American Phoenix: The Remarkable Story of William Skinner, A Man Who Turned Disaster Into Destiny [NOOK Book]

Overview

The incredible story of nineteenth-century millionaire William Skinner, a leading founder of the American silk industry, who lost everything in a devastating flood—and his improbable, inspiring comeback to the pinnacle of the business world.

In 1845 a young, penniless William Skinner sailed in steerage class on a boat that took him from the slums of London to the United States. Endowed with rare knowledge in the art of dyeing and an uncanny ...
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American Phoenix: The Remarkable Story of William Skinner, A Man Who Turned Disaster Into Destiny

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Overview

The incredible story of nineteenth-century millionaire William Skinner, a leading founder of the American silk industry, who lost everything in a devastating flood—and his improbable, inspiring comeback to the pinnacle of the business world.

In 1845 a young, penniless William Skinner sailed in steerage class on a boat that took him from the slums of London to the United States. Endowed with rare knowledge in the art of dyeing and an uncanny business sense, he acquired work in a fledgling silk mill in Massachusetts, quickly rising to prominence in the nation’s new luxury industry. Soon he opened his own factory and began turning out one of the bestselling silk brands in the country. Skinner was lauded as a pioneer in the textile industry and a manufacturer who knew no such word as fail. His business grew to sustain a bustling community filled with men, women, and children, living and working in the mill village of “Skinner-ville,” producing the country’s most glamorous, fashionable thread.

Then, in 1874, disaster struck. Hundreds of millions of gallons of water burst through a nearby dam, destroying everything in its path, including Skinnerville. Within fifteen minutes, Skinner’s entire life’s work was swept away, and he found himself one of the central figures in the worst industrial disaster the nation had yet known.

In this gripping narrative history, Skinner’s great-great-granddaughter, Sarah S. Kilborne, tells an inspiring, unforgettable American story—of a town devastated by unimaginable catastrophe; an industry that had no reason to succeed except for the perseverance of a few intrepid entrepreneurs; and a man who had nothing—and everything—to lose as he struggled—and succeeded— to rebuild his life for a second time. American Phoenix offers a new twist on the American dream, reminding us that just when we thought the dream was over, it may have only just begun.
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  • American Phoenix
    American Phoenix  

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Alluring fabrics, a deadly flood, and rags-to-riches drama should beget a thrilling story. Instead, Kilborne's scattershot approach and overuse of surmise make for a drab bio of her great-great-grandfather William Skinner (1824–1902). Raised in poverty in London but skilled in silk dyeing and manufacture, Skinner built a fortune as a Massachusetts mill owner. In 1874, his mill and the village named for him were destroyed by the bursting of a dam of which he was part owner. Unlike other flood-zone manufacturers, Skinner abandoned the valley, fired his workers, disbursed relief funds inequitably (his brother got almost three times his due), and parlayed his reputation into a sweetheart deal with the Holyoke Water Tower Company, ultimately amassing even greater wealth. Kilborne, co-author of a children's book (Leaving Vietnam), excuses her ancestor's faults, saying, "When pressured, instinctively became more creative, whatever the cost to others." Without detailing the era's other industrial transformations, Kilborne leaves readers wondering how much of Skinner's path to plutocracy was paved by changes in American manufacturing and what, besides his shrewdness and tenacity, there is to admire in him. Illus. Agent: Rob McQuilkin. Lippincott, Massie, and McQuilkin. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
“In American Phoenix, Kilborne weaves a compelling, richly textured tale of a tragic flood, an indomitable man, and the perils and promise of silk. She has a gift for unearthing the poignant, long-forgotten details that breathe life into history.” — Amy Butler Greenfield, author of A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire

"Many business histories are also family stories, and Sarah Kilborne tells hers with with beautiful prose, meticulous research and the revelations that only personal archives can provide. In a book with special relevance for our own times, Kilborne gives us an American ideal in short supply these days: the self-made man who gets knocked down, only to climb back up again — stronger than ever. Going well beyond the constraints of any business case study, Kilborne works through what can only have been daunting accretions of history to show, with breathtaking clarity, the mechanics of American industrial success." — Jacob Soll, Professor of History, USC, MacArthur "Genius" Grant Recipient, and author of The Information Master

"A compelling, comprehensive biography of a man who contributed much to American manufacturing—perfect for readers who like to root for the underdog." —Kirkus Reviews

"Kilborne’s biography of her great-great-grandfather tells a story of entrepreneurial struggle triumphing over seemingly insurmountable obstacles, a familiar trope in American culture. " —Library Journal

author of A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire - Amy Butler Greenfield
“In American Phoenix, Kilborne weaves a compelling, richly textured tale of a tragic flood, an indomitable man, and the perils and promise of silk. She has a gift for unearthing the poignant, long-forgotten details that breathe life into history.”
Professor of History, USC, recipient of a MacArthur "genius grant," and author of The Informa - Jacob Soll
"Many business histories are also family stories, and Sarah Kilborne tells hers with with beautiful prose, meticulous research and the revelations that only personal archives can provide. In a book with special relevance for our own times, Kilborne gives us an American ideal in short supply these days: the self-made man who gets knocked down, only to climb back up again — stronger than ever. Going well beyond the constraints of any business case study, Kilborne works through what can only have been daunting accretions of history to show, with breathtaking clarity, the mechanics of American industrial success."
Kirkus Reviews
Biography of William Skinner, "a leading founder of the American silk industry," from Skinner's great-great-granddaughter. In her first book for adults, Kilborne (Leaving Vietnam, 1999, etc.) spends particular time on an event that could have destroyed Skinner's company. Just as he was in the midst of expanding his successful business in Skinnerville, a flood wiped out the entire village. He lost his mill, his home and his money, but managed to come back even stronger, building a better mill and expanding his business more than would have been possible without the flood. Kilborne describes Skinner's young life and move to America from England in enough detail to give a sense of his character and invest readers in his fate. As the day of the flood approached, Skinner was excited about the future of not just his company, but of the American silk industry as a whole. Kilborne revels in the weeks immediately following the devastating flood, explaining the plights of Skinner and his community. She paints a vivid picture of the seemingly insurmountable hurdles, though she does dwell on these points longer than necessary. Kilborne keeps Skinner's final decision tantalizingly out of reach, giving readers an accurate sense of the anxiety, confusion and overwhelming curiosity his fellow villagers must have felt while they waited to learn whether he would rebuild again, and where. This knack for making readers feel as though they are contemporaries of the Skinner family will keep the pages turning through the slower sections. A compelling, comprehensive biography of a man who contributed much to American manufacturing--perfect for readers who like to root for the underdog.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451671810
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 10/16/2012
  • Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 742,614
  • File size: 16 MB
  • Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet the Author

Sarah S. Kilborne is a writer, historian, musician, and editor. She holds a degree in philosophy from Yale University and has been a research fellow at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center at Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of two acclaimed books for children, Peach & Blue and Leaving Vietnam: The True Story of Tuan Ngo. She lives along the Hudson River in upstate New York.
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Read an Excerpt


Chapter Two

The rain began before daybreak, not much at first, but enough to render it a damp and cheerless morning by the time the first bell rang at the mill, at half past five. This bell served as the workers’ alarm clock, alerting everyone at the boardinghouses that it was time to rise. Ellen Littlefield, who had boarded in Skinnerville for nearly seven years, was well used to the routine. A “packer” at Skinner’s mill, she worked on the ground floor of the office building in a room filled with drawers of finished silk and stacks of boxes for shipping. Of the five or so packers employed at this time, Ellen was arguably the most experienced, given her longevity in Skinner’s employ, and easily claimed respect as an old hand.

She was also, truth be told, fairly old to be working in the mill, having just celebrated her thirty-second birthday on May 8. Chances are, she marked the occasion with her closest friend at the mill, Aurelia Damon, who worked upstairs in the finishing room. At thirty-six Aurelia was Skinner’s oldest female employee and his only female employee to own a home. By 1872, after more than twelve years of working at the mill, Aurelia had earned enough money to build a “very pretty cottage” on the opposite side of the river. Ellen was a frequent visitor at this house, where she and Aurelia could feel comparatively youthful in the company of Aurelia’s infirm mother.

Most of the women that Skinner employed were in their late teens or early twenties. Many had come “seeking employment before marriage,” drawn to the independence that millwork afforded as well as the opportunity to put some money in their calico pockets (for dowries, clothing, and even, on occasion, education). Only a handful worked at the mill for more than a few years; rarely did any linger past thirty, a dangerous age for a woman still to be single. But Ellen doesn’t seem to have worried much about this, enjoying harmless flirtations with the likes of Tom Forsyth, that funny, handsome Englishman who worked in the winding room in the main part of the mill, or Nash Hubbard, “the widower,” who was hired within the past year as Skinner’s new bookkeeper.

As rain splattered on the windowsill, Ellen roused herself from the warmth of her bed, throwing off her heavy comforter and placing her bare feet on her large handmade rug. At this point in her career she’d graduated to having her own room—a rarity in boardinghouse life—and decorated it to her taste. Arranged here and there were books, magazines, and newspapers (she had a number of subscriptions), as well as her collection of photographs. Her melodeon, which she had been playing for about five years now, rested somewhere nearby, perhaps against the chair in which she practiced. And in one corner was a black walnut table made especially for custom sewing, of which Ellen did a great deal. Paper, ink, and letters lay about the room, awaiting Sunday, her day for correspondence. And curtains (made by her) hung in the windows, filtering the light on this cold, gray morning.

Gone were the days of sharing a bed with another boarder, in a room sleeping four or more. That was now the fate of the younger girls, most of whom boarded in the main house next door. The silk mill’s two boardinghouses, which looked like regular old farmhouses, were managed by a well-known local, Fred Hillman, and filled with about two dozen operatives at this time. That number was going to swell once Mr. Skinner began hiring again. No one knew just when that would be, of course, as Mr. S. had put off his plans temporarily “on account of the dull state of the market.” Even so, like the height of the river itself, such arrangements could change at any moment.

The Mill River was a modest waterway that originated in the mountains to the north and meandered rather pleasantly through Skinnerville. Unlike the mighty Connecticut, which flowed through three states, or the Merrimack, stretching from New Hampshire to Massachusetts, the Mill River was all of three towns long and forty feet wide. Still it made locals proud. “Seldom is there a river like our little Mill river,” the Northampton Free Press had written just a few days earlier, “that has the power to propel so many water-wheels that drive so much silk, cotton and woolen machinery, so many saws and lathes for iron, brass, wood and ivory buttons, flour and corn mills, and also saw mills and other things.” Indeed no fewer than sixty-four mills lined the river along its fourteen-mile run from the town of Williamsburg down through the town of Northampton.

Skinnerville, located within the township of Williamsburg, had been established in one of the river’s more advantageous bends. Although the northern reaches of the valley were rugged, rocky, and hilly, the land opened up at this point into a lovely little plain. Nearly all the houses in the village, most of them built within the past fifteen years, were alongside the road and the river. It was a pretty road, shaded by elms, sycamores, and maples, and in back of most of the houses were gardens and fields divided by stone walls. Because it was so close to the river, though, the village flooded easily, particularly in the spring when freshets, or flash floods, most commonly occurred.

In February 1873 Ellen had received a letter from one of her sisters, asking, “Have you any fear that there may be a freshet there this spring? Mother said yesterday that the water would be apt to be high through those valies [sic] if it kept on raining.” When springtime rains poured down, melting winter’s snow and ice, the volume of the area’s rivers naturally increased. Mill River became a considerable force, swollen and powerful, which was good for business since all that waterpower meant uninterrupted production at the valley’s factories. But the river’s swell could also rage out of control, back up behind ice jams, take out the wooden milldams, and otherwise cause a great deal of damage. To help ward against freshets and store some of that waterpower for later in the year, the manufacturers in Mill River Valley had built no fewer than four reservoirs, three up the west branch of the river and one up the east branch. These reservoirs were instrumental in controlling and regulating the area’s natural watershed.

The reservoir on the east branch had never gained the trust of many townsfolk. Known as the Williamsburg Reservoir, it covered over a hundred acres, was a mile long, and contained about 600 million gallons of water. Almost from the start its dam had leaked, but supporters pointed out that the dam had been made with tamped earth and the rivulets of water flowing through it were entirely characteristic of earthen dams. A co-owner of all four reservoirs, Skinner drew on this one as a source of humor. Someone had asked him a few months back, “What do you have for excitement up here nowadays?” “Well,” Skinner replied, “we occasionally have a freshet, then there is a general alarm that the reservoir has broken loose.”

At ten minutes to six the second bell pealed through the early-morning air, just twenty minutes after the first. Ready or not, breakfast was being served in the dining halls, and the Hillmans’ twenty or so boarders, Ellen included, rushed for the stairs, fussing with their clothes and greeting one another with groggy hellos. Then just half an hour later, the third morning bell rang. It was 6:20, ten minutes before anyone who worked in the silk mill, whether living in the boardinghouses or elsewhere, was to be at his or her respective post. Pushing back from the table, Ellen darted upstairs with the rest, donned her cloak and hat, and grabbed her umbrella and rubbers for good measure. In bad weather almost everyone wore rubbers over their everyday boots. Ellen had never seen any others like hers; they were “wired so the backs stood up about the ankle and one could just step into them.” Though perhaps not the most comfortable, they were easy to slip on in a rush before heading outdoors.

The road through Skinnerville, sleepy just minutes before, was suddenly alive with men, women, and children hurrying through the rain and coming in from all directions but heading toward the same: Skinner’s silk mill. The Cahill twins were coming down from the north, the Bartlett siblings from the south, the McGrath girls from the east. Close to sixty adult workers reported for work this morning, some forty women and twenty men, in addition to at least a dozen children and adolescents. Children were an integral part of the factory system in nineteenth-century America, composing their own class of workers within most industrial communities. Manufacturers benefited from their cheap labor, and families benefited from the extra income. The most progressive state in the union regarding child labor, Massachusetts had only two statutes for children under the age of fifteen: they couldn’t work more than ten-hour days, and they had to receive three months of schooling a year. A decade earlier Skinner had pushed for the town to build him a school; it was, conveniently, two doors down from the mill.

In silk mills, however, unlike cotton mills, children weren’t employed simply to run errands back and forth between departments or to replace full bobbins with empty ones on the spinning frames. Children stood before their own machines, finessing raw silk thread through tiny glass eyes and helping the brittle strands wind evenly, back and forth, on spool after spool. This was the very first stage in production at a silk mill, and it was generally considered ideal work for children, given their keen eyesight and nimble fingers. When discussing how John Ryle, mayor of Paterson, New Jersey, and one of the most eminent silk manufacturers in the country, began work at age five in a silk mill in England—an age too young even for most Americans—the trade journal Manufacturer and Builder was quick to explain, “The first process of silk manufacture is so light and delicate that it is adapted to the employment of very young children.”

Several local families were represented among Skinner’s operatives, with sisters and brothers growing up alongside one another in the mill. Henry Bartlett, for instance, who at twenty-five was a superintendent, had been in Skinner’s employ since he was six. He followed in the footsteps of two older sisters and one older brother and in turn led the way for two more siblings. Of the twelve living Bartlett children, half had worked at Skinner’s mill for a stretch of time, and four of them were still on the payroll.

Siblings were no less common among the boarders. Amid the throng of young women filing out of the boardinghouses this morning and emptying into the puddled street were five sets of sisters. In fact most of the boarders, Ellen included, had found work at the mill through a sibling. When Ellen arrived in Skinnerville for the first time, back in October 1867, two of her sisters were there to greet her, one older (Frances) and one younger (Lovisa). Neither was there any longer, each having moved on to another chapter in her life, but both Frances and Lovisa still had many friends in Skinnerville. Tom Forsyth had even named a dahlia after Frances, and Fred Hillman had made a special trip out of state to attend Lovisa’s wedding. A feeling akin to family grew among many who worked in the mill, so closely did they live and work together.

Though many of the boarders were from nearby towns, a few, like the Littlefields, who were from upstate New York, had come from places much farther away. The Kendall sisters were from Bethel, Vermont, almost 130 miles to the north. At a time when the fastest mode of transportation was a train traveling thirty-five miles per hour and most people traveled by horse and buggy (at an average of seven miles per hour), 130 miles was a tremendous distance to cover. Exactly what inspired the Kendalls to make the long trek to Skinnerville is hard to say, when there were certainly mill villages closer to home. But opportunity, in some form or another, brought them to Skinner’s door.

• • •

Over at the mill Nash Hubbard stationed himself at a desk inside the main entrance and greeted each person who came in, noting his or her attendance. Umbrellas and raincoats dripped past him on the wooden floor as adults and children made wet trails toward their various departments. The foremen had already turned on the lamps, started up the machines, and begun feeding the furnace in the boiler house. Smoke was beginning to billow from the chimney, the turbine was beginning to churn in the wheelhouse, and the factory’s countless belts, pulleys, and shafts were beginning to whip and spin into action. In a matter of minutes everyone was seated or standing at a station, and by the time the clock struck 6:30 a.m. Skinner’s silk mill had started up for another day.

Those in the sorting room began picking through golden yellow raw silk from China, unfastening the large bales in which it had been shipped, removing the bundles of skeins, and then sorting the silk according to its fineness. Others were taking silk that had been sorted the day before, divvying it up into cotton bags, and lowering the bags into great boilers, softening the gummy silk to prepare it for winding. Over in their department the winders began winding the softened silk onto spools, while some of their neighbors were taking the spools just finished, fastening them onto cleaning machines, and running the silk through metal teeth to strip away any unevenness. From here the silk passed to the doublers, the spinners, and the twisters, who, on large spindled machines, doubled up strands of silk, spun them several times per inch, and twisted them tightly, sometimes in reverse, to create the strong, tensile thread that would bind men’s suits and ladies’ shoes. Then, finishing up this stage of the production, the reelers were prepping the thread for the dyehouse, taking it off the machine-specific spools and winding it back into skeins, or loose coils of silk.

Tom Skinner, chief dyer for his older brother, was starting his day as he would any other: washing out the tubs in the dyehouse to clean the pipes of any dirt that might have settled in them overnight. Dirt, after all, could ruin an entire batch of silk in the dyeing process, leaving it spotted and spoiled. At the other end of the mill complex, in the office building, the skeiners were beginning their day by taking some already dyed skeins, dividing them up according to custom orders, and arranging them into neat and orderly bundles. Traditionally all silk thread had been sold in skeins, but a manufacturer named Heminway in Connecticut had advanced the idea some time back of selling silk on wooden spools. This likely came about after the invention of the sewing machine, and spooled silk was now in great demand. Consequently, in a separate room, Skinner’s spoolers were reaching for hanks of dyed silk and transferring them back onto spools. This was a job that took considerable care because these were the actual spools (presumably stamped with the Unquomonk label) that would go to market. Spoolers had one of the few mechanical jobs that didn’t require them to be standing at a large spindled machine. Instead they sat six to a table, their feet working the pedals of their tabletop machines, as they wound the lustrous colored thread in even rows, back and forth, around and around the wooden bobbins. Finally, Ellen and the girls in the packing room were taking all that finished silk—skeined and spooled—wrapping it in paper, and carefully preparing it for transport.

By 6:45 the mill was buzzing with activity. Skinner had recently purchased a large supply of raw silk—one of the largest orders he’d ever made—so no one was idle at his or her post. In every corner of the mill women were sorting, cleaning, twisting, and reeling and talking to their neighbors all the while, discussing the depot’s being cold as a barn or the need for better blankets at the boardinghouse or the likely winners at the next county fair. Some of the workers may have started wondering about the funeral for Lieutenant Governor Joel Hayden, which was slated for the next day, and someone else may have called out that black bunting had already been draped at the church down in Haydenville. The mechanics meanwhile were already getting grease on their overalls, and the foremen were shouting over the racket in order to keep things running smoothly.

Up at the mansion, Skinner was tardily throwing off his sheets and getting out of bed. Though he aspired to get up with the second bell, at 5:50, he frequently overslept, a bad habit of his, and he seems to have turned over a few more times on this particular morning on account of his late return the evening before. Since Lizzie slept upstairs in a separate room with the baby, he had the master bedroom on the ground floor all to himself. After setting a fire in his fireplace, he likely stepped into his adjoining bath to wash and shave, taking the razor to his upper lip, which he always kept clean, and then, with a pair of fine scissors, trimming his dark beard. As for his thick hair, grayer than black these days, he kept it short, with a side part, neatly combed. Noting the steady rain this morning, he may have nodded with approval; rain was always good for a man who owned a mill along a river. It meant more waterpower. In time he put on a crisp white shirt, dark pants, suspenders, and waistcoat, left his overcoat for after breakfast, and slipped on socks and boots. Then, with a turn of the doorknob, he greeted the day.

• • •

About an hour later, as the clock approached eight, a dairy farmer named Collins Graves drove quickly into the village, cans of milk at his feet in his one-horse buggy. Decidedly off course from his morning delivery a mile to the north, he was hell-bent for the silk mill. When he saw his brother-in-law Willie Rhoades, next to Tom Skinner near the dyehouse door, he blurted out that the reservoir had given way—not bothering to specify which reservoir—and as alarming as this news ought to have been, it was so out of the blue as not to be believed. “Was this some kind of a joke?” the dyers wondered.

Unfortunately Graves didn’t slow down to explain his bizarre exclamation but quickly moved on to Nash Hubbard, then coming out of Skinner’s office, and exclaimed every bit as suddenly, “The reservoir has given way and is right here. All you can do is to get out of the way!” But there was no reservoir right there. A quick glance upriver confirmed nothing of the sort. One simply saw the highway, rather empty at this hour, with the same trees lining it to the north, the same depot up the road, the same farmhouses nearby—everything indicating a normal morning.

In the packing room, Ellen’s eye caught some movement by the window, and she looked up from her station to see Graves driving away in his buggy. But “he didn’t drive any faster than usual as he started down the slight grade” to the south, so Ellen didn’t think much of it. Then a voice behind her said, “The dam’s broken.” She jumped and turned around, seeing “there against the door casing leaned Fred Hillman with his legs crossed, grinning.” He must have gotten a good laugh out of that one, she thought, paying him no mind and returning to her work.

A few minutes later, an orphan named Delia Stearns looked out the window and saw in the distance a voluminous mass that seemed to take up the horizon, its black depth thundering down the valley. “With great presence of mind” she “rushed to the alarm bell and rang it.” In an instant the mill’s bell was pealing through the air, surprising everyone, and “all the machinery stopped” as the unbelievable news began to spread from floor to floor.

Ellen had once made a plan with one of her friends to tie their favorite belongings to a tree if the dam ever broke, but she made no rush to do that now. There was no time. Besides, the plan was never a serious one; it was just talk. Ellen and her friend discussed it in the same way one considers what to save in the event of fire and how best to save it without possibly being able to know how dire the circumstances might be. And so, instead of following any set course, Ellen simply ran outside with her fellow packers to see what was actually happening.

Down the street, Skinner had just begun breakfast with his family in the dining room when he heard the sharp clang of the factory bell. The sound electrified him. His first thought was fire. He leaped up and darted outside, whereupon he saw Collins Graves driving by in his buggy. Graves shouted to him something about the reservoir, and Skinner, already rushing toward the mill, saw two things at once: an ominous darkness overwhelming the land to the north and, up the street, his operatives pouring out of the mill, many of them apparently confused and insufficiently convinced of the immediate danger. Ellen, for instance, had clearly understood that “something was wrong” when the machinery stopped, and in the street she “heard a terrific rumbling and saw a dark mass up the valley.” But then, standing square in the path of a potentially deadly flood, she ran back into the mill for her coat and rubbers.

Others, taking in the sight to the north, were simply stupefied. Everything looked black. Indeed the sky above Williamsburg, a mile away, seemed filled with smoke as if from a fire. “They’re all burning out up there,” remarked one villager to another, having no idea what was happening. In fact a flood will often cause a fire, upsetting flammable objects that then ignite walls and buildings. But this was no ordinary flood. The water was twenty feet high, with spray soaring to forty feet in places. Any flame that dared crawl up a wick would have been quickly doused by the inland tide. That wasn’t smoke in the sky above Williamsburg but the reservoir itself, crashing through the village with such force that its dark water was shooting up to the heavens.

“To the hills!” Skinner shouted as he raced down the street, waving his arms. “To the hills!”

The sight of their boss, still in his shirtsleeves, running down from his house in the rain and yelling at them at the top of his lungs, startled many a tepid foot to action. Skinner was a big, tall man, with a temper quick and fast. He always meant business. But never had he looked so wild. Soon nearly everyone was running across the street and up onto the railroad embankment, splashing through puddles and threading their way between houses. Some of the girls ran past Jerome Hillman’s house, where his invalid wife, Sarah, stood in the doorway wondering what in the world was going on.

Back at the mill, in another doorway, dyer John Ellsworth was stuck, trying to save a bundle of silk that was too large to fit through the door. Spotting him struggling, Skinner “commanded him to drop the silk and run!”—surely the first time in his life Ellsworth had ever heard Skinner order anyone to drop silk and leave it. Silk was like gold. You didn’t just leave it; you saved as much of it as you could. Elsewhere in the mill, possibly in the packing room, Hubbard had apparently already asked “one of the young men to put the boxes [of silk] on the higher shelves.” This was protocol. In 1869, when the mill was being flooded by an autumn freshet—to the point where a section of the foundation was possibly giving way—“men & boys were running from one part [of the mill] to another wading through water up to their waists . . . moving silk & whatever water would damage.” Ellen had witnessed the men loading as much silk as they could into a wagon and hauling it up to Skinner’s barn. But there was no time for that now.

Within seconds the torrent was upon the residence of Lester Carr, a local carriage painter, who lived about a quarter mile above the silk mill. By chance Carr “happened to look out his door,” whereupon he saw the monstrous wave and “the air full of sticks and boards.” Having already swept away half the village of Williamsburg, the reservoir was a deadly cocktail of water, earth, wood, stone, and animal and human matter. It didn’t look like water. It didn’t look like anything Carr had ever seen. And its momentum created such a volume of air and spray that, well in advance of the headwater, his property was shrouded in a foul mist. He shouted to his family and they managed to escape, gaining a hill behind their house before the water could reach them.

Just below Carr’s house, where the land curved slightly, debris in the roiling flood became jammed against some large trees, blessedly forming a momentary dam, and at least one of Skinner’s female operatives saw the water held back. “It seemed to stop for a minute or so,” she later recalled, but then it broke through and roared into the narrow expanse above Skinnerville, churning up soil, road, and hillside. The noise was deafening, as though an army on horseback were descending the valley.

With her husband still down at the mill, Lizzie Skinner was “terror-stricken” and “ran to the front piazza to urge him to escape,” thinking he would be safer at home. She was promptly disabused of that notion once she stepped outside and took in the view to the north. Behind her, in their warm, dry dining room, her children were as yet unaware of the magnitude of the danger, though growing increasingly anxious as they watched “persons running and driving hurriedly across the lawn.” Their father had only been gone for a minute or two, and in that time pandemonium had erupted. Not only were scores of mill hands charging uphill, but others as well, including George Smith, the fish peddler, who had passed Collins Graves in the street and instantly thereafter seen the “mountain” of water approaching Skinnerville. A one-armed veteran of the war, Smith used every ounce of strength in his upper body to turn his horse off the road, cut across Skinner’s lawn, and “dash” up over the tracks.

Elsewhere in Skinnerville others had gotten wind of the warning—or simply glanced upriver—and were addressing the emergency in characteristically individual fashion. The widow Sarah Wrisley rushed into her garden to save her tomato plants and then, arms full of vines, rushed back into her house and climbed upstairs, as if her second story were a place of safety. Eli Bryant, a widower, scaled a ladder to the roof of a shed with his six-year-old grandson, leaving his daughter standing on the ground clutching a wrap for the child, begging them to come down and run for higher ground. Farmer Bartlett had been in his garden when Graves caught up with Smith in the road and heard the younger man call, “The reservoir’s given way and is right here; all you can do is to get out of the way.” Bartlett climbed a tree and began to sing hymns in its branches.

Another neighbor, Julia Kaplinger, who was also outside in a garden, ran to untie her dog from the barn, but her fingers couldn’t undo the knot, and with so little time remaining she ran back into the house to save her daughters. Helen Hubbard, Nash’s oldest, was making a squash pie when her little brother Jerrie burst in with the news. She abandoned the pie, grabbed some extra clothing, and herded her brother and sister outside, where the three of them ran for the railroad embankment at almost exactly the moment that their father did the same.

Delia Stearns was supposedly the last one to exit the silk mill—having evacuated everyone else—but it is unlikely Skinner saw her leave. As the reservoir closed in on the village, he was running back to his wife. With just seconds left he joined her in a mad dash through the house, shouting to Nellie, his eldest, to grab the baby and “fly to the hill!” He pushed the family of five out the rear door as the great wave swept down the street, slamming into the general store, crashing into the boardinghouses, and sweeping off building after building. Like several others before and after, the Skinners reached the safety of the tracks without a moment to spare.

By the time Skinner turned around, the village was underwater in a raging current that was clearing away everything in its path. The mill was no longer even visible, and his house, right in front of him, had been engulfed like an island. The water had filled the village up like a bathtub, flowing so far back that it surrounded Skinner’s barn, where his horses were still in their stalls, and came nearly as high as the railroad tracks. It seemed to Skinner as though he were standing on the deck of a ship in a violent storm. Only this was no storm. Thirty-, forty-, fifty-foot trees were tumbling over one another like corn in a popper. Houses and barns were sailing by, the most improbable vessels there ever were. Bodies of men, women, and children appeared and disappeared in the water while some godforsaken souls were actually still alive, crying out as they were borne away.

“At one time,” wrote Libbie Skinner afterward, “a house floated by with the smoke coming from the chimneys and two children were seen screaming for help at one of the windows in the second story.” Others, too, reported seeing a house in the water with a smoking chimney. Though hard to fathom how this could be, most of the houses were swept away at breakfast time, so there may have been one with a stove momentarily still smoking. The impossible was everywhere. Certainly this house would not have survived long. Few did. They collided with each other or with other matter and then split apart. Trees were like missiles in the swirling water. One soared right beside Skinner’s house. Had the tree struck, it would have bored a hole into the parlor like a bullet in a man’s stomach. Heavy machinery, too, was flying by as if on wings, and animals were somersaulting dreadfully in the mix. One little pig was carried off squealing, its cries intermingling with so many others, all being sucked downstream and out of sight.

Then, after what had seemed a lifetime, though it was no more than a few minutes, the torrent was gone. Described one reporter, the water “rolled on in its appalling force, a briefer time than many a dream.”

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2012

    Highly Recommended

    This is extraordinary! The research is mind-boggling and is masterfully organized into a thoroughly captivating read. One cannot help but become completely absorbed with William Skinner, his family, friends, all the characters, the flood disaster, and then, the incredible triumph. Compelling!

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    Posted April 10, 2013

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