Records Relating to Commission on Dams and Rese... | State Archives Catalog
As was the case of several New England states, Rhode Island's Commission on Dams and Reservoirs was created in the wake of the Mill River Flood of 1874. (Elizabeth Sharpe, In the Shadow of the Dams. The Aftermath of the Mill River Flood of 1874, p. 210) This flood occurred above the western Massachusetts towns of Williamsburg and Northampton. It was the first major dam disaster in the United States, and one of the greatest calamities of the nineteenth century. It happened when a reservoir dam (used for waterpower) suddenly burst, sending an avalanche of water down a narrow valley lined with factories and farms. Within an hour, 139 people were dead, and four mill villages were washed away. The Mill River flood instantly became one of the nation’s big news stories.
The position of Commissioner of Dams and Reservoirs was created by Public Law 271 in 1882. The statute required that the appointee be a "competent civil engineer." It directed the Commissioner to make an inspection of all dams and reservoirs in the state to detemine their condition. The law also required that the Commission keep records of its inspections. Dam owners were expected to cooperate with the Commissioner by filing plans for the construction or improvement of dams on their property, or to provide descriptions of their dams upon the request of the commission. The Commission could also require owners of dams and reservoirs to take appropriate action where the structure was deemed insufficient to contain the water. The Commission operated as an independent agency until 1935 when its functions were transferred to the newly-created Department of Public Works' Division of Harbors and Rivers.