With flood waters nipping at their heels, a car carrying four men barreled around corners of a country road at top speed, making its way toward the center of Becket on the morning of Nov. 4, 1927. Laying on the horn, the driver, J. Clinton Ballou, along with the three other men sounded the alarm, letting neighbors know the Wheeler Reservoir Dam had broken. They enlisted the aid of the town's telephone switchboard operator, Patrick B. McCormick, who began alerting residents by phone.

It was the second time in a span of just under three hours the townsfolk had been alerted by the men, but this time the alert came moments ahead of a torrent of water 25-feet high and 150-yards wide. The first alarm was sounded at 4 a.m., when, during an inspection of the dam, Ballou and his mill superintendent, Alfred Crochiere, noticed a crevice had formed in the dam wall.

"We went to the gatehouse where we heard noises as if stones were about to crash through the wall. I laid down, placed my ear to the floor, and heard a crack as if something was going to break," Ballou, who owned a sawmill and basket factory in the town, told reporters.

The alarm was sounded, residents of the sleepy town of 700 rushed to the hills in their nightclothes. They remained there for an hour before returning to the warmth of their beds. Ballou, with Crochiere and two others, decided to return to the dam. After clearing the road to the dam of a small landslide, the men began to continue toward the reservoir, but they found they didn't have to travel much further. They could hear the water rushing toward them and turned the car around. They made it to the center of Becket just minutes ahead of the flood waters.

McCormick called the town's residents for a second time that morning. Unable to connect them all on a single line, he called each house individually, staying to complete his task as the flood waters reached his section of town and swirled around his feet. When he could no longer stay, he abandoned his switchboard and made for safer ground. There, he spliced wires together at a telephone pole, connecting with the Pittsfield office of New England Telephone and Telegraph, before the town was completely cut off. He also is credited with calling Middlefield, Chester and Huntington with the news.

Ballou and his men had been keeping an eye on the dam since 4 p.m. of the day prior. "We knew the mountain reservoir was more than full; that it was rising at a rate of two inches per hour; that it could not stand if the rain continued."

The flood waters crashed through the town, leaving in its wake a path of destruction. A total of 54 buildings were destroyed or partially damaged. Among those destroyed were the sawmill and basket factory owned by Ballou and his brother, Willis, the Becket and Berkshire Silk Mill, Lyman's sawmill, and a grist mill. The town's post office was swept away. Three miles of the Boston & Albany Railroad were destroyed, as well as miles of state highway and town roads. At least one bridge and several smaller dams also were destroyed.

In just 20 minutes the flood had ripped a gash — as deep as 20-feet in some spots — through the town, and taken one life. Augusta Carroll, 70, who had refused to leave the Higley house and was swept away with it. Later, it was determined that her death was not from drowning, but from a broken neck, most likely by a fallen beam, as the house was tossed by the current.

According to the National Weather Service's historical data, the flood waters that ravaged the state of Vermont and Western Massachusetts from Nov. 2 to Nov. 5, 1927, were caused by a late-season hurricane that moved up the east coast and made its way up the Connecticut River Valley. In southern New England, the storm dumped 3 to 4 inches of rain, but as it made its way into Vermont, the hurricane turned tropical storm crashed into two cold, high pressure systems. There, the storm sat, over Vermont and Western Massachusetts. According to the historical data, "the result was widespread areas of 6 inches or more of rainfall, with reports received of up to 15 inches of rainfall." In addition, October had been a very wet month, with rainfall generally about 150 percent above normal for the month.

In the Berkshires, the Hoosic, Housatonic and Farmington rivers swelled and spilled over their banks. The state National Guard used dynamite to destroy dams in North Adams, Adams and Lee to prevent the situation that would occur in Becket. While the removal of the dams prevented tidal waves of water sweeping through the towns, it did not prevent flooding or destruction of buildings.

North Adams, Pittsfield, Lee and Adams flood too

Flood waters rose to a height of 4 feet in the center of Adams, while residents of the Lakewood section of Pittsfield were forced out of their homes at 3:30 a.m. In Lee, the Jacob's Ladder road was cut off by a landslide, homes were flooded and a bridge swept away.

In North Adams, 10 houses from the Willow Dell section were knocked from their foundations, swept down river and broken to bits as they crashed against the Union Street bridge. Cars were stranded on Eagle Street and in the city's West End, while homes in the Beaver and River street sections were flooded and moved off their foundations. The Marshall Street bridge was destroyed and the wall of a three-story section of the Arnold Print Works, now Mass MoCA, collapsed when the Hoosic River washed away the river bank below it. A portion of the Mohawk Trail collapsed. Flood waters shut down gas service to the city, preventing the North Adams Transcript from printing its own paper on Nov. 4. Instead, it headed south to Pittsfield, where The Berkshire Eagle offered up its presses to print that edition. The publications also published a special "extra" edition together.

While initial reports put the death toll in Vermont alone over 200, the total for all of New England was 160 people. In Vermont, 84 people, including Lt. Governor S. Hollister Jackson, died in the flood. Thousands of families and individuals were left homeless by the flooding, which also resulted in shortages of clean water and milk and the need for emergency vaccines for diphtheria and typhoid.

As the flood waters receded in Becket, it was speculated by reports in the Boston Globe and Springfield Republican the town could not and would not rebuild. But the town would pull itself up by its bootstraps and rebuild. A year later, new sidewalks and roads replaced the piles of debris left by the flood, homes and businesses were rebuilt and a new U.S. Post Office had just opened in town.

Sources: The Berkshire Eagle, North Adams Transcript, the Boston Globe, The Springfield Republican

Jennifer Huberdeau, can be reached at jhuberdeau@berkshireeagle.com or 413-281-1866.

Features Editor

Jennifer Huberdeau is The Eagle's features editor. Prior to The Eagle, she worked at The North Adams Transcript. She is a 2021 Rabkin Award Winner, 2020 New England First Amendment Institute Fellow and a 2010 BCBS Health Care Fellow.