The way it was

The Simmonsville flood and its victims


“It seemed as though the heavens had opened and solid sheets of rain allowed to fall.” (From a Providence newspaper article describing the local rainstorm on the 11th and 12th of April, 1840.)

Simmonsville today is a rather sleepy village, much the same as it has been for the past 170-odd years. In the 1840s, though, it was a bustling community with many dozens of people working in its textile mills. A prosperous future would have been predicted for this area, but a severe local rainstorm forever changed the fortunes of Simmonsville.

On April 11 and 12, 1840, a strong rain fell continuously for more than 24 hours. Today, we would not pay much attention to such a storm, but back then rain was often a killer in small mill communities. This was because no government agency regulated the construction of dams that were built to supply the mills with a steady flow of water. Many of the dams were flimsy, earthen barriers, not suited to holding the overflow from surprise storms. This was the situation at Simmonsville.

Following the steady, heavy rain the water level rose to such a height behind the upper dam (not the present Upper Simmonsville Reservoir) that the dam gave way on the morning of April 13. This meant a torrent of water 11 feet high was now cascading down to the smaller and much weaker lower dam. It broke through easily and water struck the village.

Several houses, a store, a block printing shop, a shoemaker’s shop, a machine shop and the 1822 textile mill were all destroyed. Worse than the destruction of property was the loss of life. The Whittemore family had lived in the village for only 13 days before the storm. Eight of them drowned. Six members of the Angell family also perished. Eighteen people in all died, making this flood the deadliest of its type in the state’s history.

The flood continued down Cedar Swamp Brook to Lower Simmonsville (present day Thornton), but there was little damage there except for the loss of a slaughterhouse.

The flood had left its mark, though. Upper Simmonsville never returned to the level of prosperity that it had attained before the flood. Much of the monetary loss was sustained by James F. Simmons, and he couldn’t get insurance on the property after the disaster. He thus concentrated his manufacturing efforts on the lower village, even moving there around this period.

The Johnston Historical Society and Museum, which contributes the History Column, is located at 101 Putnam Pike and meets on the last Wednesday each month, which is open to the public. Membership is $20 per year for a single membership and $30 for a family membership. For more information about the society visit