Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
When the 20 million gallon Munjoy Hill reservoir burst one Sunday morning, the ensuing torrent destroyed two houses and killed four people. The gush of water also launched a boat and delayed a train as it tore down the hill to the sea. But the tragedy could have been much worse if it were not for a fast-thinking woman from Lewiston.
Newspapers in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles chronicled the event that took place 124 years ago this week, on August 6, 1893.
Mrs. A.M. Jones was down from Lewiston, staying with her daughter and son-in-law, on the hill that weekend. She was up and making coffee at about 5:30 a.m. when she noticed a small leak in the reservoir’s 40-foot earthen wall. The five acre reservoir stood at the corner of North and Walnut streets.
Jones guessed what was going to happen next and alerted neighbors on the downhill side of the massive, cup-like structure. First she ran to Michael Lappin’s house on Walnut Street, sounding the alarm. Lappin roused his family and got out of the house. He sent his adopted son, James Mosley, 21, next door to warn Dennis Conley’s family. Jones continued on to other houses, shouting the warning.
Conley, a night watchman, wasn’t home from work yet. Inside his house were his wife, Ann and daughters Mary, 19, and Agnes, 16. Mosley made it to their house but not in time to save them, or himself.
Before any of them could get out of the house, a 75-foot hole opened in the side of the reservoir. The gaping wound sent a 20-foot wall of water rushing down the hill, smashing the two houses to splinters. The water gushed for close to an hour.
By 11 a.m., searchers found the Conleys pinned under the second story wreckage of their house. Today, they still lie together in South Portland’s Calvary Cemetery.
There’s no telling how many more people would have died if Jones had not been up early, making coffee and on the ball.
The flood also swept a large yawl boat out of the Lappins’ yard. It rode the deluge down the hill, coming to rest at the juncture of the Portland & Rochester and Grand Trunk railroads. It was not damaged. A foot of dirt and debris covered a 100-foot stretch of Grand Trunk track. It took workmen most of the day to clear, making one train 80 minutes late.
The Conleys’ cat, with kittens, later turned up some distance away, dry and unharmed.
The reservoir was only three years old. It turned out, a leaking overflow pipe had weakened the dirt wall, causing the accident. It was rebuilt with better materials and operated until the 1970s. It’s now the site of a condominium parking lot. That’s a tragedy of a whole different sort.
Note: I found most of the info for this piece at the Maine Memory Network, a New York Times article from Aug. 7, 1893 and an undated Lewiston Evening Journal clipping.
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.