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As was the case for several other New England states, Rhode Island established a Commission on Dams and Reservoirs 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 (which is mentioned in some of the Commission's annual reports as late as the 1890s) occurred above the western Massachusetts towns of Williamsburg and Northampton. It was the first major dam disaster in the United States. 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.
Public Law 271 established the position of Commissioner of Dams and Reservoirs in 1882 (which was "in addition to" an earlier act on water mills.) 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 determine their condition. The law also required the Commissioner to keep records of his 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 commissioner. The Commissioner could also require owners of dams and reservoirs to take appropriate action where the structure was deemed insufficient to contain the water.