152 Years Ago: Downtown Danbury Destroyed During One of City’s Worst Tragedies
One of Danbury's worst tragedies in its history occurred on the evening of January 31, 1869, when the frozen Kohanza Dam burst open, resulting in destruction and mayhem in downtown Danbury.
Danbury's hat industry was thriving in 1869 with 12 factories and 2,000 employees. The factories required copious amounts of water to turn animal pelts into felt.
To keep up with the water demand, the city built several dams and reservoirs. The lower dam of the Kohanza Reservoir was built in 1860, which was three miles away from downtown Danbury and held 40 million gallons of water. The upper dam was constructed in 1865.
In 1868, engineers discovered a small crack in the Upper Kohanza Dam, but no action was taken because it was just a slight crack. That mistake was going to turn into a disaster that was waiting to happen.
By the evening of January 31, 1869, the upper dam had frozen over, and there was nowhere for the water and ice to go, and that's when all hell broke loose. Under the pressure of the ice-choked body of water, a massive wall of icy water plummeted downstream, wiping out the Lower Kohanza Dam.
As the two reservoirs' massive waves of water and ice chunks roared downstream, it picked up boulders, tree trunks, and other debris and then slammed into downtown Danbury. You can only imagine the carnage. The following is a brief synopsis from a February 1869 article in Harper's Weekly.
The floodwaters struck the houses on Main Street instantly sweeping them from their foundations. The water roared fifteen feet above the river bed and you could hear the noise of the wrecked houses and the screams of drowning men, women, and children.
Eleven people died that evening, and the hat factory buildings were destroyed along with bridges and railroad tracks. All the devastation and destruction from start to finish took only 30 minutes. To this day, the flood remains Danbury's single worst disaster.