadway all the way under water.

The rising water

All these things were in the morning. Meanwhile the waters of the Cocheco were rising continually and by nine a.m. had reached the highest point known since the dam was built. It was 59 inches over the top of the dam. It kept rising higher and higher, and thousands of persons came out from their homes to see the wonderful sight.   All day the rise continued, until at nine o'clock last evening 108 inches of water was going over the dam.

The ice jam

As the water grew higher it covered the road to Snow's court  and up around Mr. England's house. There was a hurried moving of goods. Up to this time, say three o'clock, the big intervale had been covered with water, while at Whittier's falls the ice coming down damned the river and piled higher and higher until it was fifteen feet. The river got clogged and the water was held back until the ice dam could hold it no longer and down the river it swept in a solid mass. Major Abbott had just left his ice house near Tasker's sand bank, in a boat, and stood where he could to see the grand spectacle.

The B. & M. bridge

As the waters grew higher and higher and threatened the B. & M. R. R.   bridge they decided to weight it down as much as possible, and two long trains of loaded freight cars were stalled on the bridge, where they were allowed to remain all day. To this extra weight is probably due the fact that the bridge remained in position. The water went over the stringers before two o'clock and then rushed through the trestle work unobstructed.


The Boston and Maine R.R. Bridge on the Cocheco River

Central Avenue bridge collapses.  Marshal Fogerty prevents loss of life.

About the bridge and the Bracewell building interest centered. Crowds thronged the west sidewalk during the afternoon all anxious to see such an unusual thing at four o'clock all seemed well. The water was high but the bridge appeared safe.

However City Marshall Fogarty was on hand with Stevens and Young ready for an emergency. Along about 4:30 the bridge began to sink. The ice in immense cakes over a foot thick were dashed against the bridge by the angry torrent and at 4:55 two spans, thirty feet or more wide, went down.


Central Avenue Bridge

Not five minutes before the bridge was filled with people resolved to see in spite of the danger.  Marshall Fogarty, brave and efficient officer that he is, had warned the people and urged them to leave but they scoffed at him. Finally as requests proved no avail, he used force, which not a few resisted until they saw as the bridge fell what an awful death they escaped, and then they realized with redoubled force of the forethought of the brave and efficient City Marshal, and their debt of gratitude if they value their lives cannot be told. As it was two little boys, one the son of Michael I. Hayes, barely escaped going down with the bridge and being drowned in the angry torrent. they were in the middle and as the fall came they scrambled up the incline and were safe. A man or a woman could not have done it. As we have said the crowd was scarcely off when the woodwork went. The water roared louder than ever, the ice pounded with irresistible force, iron girders snapped like twigs, the woodwork groaned, the immense jam of ice passed through forcing up those two spans which fell once it had passed. The news of this first of many disasters spread  through the city and our citizens could not believe it until they came and saw it with their own eyes. The streets and sidewalks were roped off but it was only the watchful officers who could keep the increasing crowds out of danger. The night officers new turned out and with the day men stayed on duty all night under the able management  of Marshal Fogarty  and Assistant Marshal Wilkinson, who has not seen such a night since he was a corporal in hot pursuit of the Indians.

Removing the goods

The work of removing the goods from the Bracewell block was then begun. Some had taken the precaution to get their goods ready during the day for a hasty exit.

Things remained about the same until 7 o'clock when people began to think that the Bracewell block was doomed.

About 7:30 the little story and a half block owned by R. J. Shaw and occupied by a Greek fruit and candy vendor who had a stock worth $300, began to wobble and piece by piece dropped off into the river until it was gone. This gave a passage for the ice which packed in closer and closer and did fatal work on the Bracewell block piers. At exactly eight o'clock the greatest of all the disasters of this night began.

Bracewell block is doomed

No one who reads the best written account  of the calamity can understand the situation. It was intensely dark and from the nearest point of view the outlines of the building were barely visible and for a few seconds one could not realize what all this meant: that the building with all its contents was an irreparable loss to the owners. People ran, some as far as the American house on one side and to the Central Square on the other. And they had some cause, for the wires were live and meant death for those who touched them. Asst. Marshal Wilkinson, always thoughtful for others, stood in the middle of the road guiding others by his powerful voice while over his head were death dealing wires which he escaped by, for a moment, caring for his own welfare. The horror of the scene was heightened by the bits of blue light that were made for parts of a second as one crossed over the other in the descent, and it seemed as though the fire was to be added to the list. But fires and cries of dying human beings was all that was lacking to make the place a perfect hell.

At the Telephone office

The telephone office was the scene of great activity. Miss Sadie Wiley stood at the switch board sending messages and answering calls all the evening, while the night operator stood behind the switch board axe in hand ready to cut the wires that connected it to the cable and save that valuable piece of property should the building be carried away.

When the first crash of the falling building came the axe was applied at the back of the switch board and in a moment it was at the door. Meanwhile, the safe, books and papers had been removed. Dover was then cut off from the rest if the world by telephone for the first time since the telephone was put in here on July 3, 1881, when the assassination of President Garfield was announced as the first message over the wire. The last one was to the Supts.'s office at Lowell that they would not be able to stay there much longer, which was sent out at 8:03.

A blackout

Immediately the electric current was shut off and the city was in total darkness excepting for a lantern here and there which added to the intensity of the sadness that was in the heart of every serious minded person. The lights had been on an hour but did not burn again that night. No further damage has been done at this point since, at least anything appreciable. The fall of the wires left but one communication with the outside world, a Western Union wire over the Boston and Maine.

The Bracewell block

At eight o'clock officer Sterling reported to Marshal Fogerty that the south end of the Bracewell block was settling. This was plainly seen by the electric lights still in circuit.

Hardly had the police began to drive the people back before the crashing of glass was heard, the snapping of timber and then a cloud of plaster  and lime filled the air. That part of the block occupied by Fred H. Foss on the first floor and A. P. Drew on the second had sunk into the gulf, struck the bridge, taking out what there remained of the center section of the bridge and all went over the dam together.

It must be remembered

Not a person who was there can ever forget the sight of the flashes here, there and everywhere, and then to add to the confusion came the crash that could be heard above the calls of the police and everyone else caused by the fall of that part of Bracewell block occupied by Robert Bros. on the first floor and Dr. Reilly and Mayor Nason on the second.

This part of the block went into the water and was swept over the dam with most of the goods and chattels therein.

It was when this occurred that the greatest sight of the night was to be seen. The wires on the electric poles swayed to and fro and then fell into the middle of the street. Lights in circuit, live wire, telephone, fire alarm, telegraph, and Union Street R. R. Wires flashing together seemed to threaten everybody as they shot out from every point. The cry 'look out for the wires" was taken up, the police as if unmindful of their own lives tried to save the crowds of people who were there from getting in contact with the wires and to their underlying zeal is due the fact that not a person was injured.

The mill

Below the Central avenue bridge water filled the machine shops of the company flooding the engine rooms in 2 and 3 necessitating Agent Fish to order all belts removed from the pulleys, and by the way, no man, among all who labored  to save property Sunday night worked harder or more intelligently than Chas. H. Fish. He was out lifting timber, moving machinery, superintending the work of his men and was the last man on the bridge from No. 1 mill to the Printery before it went down. The story that a man went down with this bridge is without foundation, according to the agent. Mr. Fish was on duty all the night and did all in his power to protect his company's property. The coal bridge from the shore to the No. 1 mill was washed away, or at least one span during the early part of the night.

Cocheco's city farm bridge

When the timbers and debris from the Bracewell block reached the bridge used by the Cocheco Mfg. Co. to draw their coal across from the city farm to the No. 1 mill, it backed up against  the easterly end, forming a dam, and in less time than it takes to tell it, that span of bridge slid from the foundations and was swallowed up in the water. It rolled over and over, however, until it reached the lower Washington street bridge, where its iron braces became a net to catch and hold all the wood and drift coming down the river.

Lower Washington Street bridge

When the wood work of the Bracewell block reached the lower Washington street bridge it quickly formed a dam, and in a moment water flowed over the bridge four to six feet deep. But it was only for a few moments, when the great iron structure began to move round, it quickly swung from its entire pier and fell into the river out of sight, the water rolling over it in a great body.

The brave firemen do telling work

In addition to all the wreckage made by water was fire at midnight, Sunday, in Converse and Hammond's lumber yard. Water was the cause of the fire too. 1,500 barrels of lime could not be removed to a dry place before the river had swollen and enveloped them. Then the chemical combination of lime and water started a fire which was discovered by Mr. Spurling. No alarm could be sounded by electricity, as the wires were all down so two short blasts were sounded on the gong at about midnight. The firemen were about all on the street doing guard duty and quickly rallied. Every engine and all the available hydrants were used in fighting one of the fiercest fires for many months.

The building in which the fire started had been built about 5 years ago and was 180x35 feet and was used for storing dried lumber, some of the best that the company had for sale. The yard around the building was flooded waist deep and the firemen soon found that they could neither handle themselves nor the hose in so much water. The only thing that could be done was save the adjacent buildings. In spite of careful work at the old Trickey stable, containing about $2,000 of new and old machinery belonging to the Cocheco Mfg. Co. was destroyed but the office, stable and other store houses of Converse & Hammond were saved. The Wesley buildings became overheated many times and required much attention.

The only accident to any one during the day happened to Newell H. Young. He was on a ladder from which a hasty retreat from dense smoke was being made when he got caught in the hose and fell some little distance bruising himself badly.

Some of the damage

The sight from the mill yard bridge just below the dam, was magnificent, as witnessed by the writer while standing there about 5:30 o'clock Sunday evening. The water was up to nearly the bottom of the lower board railing that is on the top of the stone wall on the north side above the dam, and must have been about 8ft. deep on top  of the dam. The column of water was so great that it ran almost smoothly over the falls in one vast sheet; the ledge beneath it could only manifest itself when huge cakes of ice came over the dam and plunged into the gulf below. Ice, timber and debris of every sort came constantly over the dam.

The lower Washington St. bridge was swept away at 10:30 after the bridge above it had washed down the river. It is doubtful if this bridge will be rebuilt; certainly not at present.

Nine carloads of lumber of one kind and another belonging to Converse and Hammond floated away from the upper and glue house wharfs, and the rest that had been removed to a place secure from the rushing waters was burned. The company is fairly well supplied, having $25,000 worth of all kinds in its other storehouses.

The mills have not been running since the crisis. Mills 2 and 3 will start as soon as the water subsides and the belts which where taken off for preservation can be replaced. The belts at Sawyers had to be taken off likewise and they shutdown while repairs are being made; the operatives are having a holiday. The damage cannot be estimated exactly. Suspension of business is one of the worst features of the disaster.


The following accounts were taken from  the Dover Enquirer in the weeks following the deluge.

Dover the heaviest loser in this section.  No more definite estimation of losses.

People now draw their breath and wonder what next. So much destruction has taken place since Sunday noon that it is difficult to fully comprehend the situation even yet. But the crisis has passed and according to reports Dover has had the worst of this flood. The injured men or corporations who are so fortunate as to be able to resume business at their old stands or elsewhere are doing so and the exact state of things is being determined.

Things are about the same today as yesterday.  The river however, has gone down rapidly, and is now not more than two feet above its normal height. No more destruction within the city's limit is reported. The county farm bridge is safe, the Wentworth and Watson bridges are moved out of place a little; Whitchers' Falls bridge is gone but the abutments are all right. The ice still holds together above Fourth street and this old bridge, weak as it was supposed to be, still holds it own although its piles are cut off. Even if this were to give way no further damage would ensue.

A few cakes of ice that have covered Fourth street west of the bridge, were moved today to make way for the teams.

Below Fourth street the river is clear of ice. The B & M bridge is still loaded with cars but is not used as the washout at Diamond bridge near Newmarket prevents passage. Trains still go and come by way of Portsmouth.

Residents along the river have inspected their property are making repairs preparatory to moving back. Bracewell block presents the same dilapidated appearance but any change except at the hand of man seems improbable.

The Caverly block on the south bank containing the store of J.H. Winslow has no cellar with its front resting on the sidewalk and the back of the rear wall.

Col. John Bracewell was here today looking over the ruins and without doubt will rebuild.

J.T.W. Ham has not moved back yet.

A.W. Hayes has his goods up over Dearborn's store; he is not aware that he has lost anything.

O.F. Kimball has opened his store on Third street in Freeman's block next to the Boston Branch.

Roberts Bro. have not decided whether they will begin business in Dover or not.

A.P. Drew & Co. have opened rooms in the north end of the block.

The lower Washington Street Bridge is far beyond repair and will probably not be rebuilt. Access will be gained to the city farm by way of Payne street.

People who live along the river from here to Portsmouth are reaping a harvest of wreckage. Everything from a log to a lead pencil and from  fine bonnets to brogans, are being picked up and as wreckage, those who find it can keep it if they choose.

The mills are still closed although attempts will be made to start parts of them tomorrow. No further damages reported at Sawyers. The Bellamy river bridges are all safe.

A boom has been constructed at the Fourth street bridge to keep back the ice which is beginning to break up.

Whittier's Falls bridge may yet be saved.  Part of the Lower Washington Street bridge dangerous to navigation

One week ago yesterday the heavy rains played havoc along the Cocheco river. The wreckage has not yet been removed nor things put as they were before the flood swept things in some areas out of existence.

A week works many changes and from Sunday morning of last week to yesterday morning, was no exception to the rule.

To go carefully over the field your reporter was taken by George A. Webster yesterday along the river on a general tour of inspection.

The road from Thomas Currier's out to Sixth street across to the Tolend road, has been fenced up at the hill on one side, and not far from the mill on the other.

Where the Whittier's falls bridge was, it is found that the cobble stone abutment furnishing support for the west end of the bridge was responsible for the washing away. Water got in round the stones that were not evenly cemented and washed enough away to let that end of the bridge fall into the river. And then the rush of water carried it down over the falls, where it anchored.

It is stated the bridge would undoubtedly be standing today if the city government of last year completed the job it had undertaken in repairing this abutment. It was wrecked by last year's spring freshet. The material for repair had been hauled there, but the work was put off and passed as a legacy to the present city government.

An inspection of the wreck shows that it is not much injured. It can be raised, taken back to its old site and, by the time a proper foundation can be built the bridge would be ready to put in place. The west end pieces of the truss will have to be replaced with new, which is about all that will have to be done to put it in good condition. This should be done as soon as possible, so as to give the public passage across the river at that place.

The trees this side of the falls show the height of the water last Sunday. From ten to fourteen feet above the present level of the water the bark was hammered from a big elm that withstood the force of the water. Apple trees on the point high above the present level of the river did not fare so well, for they are not only stripped of their bark but in some places torn to shreds.

Big cakes of ice, 16 inches thick, and big plots of frozen earth, ten to fourteen inches thick, and from five to eight feet square have been left upon that point, showing that it has been brought up from some point further up the river.

A relic in shape of an elm tree was found caught and tangled round an old tree. It was thirty feet long and had been cleaned of all its earth.

The low land opposite is covered with blocks of ice.

The side of Horn's hill, in what was formerly the Parker pasture, enormous pieces of ice are piled up, which were left there a week ago, and there is some driftwood among it.

But the sight that astonished everyone, who did not see the flood at its height a week ago yesterday, is the intervale above Fourth street, the land owned by Messrs. Legg and Tasker.

From the Fourth street bridge to Abbot's ice house, at Taskers hill, and from the river to Lucien Legg's house the land is piled with debris two, three, four and sometimes five feet in thickness while monstrous blocks are set edgewise or tipped up so one could easily go under them.

There is ice enough laid out on those two fields to furnish every family in this city all they would need. A few have been hauling from there the past week, and some farmers have secured a supply.

The sight presented by this field of ice is worth going miles to see. As long as the cold weather lasts it will remain just where it is, and those who wish should take advantage of the view.

The city workmen have cleared things up along Fourth street from Snow's court to Dearborn's and made a path through the ice blocks so a team can pass, but it is not wide enough for two teams. At one side of the road the ice is four feet high.

The ice coming down the river broke off ten of the piles that held up the bridge. This causes the structure to sag and it will not be safe for teams until these ten piles are put in place under the bridge.

While there is a possibility of repairing the structure so that it will be safe there is a feeling that the money would be better applied in putting a better bridge in that locality.

Fourth street bridge has been fenced off from team travel but is open to pedestrians.

Instead of repairing, it is suggested that a stone and brick arch would give a free flow for the water and then there would no danger of its going out in another event of high water. There is no better place to build such a bridge than at this point.

The low lands about Abbott's ice house at the lower end of Snow's court is covered with big blocks of ice showing the reach and height of the water.

Repairs on the B&M RR Western Division iron bridge are to be made at once. Several of the uprights on the north side were broken or twisted so as to necessitate putting in new ones. Meanwhile, they are only using the south side of the bridge for trains.

At the corner of Green and Waldron streets, several changes were made, most of them for good. The buildings that were washed away will not be missed. The Postal Union and Telephone companies line of poles along the river that were broken down by the ice has been replaced.

The bank of the river back of the Cocheco Mfg. Co houses of First street still shows a great deal of ice.

The back of  C.H. Trickey & Co.'s office which had a hole knocked into it nine feet above the present water level is still unrepaired. The firm is doing business in the treasurer's office of the Court House.

The cellars of the Bracewell block which were stove in have not yet been repaired. The ruined walls that were hanging out over the river last Monday over the floors of the store where Miss Flynn was, and the offices overhead have been removed. The prospect is that the end of the building as it now is will be boarded in and made safe for people to go up the stairs at the end of the offices.

The work of putting a footbridge over the gap made in the Central Avenue bridge was begun Thursday morning and was completed Saturday night. People were given a chance to cross it by five o'clock which is considered by carpenters a very quick job.

As the water was very low on Saturday afternoon an examination of the dam showed many big seams in the top courses of stone.

Back at No. 2 Cocheco mill they have run a big eight inch water pipe to the other side of the river. It is to be used in furnishing water to the boilers at No.1 Cocheco mill. This pipe is to be laid in another bridge to hold it up. It is probable that the bridge will be above where the old one stood.

From the Cocheco Print Works to the point back of No. 1 mill, a big pipe has been put in place to be used for furnishing steam for the works. The bridge there is to be rebuilt but it will be considerably higher than the old one. There will be no center pier to the structure.

One half of the bridge from the No. 1 mill to the city farm which was used to draw coal over from the companies' sheds went away and lodged about the foundation of the lower Washington street bridge. The center pier is alright and the bridge will be rebuilt at once. It is understood that the contract for doing this work for the Cocheco Mfg. Co. has been let to the Boston Bridge company.

Meanwhile the Cocheco company has to depend on teaming for their coal supply. The teams  take it from the shed up round the soap house, through Payne street and Washington street to the three boiler house on the landing.

A part of the lower Washington street bridge is there yet, but the greater portion is a quarter mile below the glue works in the middle of the channel. There it is in the way of vessels coming up the river. There's a new vessel with lumber for Converse & Hammond waiting to come up. It could be removed as soon as it is convenient.

Capt. Drew who is to have charge of the tug H.A. Mathes on the river, was seen and said that with one of the Piscataqua Navigation Companies hoisting barges he could take out the bridge form its present place and bring it up the river without much trouble.

The little steamer owned by John Dame, that was blocked up below the Cocheco Mfg., Co.'s coal sheds is tipped bottom up and greatly damaged.

All along the banks of the lower river were seen men and boys hunting for relics of the flood. Many odd things have been picked up.

A drive to Eliot found the east half of the draw and about three hundred feet of the Maine side of the bridge was swept away. The piling was in the most cases tipped over, which let the bridge slide off into the water. It was carried down stream perhaps a third of a mile and left upon the flats.

Every day has come stories of what has been found at this point or that down river, but the queerest of all is one from Newcastle that they had found one of the hammered rocks with a hole through it, being a part of the piers of the Bracewell building.

The rock weighing about seven hundred pounds, has been taken to a man's front yard there and will be kept as a relic.

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