Monday, June 1, 2009

This Month in Rochester History

On the 18th of this month, we mark the 63rd anniversary of the day that Rochester's downtown landscape changed forever. On June 18, 1946, the earthen berm around the Western Knitting Mills dam on Paint Creek - already waterlogged by unusually heavy rains - gave way when it was placed under tremendous pressure by the failure of the upstream dam at Rudd's Mill in Orion Township. When the WKM dam failed, it unleashed a torrent of floodwater from the mill pond on to the east side of Rochester.

The Western Knitting Mills built a new factory at Fourth and Water Streets in 1896 (the building is occupied today by the Rochester Mills Brewing Company). The WKM improved the dam and mill pond formerly used to power the old Rochester Woolen Mills which once stood on the site, and in 1901 the company further expanded the pond. It was approximately 12-14 acres in area, and featured a small island which was used by area scout troops for camping exercises. The pond was variously referred to as Chapman Pond or Chapman Lake, as WKM president Charles S. Chapman had an elegant home that stood on a bluff overlooking the water. A 25-foot fall provided power for the knitting mills, but after the knitting operation closed and McAleer Manufacturing took over the building, the dam was no longer used to generate power.

The flood that ensued when the dam gave way on June 18 washed out the New York Central railroad tracks on the east side of town. It also swept up two women who were leaving their Third Street home for higher ground, when the porch of the house collapsed beneath them. One of the women was able to hold on to the post of a child's swing until the fire department could rescue her, but she was unable to help her companion, Mrs. Alice C. Garnett, who was swept away by the current. Mrs. Garnett's body was recovered downstream later that day.

Following the flood, the first recovery efforts concentrated on restoring railroad service on the New York Central line. A train was stranded at Goodison because the tracks in Rochester were washed out. A temporary trestle was fashioned to carry the trains through the flood area.

Paint Creek was unwilling to be forced back into its old channel, and the dam was no longer needed to generate power, so later in the summer of 1946 some filling was done in the lake bottom, and the Chapman mill pond disappeared from Rochester's map forever. Today, the former lake bottom is occupied by the Rochester Post Office, Rochester Hills Public Library, and the Royal Park Hotel. The library stands approximately where “Scout Island” was once located.

Map: This 1908 plat map of Rochester shows the location of the Chapman Pond, lying along the east side of Water Street (hence the street name). Note the location of the Rochester Elevator and today's University Drive, marked for reference.

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