May 16, 2012

The peaceful valley has waked and stirred

When a reservoir dam burst open in Williamsburg in western Massachusetts on May 16, 1874, a wall of water crashed down on the surrounding town and flooded for miles. Homes were destroyed, and many died. One local farmer, however, jumped on his horse and rode to warn neighbors of the danger. The actions of Collins Graves earned him a medal for heroism and a dedicatory poem by John Boyle O'Reilly titled "The Ride of Collins Graves":

No song of a soldier riding down
To the raging fight from Winchester town;
No song of a time that shook the earth
With the nations' throe at a nation's birth;
But the song of a brave man, free from fear
As Sheridan's self or Paul Revere;
Who risked what they risked, free from strife,
And its promise of glorious pay—his life!

The peaceful valley has waked and stirred,
And the answering echoes of life are heard:
The dew still clings to the trees and grass,
And the early toilers smiling pass,
As they glance aside at the white-walled homes,
Or up the valley, where merrily comes
The brook that sparkles in diamond rills
As the sun comes over the Hampshire hills.

What was it, that passed like an ominous breath—
Like a shiver of fear, or a touch of death?
What was it? The valley is peaceful still,
And the leaves are afire on top of the hill.
It was not a sound—nor a thing of sense—
But a pain, like the pang of the short suspense
That thrills the being of those who see
At their feet the gulf of Eternity!

The air of the valley has felt the chill:
The workers pause at the door of the mill;
The housewife, keen to the shivering air,
Arrests her foot on the cottage stair,
Instinctive taught by the mother-love,
And thinks of the sleeping ones above.

Why start the listeners? Why does the course
Of the mill-stream widen? Is it a horse—
Hark to the sound of his hoofs, they say—
That gallops so wildly Williamsburg way!

God! what was that, like a human shriek
From the winding valley? Will nobody speak?
Will nobody answer those women who cry
As the awful warnings thunder by?

Whence come they? Listen! And now they hear
The sound of the galloping horsehoofs near;
They watch the trend of the vale, and see
The rider who thunders so menacingly,
With waving arms and warning scream
To the home-filled banks of the valley stream.

He draws no rein, but he shakes the street
With a shout and the ring of the galloping feet;
And this the cry he flings to the wind:
"To the hills for your lives! The flood is behind!"

He cries and is gone; but they know the worst—
The breast of the Williamsburg dam has burst!
The basin that nourished their happy homes
Is changed to a demon—It comes! it comes!

A monster in aspect, with shaggy front
Of shattered dwellings, to take the brunt
Of the homes they shatter—white-maned and hoarse,
The merciless Terror fills the course
Of the narrow valley, and rushing raves,
With death on the first of its hissing waves,
Till cottage and street and crowded mill
Are crumbled and crushed...

Graves was credited with saving some 300 lives. Incidentally, O'Reilly had written a poem about the Great Chicago Fire only three years earlier. The more devastating Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania would not be for another 15 years.

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