A visit to Runaway Pond

I’m heading off to Glover, Vermont to visit the Runaway Pond celebration. Be sure to come back next post for the beginning of a 12-part murder myster, The Aquacizers Murder Club.

I’m about to take a week’s trip to the village of Glover in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont to visit friends, but also to celebrate the bicentennial of Runaway Pond. It wasn’t that important an event in U.S. history, although it was the first man-made environmental disaster in the country’s history. (It ended more happily than any of our current disasters!) Some of the same people who will be celebrating next weekend have suggested that the much ado about it along with its scientific, historic and cultural research and documents may be more significant, and certainly more fun, than the historical event itself.

The Runaway Pond Centennial in 1910.

Runaway Pond has nothing to do with old artists, the theme of this blog, although there will be some wonderful old artists celebrating it: for example, Peter and Elka Schumann of Bread and Puppet whose base of operations is right down the road from Glover, and The MacArthur Family, a splendid family ensemble of folk singers – Margaret MacArthur wrote the “Ballad of Runaway Pond” and the group will perform it.

This is the story of Runaway Pond in brief:

In the spring of 1810, northern Vermont was experiencing a drought . On June 6 of the same year settlers from Glover, Sheffield, Barton and Wheelock – all of them tiny underpopulated villages – decided to divert some water from a lake called Long Pond to another called Mud Pond, and thereby increase the flow of water to Aaron Willson’s grist mill on the Barton River (which flowed north as Mud Pond’s headwaters). There were sixty of them altogether, men and boys, who met early in the morning, locating each other with blasts from tin horns. Around 8 a.m. they began to dig a trench approximately 1200 feet long, 4 feet deep, and 6-8 feet wide. At noon they broke for lunch and fishing. Shortly after they resumed digging at 1 p.m., they broke through a last crust of earth and water began to rush from one pond to the other, but they had no sooner stood back to celebrate their success with a drink of whiskey, when the water disappeared; there was a noise like thunder; and the ground where they stood began to give way. They had, unintentionally, let out all the water of Long Pond — close to two billion gallons. Like a tsunami, it knocked down huge trees (some are still visible!) and pushed boulders for miles, laying down a thick trail of mud, sand and debris. The flood reached Lake Memphremagog 25 miles away, in about six hours, raising the level of the 35 mile-long lake by a foot.

Soon after the letting out of Long Pond, legends began to form. None was more popular than that of Spencer Chamberlain.  About the same time as the water broke through, Aaron Willson’s wife, (some say his daughter), was grinding grain for a customer who had tied his horse to a post. One of the diggers, Spencer Chamberlain, a 19-year-old half-breed, raced for six miles ahead of the flood to rescue her and pulled her to safety in the nick of  time. The customer scrambled up the bank but the horse was swept away. Chamberlain’s descendants will be at the celebration to brag on their wonderful ancestor, while others at the event may continue to claim that a man called Solomon Dorr was the actual hero, not Spencer. I’ve never met Dorr’s progeny’s progeny, and I don’t know if they know, or even care, that he figures in Glover legend.

Because there were so few settlers, no human beings – only a few sheep, cattle and horses – died. Crops were ruined and the mud that was left was littered with dead fish and the broken eggs of water bird nests. All of it smelled of dead fish. Law suits were pursued by some landowners, of course, but everyone had to agree that it was a good thing in the long run – the land was leveled out and improved and a way was made clear for a better road.

An early 20th century postcard of the dry bed of Runaway Pond.

I used to work with both the Orleans County Historical Society and the Glover Historical Society (and still do the design and layout of their newsletters). I and my partner in a local venture called Little House Desktop Publishing, helped lay out and print the first compilation of documents about the event. So this is more than just a peculiar historical happening to me. The celebration will include walking tours of the site, graveyard ghosts, a quilt show, a concert, running race, parade and ceremony with the governor of Vermont in attendance. Details about the schedule can be found on Glover’s website (www:gloverhistoricalsociety.org)


I don’t want to leave this blog postless while I’m gone. I imagine it lost in the vast coils of the world-wide web, like a rudderless ship at sea. And so I hope to put up a murder mystery whose characters are almost all old. The Aquacizers Murder Club will begin Tuesday night/Wednesday morning, with a new chapter nearly every day, though I can’t promise that I’ll be exactly on the money where the time is concerned.