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Hatchtown dam collapse (Utah history)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 25, 2008

A wet spring had filled the reservoir at Hatchtown, Garfield County, Utah, to the top of its spillway: on Monday, May 25, 1914, its earthen dam held back about 14,000 acre feet of Sevier River water. All was well when caretaker A.W. Huntington made his routine morning inspection.

At 2:00 p.m. he discovered a muddy ooze below the dam and summoned help. For hours he sought the source of the leak. The ooze increased to a stream, and the ground above began to cave, first in small slabs, then large, until the dam gave way entirely at 8:00 p.m. Water burst through the five-story-high breach with the pressure of a fire hose, scouring farmland far beyond the river banks as the flood rushed northward.

Nine minutes later, the flood crashed into the W.R. Riggs house. Most of the family’s belongings had already been moved to higher ground. As the Riggses ran, 10-year-old Ernest carried the last items to be saved – loaves of his mother’s new-baked bread.

Four miles downstream, Panguitch was high enough to escape damage. Two dozen low-lying farms to the north were in danger, however. Telephone operators had been busy, and George West, a traveling salesman from Ogden, set out in his automobile to alert isolated farmsteads.

Thanks to timely warning, families had time to move some goods and livestock. The flood rolled on, washing out bridges, irrigation works, farmland, and fences. As its leading edge entered Circleville Canyon, waters that had begun to spread were again concentrated. The water deepened, gained force and speed, and the debris it carried crashed against canyon walls.

Telephone operators in Panguitch called a warning to Circleville and Junction. Residents of these two towns were skeptical: earlier warnings of dam failures had been false alarms. Most ignored the danger.

Not Cyril Munson, caretaker of the Piute Dam at Junction. He knew that if his dam held, the reservoir might contain the flood and spare towns further north. Munson opened his dam’s three floodgates to make more room.

Rosalia Whittaker, Circleville’s telephone operator, was first to hear that the dam had actually failed. She called Ted Robinson, a rancher in the canyon. His family climbed to higher ground, then watched in disbelief as the flood caught his house, spun it madly around, then deposited it undamaged on the opposite side of the river. The Robinsons did not see that further down the canyon Warren Taylor of Loa heard the water coming. While his wife climbed a hill, Taylor struggled to give his horse a chance by freeing it from the buggy. The flood was too close; Taylor scrambled after his wife and the horse, still tangled in harness, was washed away.

Rosalia Whittaker then ran to the dance hall. Merrymakers brushed aside her warning, but she insisted the orchestra stop, sent the girls home to pack, and ordered the boys to get their horses. Some she directed to warn outlying farms; others she sent to the canyon as watchmen.

Circleville worked through the night, sending their children to sleep in the high ground of the cemetery and driving their livestock into the hills. Most household goods had been removed to safety before 6:00 Tuesday morning when the watching horsemen raced toward town with their warning.

The flood exploded into the valley. Released from constricting canyon walls, the water was 15 feet deep as it crashed into Max Parker’s farmhouse and six feet deep when it rolled over Circleville, leaving behind three feet of standing water as the crest raced onward. On high ground, Junction’s homes were spared while its cultivated fields were washed away.

The water spread and slowed as it reached Piute Reservoir. It still carried great force as it slammed into the dam, but the dam held. There would be no further destruction and no loss of human life. Families living along 70 miles of the Sevier River faced months of rebuilding.



17 Comments

  1. Ardis, you missed your calling in life as a history teacher. This is fascinating stuff!

    Comment by ECS — June 25, 2008 @ 7:43 am

  2. Thank you, ECS! Isn’t history fun when it’s presented as the stories of people and not just a list of dates and places?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 25, 2008 @ 8:08 am

  3. How timely ;)

    Comment by BHodges — June 25, 2008 @ 10:16 am

  4. #2 – Ardis, you just stated why I loved teaching Social Studies – and why I get SO frustrated when I hear people say how boring history is.

    Comment by Ray — June 25, 2008 @ 11:48 am

  5. Yeah, BHodges — I don’t see anybody from Iowa or Illinois chiming in to say how charming this is …

    Ray, if we made movies the way we teach history, X-Men would become a dull multiple choice test where you matched a list of characters to their super powers and a short answer quiz about Storm’s effect on the main export crops of Surinam.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 25, 2008 @ 12:33 pm

  6. Congratulations on another excellent post!

    Comment by Edje — June 25, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

  7. Wow, I had never heard of this flood. This story will make those trips from AZ to Salt Lake along US 89 all the more interesting.

    Can you help me understand why it took the flood waters 10 hours to reach Circleville? (Dam gave way entirely at 8 pm Monday; flood waters reached Circleville around 6 am Tuesday.)

    Thanks for a very interesting post!

    Comment by Jacob F — June 25, 2008 @ 5:17 pm

  8. Jacob, I’ve relied on the times that appeared in the newspapers. I don’t know anything about normal rates of water flowing. Except for the points where the water burst out of narrow openings (the breaking dam, the mouth of the canyon), it would have been spreading farther and farther to either side of the river channel, which I imagine would have greatly lessened its force and slowed its speed. Hatch to Circleville is just under 70 miles, as the river flows — is there a “usual” rate for water to travel? I just don’t know.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 25, 2008 @ 5:30 pm

  9. Ardis, I should have done my homework. It looks like flood waters from failed dams typically travel 18 or 19 mph. That means about four hours of travel time to Circleville under ideal conditions. Obstacles on the way probably would have slowed the flow, and the flood crest may not have left the dam at exactly 8 pm. My mind is now at ease.

    For some reason I always imagined flood waters racing at freeway speeds!

    Comment by Jacob F — June 25, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

  10. Whew! I was afraid I might have missed something in the papers. From the descriptions given by eyewitnesses, it sounded more like lake waters rising than a great roaring flood — with the exception of when the water had built up behind the dam or in the canyon so that it fell from a great height as it reached open space.

    Do you know the cabin in the mouth of Circleville Canyon that everybody likes to hype as the place where Butch Cassidy grew up? When the damage claims came in, Max Parker was one of the greatest dollar amount losers. Some of that would have been crop loss and damage to farmland; some of it also had to be buildings. The chamber of commerce would hate for me to point this out, but I don’t believe that a cabin could have survived this flood right in the mouth of the canyon like that. I think the existing cabin is 20th century, and that Butch never lived there (unless you accept the story that he visited his family years after the Bolivian shootout).

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 25, 2008 @ 6:16 pm

  11. Ardis,
    This is uncanny! I just finished writing my mother’s history tonight on her life before she got married. She lived in Centerville on the foothills. On 10 Jul 1930,a wall of mud came down Parrish Canyon taking the barn and the outbuildings, then went down the hill taking out several homes and a corner of the elementary school. Everybody in the family got to safety, including her 90-year-old grandma, who the neighbor boys “dragged over the fence.”

    One month later, on 11 August, the family was home from picking fruit. They had eaten and were resting. They heard a loud roar and a second flood came down. They say the house shook like it was in an earthquake. Grandma and one daughter grabbed some winter coats and threw them in the truck and got away. The neighbor boys got mom’s grandma over the fence again. Some other siblings jumped in the car and picked up another neighbor’s family. They all forgot to wake my mom who was still asleep on the porch. She woke up and saw the flood just about on her. She jumped out the door and got away. They all stood on high ground at a neighbor’s place and watched their home break apart and everything wash away.

    The house was destroyed, except for one kitchen wall (with a picture still hanging on it) and both porches (one with a table still on it–which I have).

    The next year, the Red Cross found homes for all the families who had lost theirs. Grandpa got a wonderful home that was built by Joseph Rich, for $5.00. It was badly neglected and in need of work. It is still in the family and my son owns it.

    We have pictures of mother’s house after the flood and a newspaper wide lense picture of the flood path, destroyed school, etc. When I went to the Elementary School, all of us little kids at recesses played on the giant rocks behind the school that had washed down that day.

    Maurine

    Comment by Maurine — June 26, 2008 @ 12:02 am

  12. Sorry for such a long post. I didn’t realize it was that long. It looks like I was trying to rival Ardis. No way!

    Comment by Maurine — June 26, 2008 @ 12:04 am

  13. Great story, Maurine — I especially like the neighbor boys’ repeated getting of grandma over the fence!

    It is hereby an official Keepa rule that nobody ever has to apologize for the length of a relevant comment. I keep insisting that everybody has a story, and if reading one of mine encourages the telling of one of yours, well, then, three cheers for all of us. I may not draw the MOST comments in the Bloggernacle, but I think I draw some of the BEST.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 26, 2008 @ 5:59 am

  14. or at least the longest. If you’re going to stand out, it might as well be in verbosity – says the apparent master of verbosity. *grin*

    Comment by Ray — June 26, 2008 @ 7:20 am

  15. Ray, one of these days we’ll have a showdown between you and Raymond Takashi Swenson — you may not be Rajah of Run-on, King of the Komment, Sultan of Sentences forever, you know!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 26, 2008 @ 7:28 am

  16. I think there are enough titles to bestow one on each of these stalwarts.

    Comment by Eric Boysen — June 28, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

  17. I have had to close comments on this post because it has become the target of an automated spamming program attempting to add hundreds of nasty advertisements.

    If you would like to comment, please email me at keepapitchininATaolDOTcom and I’ll add your comment manually (notice that it’s “inin” at the end, not just one “in.”) Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 4, 2008 @ 2:56 pm