Infamous calamities - from fires to floods
ADAMS -- On Nov. 24, 1984, at about 4 a.m., the residents of North Adams who were awake at that hour noticed an odd glow south of the city. Simultaneously, some Cheshire residents spied a similar glow pulsing north of town.
Meanwhile, in the northern neighborhoods of Adams, the air was full of explosions. At one point, a fireball rocketed into the air.
The former Adams Print Works was burning to the ground.
When former Adams Fire Chief William Chittenden arrived on scene, he knew this would be tough to stop.
"I knew I was going to need help," he told an Eagle reporter later that day.
More than 100 firefighters from five communities responded to try to stop the Adams Print Works fire.
They prevented the blaze from spreading, but nothing could save the building, which burned to the ground.
The Adams Print Works fire signified the end of an era in Berkshire County. Since the 1700s, mills had been the backbone of the county economy.
But as the 20th century progressed, the local mill economy began to shrink. Mills had been closing for years, victims of the economy and cheaper labor elsewhere. The Print Works mill itself was closed, its assets auctioned. But the estimated damage from the fire was more than $500,000.
On that November morning, a number of former Print Works employees stood nearby, watching the place burn.
"That," said Edward Hakes softly to a local reporter that morning, "was my life."
The mills provided life for hundreds of thousands of county residents for well over a century. But from time to time, with alarming frequency in the 19th century, less so in the 20th, these mills would burn or be lost in a flood. When that happened, the consequences, to their employees and the community, were devastating.
"The earliest factories were built of wood," said local historian Bernard Drew. "They were vulnerable to fires because they were built that way and in the case of say, paper mills, there was a lot of dust around."
The mills became less vulnerable to fire when their owners began to build them with stone. And, as fire regulations became more stringent, items like firewalls and more extensive fire extinguishing measures, such as sprinklers, became more prevalent.
But these measures cost money, and as the economy shrank, there was less incentive for the mills to remain open.
Adams historian Eugene Michalenko said the Adams Print Works fire was devastating, but wasn't the worst mill disaster in Adams.
"The Print Works fire was the worst in our memory," he said. "But the Jacquard Mill Fire of 1891 caused $400,000 damage, and this is in 1891 dollars. Also, about 800 workers were suddenly without jobs. A lot of them left town."
Michalenko added that Adams old-timers will recall the 1956 Stanley's Lumber fire, which spread and left 18 families homeless.
"The mills, especially at the turn of the century," he said, "were dangerous places to be."
It wasn't just fires that devastated mills and the surrounding communities. In Lee, residents recall the "twin floods" of East Lee in 1886 and 1968 that swept away dozens of businesses and homes.
Virtually every town in the Berkshires has at least one mill disaster story. A fire at the Southern Berkshire Marble Co. in Sheffield caused $100,000 in damages and took 50 jobs in 1916.
The Lanesborough Iron Works burned down three times during the 19th century. A blaze damaged the Beaver Mill in North Adams, while several fires were reported at the Pittsfield Iron Works during the mid-20th century.
In the late 1700s, a string of grist mills and saw mills along upper Union Street in North Adams that were owned by Oliver Parker were wiped out by a flood. The incident was so devastating that it has been known ever since as "Parker's Flood."
Some of the calamities that have damaged Berkshire mills:
1700s: A series of grist and saw mills in North Adams are wiped out by a flood.
1800s: Lanesborough Iron Works burns down three times.
1872: Fire destroys paper mill in Lee. 1886: Flood in East Lee wipes out businesses, claims seven lives.
1916: Fire at Southern Berkshire Marble Co. costs 50 employees their jobs.
1968: Second flood at same spot in East Lee takes two lives.
1984: Adams Print Works burns to the ground.
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