The Story of Runaway Pond
It had been a dry summer, and the spring that followed was no different. The river that powered the one grist mill in Glover’s valley was flowing slowly. The miller Aaron Willson hatched an idea that would solve the problem, and enlisted the help of several of his patrons—all early settlers from the hills of Glover, Wheelock and Sheffield—to lend a hand.
On June 6, 1810 about 60 men and boys with picks, shovels and lunches followed the calls of tin horns to the northern end of Long Pond, a body of water on the Glover-Greensboro line. The lake was about 1 mile long, half a mile wide, over 125 feet deep in the deepest part, and surrounded by thickly forested land. Most of the work crew headed there had never been to the pond before.
Willson’s idea: to dig a trench creating a northern outlet for the Pond that would increase the water power for the mill, five miles north. June 6 was a perfect day for the work bee, as it was a holiday in New Hampshire, the native state of most of the Gloverites. A great day to lay farm chores aside and have an outing, and Willson would provide the drink and pay them for a day’s work.
At 8 AM they began digging. By noon, the trench was 6 rods long, 4 feet deep, and 6 feet wide, leading from just below Long Pond’s north shore to Mud Pond, with its outlet to the Barton River. At noon, with just the Long Pond north shore left to break through, the workers broke for lunch. An hour later they were back at work, but soon after taking the last shovelfuls, they suddenly realized they had succeeded too well—underneath the hardpan was quicksand, fine as flour. A thunderous noise rose as the water crashed out of its banks.
The first words spoken were the miller’s: “What will become of my wife?” She had stayed back at the mill. He took off running, but others urged a faster runner to go: “He will never get there! Chamberlain, you are the one that can reach the mill, if anyone can—run, Chamberlain, run!”
Spencer Chamberlain was tall and muscular, 24 years old, known as a strong wrestler and swift runner. He ran “fleet as a deer,” able to get ahead of the waters when temporary dams were created by the fallen trees and rocks. Long Pond, with its two billon gallons of water, was drained in 1.5 hours.
In his mad run, Chamberlain lost his hat and coat, and reached the mill just seconds ahead of the water. The miller’s wife was spared, but the mill was swept away. On through the valley the waters rushed, sometimes becoming a wall 75 feet high, through Barton and Coventry, taking with it houses, a blacksmith’s shop, bridges, barns, fences, horses, cattle, and two more mills. People five miles away heard the sound of thunder and felt the earth tremble—some believed Judgment Day had arrived.
Six hours and 23 miles later the Long Pond waters arrived at in Newport and were swallowed up by Lake Memphremagog. Amazingly, no lives were lost. Left behind were a muddy trail of uprooted trees and boulders, an anvil in a tree, and the stench of thousands of dead fish.
Spencer Chamberlain lived 40 more years in Glover, but never regained the strength he enjoyed before that run. Willson and his family hightailed it back to New Hampshire. Several parties whose property was damaged sued the Willsons and others who were at the digging, though by 1812, matters had been settled out of court.
It took years of burning the heaps of tangled trees to clear the path of Runaway Pond from Glover to Newport. The tragedy of the runaway pond eventually was viewed as a blessing, as the retreating waters left enriched soils and better farmland along its path. The path of the waters opened up a route for Route 16. And the cedar swamp just north of Willson’s Mill was filled in, creating a place for a new town center; ten years later, Glover Village had sprung up.
A Story Worth Retelling…
Since 1810, the story of Runaway Pond has been told and retold, in prose, verse, song, and dramatizations. The story even made its way into a Ripley’s Believe it or Not column, and was used in national advertising by National Life warning readers to “plan ahead” and buy life insurance.
There have been three known anniversary celebrations in Glover, the first in 1860 on the 50th anniversary, and then a huge centennial program in 1910 in the dry lake bed with over 2000 attending. Speeches were made, bands played, cannons fired, and the monument unveiled. In 2010 the Society organized a town wide event that lasted for three days that included a historic quilt show, flea market on the common, lectures and slide shows about the geology and path of the flood, the requisite Run, Chamberlain, Run and culminated with a rain drenched presentation by the governor, Jim Douglas, at the Runaway Pond site. The rain may have dampened the grounds, but not the spirit as hundreds of people showed up over the weekend to learn and participate.
In 1996, the Glover Historical Society moved the monument from where it right next to Rt. 16 to its present location in a highway pull off and picnic area in the Runaway Pond basin, where it is more safely and easily viewed. The GHS also added a plaque on the back side of the monument telling the story of Runaway Pond, and added millstone picnic tables and new waterworks for a popular cold-water spring. The Runaway Pond Park was dedicated in July, 1996.
A poem about Runaway Pond was written in the 1860s by Spencer Chamberlain’s daughter, Jeanette Chamberlain Phillips, and later in the 1900s by another descendant, Glover’s Poet Laureate, Harry Alonzo Phillips. It is his canto that the Bread and Puppet Theater Company use in their Runaway Pond puppet show preformed each year at Glover Day. For about 20 years now, Chamberlain’s run has been the inspiration for the “Run, Chamberlain, Run” race for runners and walkers held each July at Glover Day.
Like any story, there are details that vary depending on who was doing the telling, and over the years, just exactly what happened has been the subject of plenty of debate and discussion. The story is full of legend and lore. In 2001, the Glover Historical Society published Runaway Pond: The Complete Story, A Compilation of Resources by Wayne Alexander, to gather and document all the stories, and in 2004 published Daniel Cumming’s Run, Chamberlain, Run, a retelling for children.