News: Hatfield Dam-The Flood of 1911


Contact: Dolores (Mohr) Kenyon



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----Source: Clark County Press (Neillsville, Clark Co., WI) 10/07/1911



Hatfield Dam-The Flood of 1911


Photo provided by Steve Roberts (Clark Co., Historian)




Rising waters, by Incessant rains, result in the breaking of West Dyke of Dells Dam, and the immense

Reservoir empties its contents into Valley.


People, Forewarned, Flee to safety!


Other towns are damaged by high streams, Big Wall at Hatfield is threatened.


La Crosse-(Special)- More than half of the business section of Black River Falls is in ruins, the homes of scores of farmers have been swept away with probably loss of life and the main dam at Hatfield, Wis., momentarily is threatened with destruction which would release a flood that would carry death and destruction before it, as a result of the breaking of the west dyke of the upper Dells Dam yesterday, following incessant rains which filled the upper Dells Dam yesterday, folow9ing incessant rains which filled the immense reservoirs of the La Crosse Water company to overflowing.


The situation at Black River Falls, the prosperous little city of 2,000 people, last night was worse by far than was feared when the deluge burst upon the unfortunate city.


Half of the business section has been utterly destroyed, together with a considerable part of the residence district, and it is admitted by the town’s people who have taken refuge on the high lands, unable to make an effort for the protection of their stores and homes, that the city will be utterly wiped off the map.


Whether or not if lives have been lost is not yet certain. The people have been scattered and last night canvasses were being made, to determine how many, if any, are missing. Thus far two persons  have not been accounted for and they May have been swept away.


Business Houses Destroyed


At 7 o’clock between 25 and 30 business-houses, comprising all the stores on both sides of two streets in Black River Falls, had been destroyed, together with an equal number of residences. At that hour the waters were still rising rapidly and the destruction of  the stores on the other two business streets was predicted before morning.


The water, flowing with resistless current and, in tremendous volume, undermined one big building after another and as it collapsed and crumbled to pieces the debris was largely carried away. The Tremont Hotel, a substantial three-story structure, was the first to go, and many others followed.


No precautions could be taken to stop the wrecking f the town, the residents finding it a difficult problem to secure safely for themselves, their families and their more valuable possessions. None of the stock in the stores were saved and little heavier furniture in the houses; the people, although they knew of the overflowing of the Hatfield dam, showing little fear of its effects until the waters burst upon them.


City Is In Darkness


The city last night, was in darkness, the electric light plant being one of the first agencies to be put out of commission, adding to the excitement and confusion of the hour.


The disaster was caused by the sudden rise of the Black River behind the two dams of the La Crosse Water Power Company, following rains which last almost a week. The dams withstood the pressure but in each case the river washed around the side, taking out a big section of the riverbank and coming down upon the country below in almost as great volume as though the dam had been swept away.


The $5,000,000 property of the waterpower company is believed to be not greatly damaged, the breaks on the side relieving the pressure and last night it was said that the main dam, which is a concrete structure 100 feet thick at the base and 50 feet at the top, would probably stand all the force which might be directed against it.


Besides the damage at Black River Falls, a great tract of surrounding country was overran. Effort was made to send warning to farmers, but the telephone wires were the first to go down and the fate of many settlers, who know nothing of the flood until it struck their immediate locality, is the cause of apprehension.


Villages in Path of Flood


Below Black River Falls area a number of villages, including Roaring Creek, Irving, North Bend, Melrose, Holmen, Midway and Onalaska, and the high waters are due to strike them during the night and today. Forces of men have been sent out to strengthen the bridges in the three counties along the river.


Cut off by telephone, the news from Black Fiver Falls was being sent to La Crosse last night by the Wisconsin Telephone Company, which stationed a man on the top of a telephone pile who cut in and sent in his report as well as the flooded lines permitted.


In a final desperate effort to save the big dam, which is still intact and holds back billions of gallons of water, workmen late yesterday dynamited the banks of the canal loading from the Hatfield reservoir to the powerhouse, releasing the water into the bed of the river below thus relieving slightly the strain on the main dam.


If the main Hatfield Dam gives way, the flood which would follow probably will carry death and destruction down the Black River valley. Officials of the company, however, say the dam is one of the strongest in the country and they expect it to withstand the strain. The structure is two feet wider at its base than its total height and is built of reinforced concrete.


Eleven Feet of Water over Dam


At last accounts, 11 feet of water was pouring over its crest and sweeping down on the stricken city of Black River Falls and the intermediate farms and settlements. The village of Hatfield is under water and the cottages of employees constituting a small village near the powerhouse, two miles below, were abandoned, in fear that the dynamiting of the canal would be insufficient to ward off the destructive flood which threatens to engulf the powerhouse and settlement.


The waterpower company has had 300 men flighting to prevent the disaster for nearly a week. Farmers had been warned in advance to expect the break at any point and many of them had fled with their families to safety before the Dells Dam dyke gave way. However, the situation Thursday night did not appear so serious and yesterday morning, when the break appeared, the telephones were put out of commission and the company was unable to warn many remaining farmers.


During the night, when the real danger was apparent, a general alarm was sent out. Residents of the valley were warned to flee for their lives. In an effort to save those who could not be reached by telephone, Caretaker True of the Dells Dam, mounted a horse and rode at breakneck speed during the remainder of the night, warning farmers to escape. Wagons were loaded with household goods and started…. For high ground, but as the country is flat for many miles it is not known whether all escaped.


Span of Bridge Torn Out


The flood traveled from Hatfield to Black River Falls in one hour. Farmhouses, fences, barns and other debris fill the waters and the strain of this debris, pressed against the wagon bridge at that city by the rising torrent, tore out one span of this structure. Residents of Black River Falls were warned just after the break occurred and the contents of the business blocks were rushed to higher ground.


When the big wave struck the city, according to best reports, the entire business section, which lies in a hollow near the river, was flooded, and many buildings fell.


Telephone girls stuck to their posts in Black River Falls until they had to be rescued in boats. Telephone crews were rushed to the scene to re-establish communication, but until it is possible to get word from the stricken district, the exact extent of the damage will not be known.


The flooded district contains miles of cranberry marshes and at this time of the year they are full of camps of Indians engaged in harvesting the berries. There is some fear that many Indians may have perished, without warning of the impending danger.


Upper Lake is Emptied


The Hatfield waterpower consists of two great lakes or reservoirs, each covering several miles. The first, or upper reservoir, has been retained by the Dells Dam, a concrete structure embedded in solid rock on one side and with a core wall running to the west.  It is this wall which gave way, emptying the great lake into the lower reservoir.


The lower and larger dam at Hatfield is built the same was and the water, rising swiftly, washed out the several feet of earth covering the west core wall here, and tore down the canal and surrounding country. Eleven feet of water poured over the crest of the main dam. Those breaks brought about the present flood, but the main body of water is still retained in the lower lake by the big dam at Hatfield.


Anxiety is felt lest the big dam crack under the great strain. It is goes out, twice the volume of water which has already swept over the district will be released, damaging and further endangering a much greater area. Chief Engineer W.S. Woods of the La Crosse Water Power Company, notified the head office here  last evening that the big dam still was intact just before darkness fell.


The present flood is the worst in the history of Black River. Torrential rains above the reservoir sent the water up repeatedly and the efforts of 300 laborers who worked to prevent the disaster, were of no avail. The workmen have been called off, as nothing more can be done, and practically all depends upon the strength of the big dam, and the elements.


The flood reached Melrose last night, carrying away roads and bridges, but the people had been forewarned and escaped to safety.


A Look At 125 Years of Hatfield’s History



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