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When cold wrought destruction on Danbury

January 31, 2019

It’s cold in Danbury, but not as cold as it was on Jan. 31 in 1869, when freezing temperatures caused what may be the worst disaster in Danbury history.

“The noise of wrecked houses mingled with the screams of drowning men, women and children,” according to a newspaper account from the time. Imagine huge ice floes and millions of gallons of water carrying chunks of ice, rocks and trees straight into downtown Danbury.

It happened when what was then known as the Kohanza Reservoir froze.

The ice expanded and broke both of the Kohanza dams, first the upper then the lower dam, both of which had been built nine years earlier to supply the city’s 2,000 hatters and 12 hat factories with fresh water.

“Suddenly, just after the bells had ceased ringing for church … the dam gave way emptying 60 acres of water,” according to the Feb. 20, 1869 edition of Harper’s Weekly.

A flood of more than 40 million gallons of water poured down into Danbury, leaving devastation in its wake. Houses were washed away, buildings and bridges were destroyed, and 13 city residents died in the flood.

“ With terrible velocity it struck the houses on Main Street near the river bank, instantly sweeping them from their foundations,” Harper’s wrote. “The blow fell suddenly upon the town, and in less than half an hour accomplished its fatal work.”

Historical and newspaper accounts, including Harper’s, described the destruction as a “disaster, calamity, strange, appalling and fatal.″

One of the accounts describes how the body of one woman was found a day later frozen to a tree, a half-mile from the house she escaped.

The flood may have been caused by a break in the dam, previously identified but neglected. The reservoir still exists, by the way, though it’s now known as Upper Kohanza Lake and Lower Kohanza Lake.

Those dams, though, have passed inspection and are built to withstand 33 inches of rain in 24 hours.

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