This Place in History: Waterbury Dam

Vermont Historical Society

WATERBURY, Vt.

At ‘This Place in History‘ we’re standing on the dam in Waterbury with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins.

“This is an amazing feat of engineering. But, I think the circumstances of what built it are really fascinating,” began Perkins.

“You’ve got to go back to 1927 to start this story. On November 3rd and 4th of that year a tropical depression ran into a cold front and it caused catastrophic flooding across Vermont. And so all these tributaries that fed the Winooski River just destroyed Montpelier, Waterbury and all the way down through to Winooski and into Burlington.”

“The State got thinking how do we stop this from happening again? At the time, the way to stop flooding was to put up a bunch of catchment basins or dams to stop the water from rushing down through these mountain gorges and into large rivers like Winooski. But, they didn’t have the money to do it. So, they thought we will give the rights to all the power companies and they can build hydroelectric dams. That ended up dying in the legislature because Vermonters didn’t like the idea of giving up control of all of these natural spaces to all these private companies. So it just languished,”
explained Perkins.

“And so they passed this on to the Army Corps of Engineers. They did a survey and said we can do this. Going along with this, at the same time, you had a lot of World War I veterans who were marching on Washington. They were called the Bonus Army. They were all out of work.”

“President Franklin Roosevelt said why don’t we take these WWI vets, put them in their own CCC companies and they could do projects? So, the folks that largely did all of the flood control projects in the Winooski Valley were all WWI vets. And some of them were black units. And in Barre, I was doing some research, it turns out that one of the companies was the Harlem Hell Fighters,” said Perkins.

‘There were three dams built, actually four. They proposed a whole bunch of dams. They built one small concrete dam in Montpelier, but three earthen dams like this. One was in East Barre, one in Wrightsville which created the Wrightsville Reservoir and then this was the last one and certainly by far the largest. It started in 1934, ramped up in ’35 and was finished in ’38,” said Perkins.

“All of this wooded area right here was a city. There were 2,000 men living right here at the base of this dam who were building all of this. They had movie theaters, sewer, water, fire departments, a police department and a 6,000 book library. It’s amazing to have that many people living in what feels like the wilderness right now.”

“This is a little pamphlet put out by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1938 when the dam opened with over 2 million cubic yards of earth to make the embankment which we’re standing on. That’s 2,000 feet long and about 900 feet wide and a maximum height of about 175 feet.”

“What happens is all the water comes shooting down off these mountains in a weather event. If there’s no dam or anything to stop it, it just scours down through these gorges and down to the Winooski River. This happened throughout this valley.”

“So, by having this dam here and the reservoir, it can take a lot of water before anything spills over. There are conduits under the dam that allow the river to flow normally. Then, there’s a spillway on the other side of that house, in case of a huge flood, so they can let water out quickly. It’s not exactly how we do flood control anymore, but it was the highest of technology in the 1930s,” concluded Perkins.

At ‘This Place in History’!

For more from our ‘This Place in History’ series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historic site markers, click here.

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