On July 29, 1905, the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company (BHC) measured the total rainfall during the ten-hour period that preceded midnight on that Saturday at 11.36 inches. One-by-one, multiple small mill pond dams along the Pequonnock River gave way until the spillway at the earthen dam at BHC’s reservoir at Lower Bunnell Pond became so clogged with debris that it washed out about half of the dam, causing the structure to disintegrate to the point where the entire reservoir was drained within minutes as the water rushed downstream towards Bridgeport. Several houses were torn from their foundations; barges and schooners were torn from their moorings and slammed into bridges with such force that it made those river crossings unusable; and at least two people lost their lives before the flood waters reached Long Island Sound.

What remained of the dam at Lower Bunnell Pond in Bridgeport in early August of 1905.

The BHC had already begun transitioning from earthen dams to stronger structures made of concrete, but the failure at Bunnell Pond would certainly hasten their work. Four years earlier, in 1901, the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company hired a 27-year-old Lehigh University graduate by the name of Samuel Palmer Senior to serve as superintendent in charge of the company’s planners. It didn’t take long for the young engineer to envision the need to greatly expand the company’s reservoir systems to meet the growing needs of the greater Bridgeport area. Instead of a series of tiny reservoirs, Senior saw fewer, but much larger reservoirs in the company’s future. Trap Falls, Senior’s first large project that included the company’s first all concrete dam, was already being built in 1905 when the earthen dam at Bunnell Pond failed.  

By 1910, there was a plan in place to build four more new reservoirs that would serve the company’s needs for decades to come.

Construction of the Hemlock dam in November of 1912.

The Hemlock Reservoir came first with construction commencing in 1912, followed shortly by the Aspetuck directly to the north. Plans were in place for a greatly expanded Easton Lake with a much larger, concrete dam when the First World War broke out in 1914. It would be the company’s third dam on the Mill River, creating a single large reservoir in the Narrows section of town that separated Easton and Trumbull. The first reservoir at Easton had been built in 1886. It covered 46 acres and held just over two hundred million gallons of water. Deemed too small to serve Bridgeport’s growing industrial population, a second reservoir was built just behind the first during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Number Two would cover an additional 150 acres and hold over eight hundred million gallons of water, making Easton’s total available water supply in excess of one billion gallons.

A composite of four U.S. topographical maps shows both of Easton’s original reservoirs as they would have appeared in 1920. Note that Old Oak still traversed the valley and went all the way to Trumbull!

But less than twenty years later, the company saw a still greater need for increased capacity, so number Three was planned to replace both of the smaller reservoirs. At a planned height of one hundred and twenty-five feet, it would impound six billion gallons of water, a six-fold increase over the two smaller reservoirs it was scheduled to replace.

Easton Number Two dam sat about a quarter mile north of the rear of the first reservoir in the Narrows.

The first World War seemed to justify Senior’s expansion plans. Daily water consumption in the city of Bridgeport grew from approximately twenty-five million gallons per day in 1914 to thirty-four million gallons a day by 1918. Preliminary construction of the new dam at Easton began in 1917 but was soon halted as material costs skyrocketed due to shortages of supplies when the United States formally entered the war a few months later. The Easton project was put on hold indefinitely.

In 1921, the BHC held a total of eighteen reservoirs located in Easton, Fairfield, Trumbull, Bridgeport, Huntington, and Stratford. The total reserve capacity was just over nine billion gallons, the same as it had been in 1915. Daily usage had by then decreased to twenty-four million gallons per day, but Sam Senior was insisting the city still needed increased storage capacity as Bridgeport’s industry was in mired in a post war recession and would require more water as times improved and the city would again begin to grow. The new reservoirs planned at Easton and Weston (Saugatuck) would add almost eighteen billion gallons of additional storage, but some of that increase would be offset by the elimination of nearly a dozen of the company’s smaller reservoirs.

Unlike most water companies, the BHC owned its own construction company. By 1921, they had already constructed five concrete dams, including Trap Falls, Samp Mortar in Fairfield, the Hemlocks, and the Aspetuck above it. In addition, they also owned a three-hundred-foot dock along with an adjoining storage yard in the west end of Bridgeport where practically all their pipe was landed and stored. A large fleet of trucks that hauled their cement and coal was located in a garage in downtown Bridgeport. The company even owned their own locomotives which were used on rail tracks that were temporarily installed at construction sites so that materials could easily be moved. Two nurseries were owned by the company that supplied between fifty and seventy thousand conifers annually that were planted along the shores of the firm’s reservoirs and watershed basins. All in all, it was a fairly self-sufficient operation that could move fast and economically when development and construction was called for.

BHC had their own locomotives to move materials during construction.

Sam Senior believed strongly in keeping the company’s watershed as pristine as possible. By 1921, the BHC had acquired over thirteen thousand acres of land in Fairfield County, most of it along the rivers and streams that fed their reservoirs. It had removed multiple mills, farms, and other businesses that once sat close to or used those rivers and streams for power. The BHC even kept two private companies busy during the summer months pumping out the cesspools on farms they didn’t own, but that were close enough to be possible sources of contamination. Senior was proud that the death rate from typhoid fever in Bridgeport had steadily dropped from 8.6 per thousand in 1916 to 2.1 in 1920 – about half of the average for the entire state of Connecticut.

By September of 1921, the company was itching to resume construction on the Easton project, but there were financial concerns that needed to be addressed first. The BHC wanted to increase the water rates to its customers in Bridgeport so that it could both keep paying its annual eight percent dividend to stockholders and fund the new two-million-dollar dam at Easton. What transpired was a protracted fight between the city and BHC, with the city insisting that the new dam at Easton wasn’t even needed – that the BHC had more than a sufficient amount of water available to service the needs of Bridgeport for many years to come.

Costs for labor and materials had grown substantially since the BHC’s 1906 contract with the city had been written where Bridgeport had agreed to render the company an annual lease payment for every hydrant within its jurisdiction. With over seventeen hundred hydrants in place, that should have equated to several thousand dollars per year in additional revenue for the BHC. But the city had complained so loudly about paying the agreed upon rental fee, that in 1911, the company released the city from that obligation and instead began installing and repairing hydrants at the city’s order and expense but charging them no rent. In addition, the company had been supplying water to Bridgeport’s factories for fire suppression (sprinklers) for years without charge. In 1921, the company petitioned the Public Utility Commission for both a $35,000 residential rate increase and $153,000 from the city for past hydrant water charges.

The BHC argued, “We figured that twenty-five percent of plant construction should be paid for by revenue derived from fire protection water service, something for which we have been getting no payment for a number of years.” The commission agreed and the company’s rate increase request was granted in early 1923.

The city immediately appealed in Superior Court. The city used Senior’s own testimony from the earlier rate hearings to show that the increased capacity that the new Easton Lake reservoir would provide wouldn’t be needed for several more years under the direst predictions of either a prolonged drought or greater demand. The company had provided nearly ten million more gallons of water on a daily basis during the height of war than what both the residents and industry were consuming in 1923.

In the end, the court lowered the rate increase to a level both the company and Bridgeport could live with. In 1924, both dams at Easton One and Two were destroyed before the BHC began construction on dam number three in earnest, and by early 1927, the new dam began collecting water behind it.

Prior to construction on the new dam at Easton Lake, the first two dams were destroyed and both reservoirs drained. This is Number Two after it was breached in early 1924.

It wouldn’t be until the early 1940’s when Sam Senior’s vision of a greater demand came true as Bridgeport became one of the most productive cities on the east coast leading up to America’s involvement in World War II. Had the city not had the luxury of excess water capacity, it is certainly doubtful that the output of its industrial complex could have been as fruitful as it was. It is also doubtful that the company could have adequately provided enough water to supply the needs of towns such as Easton, Fairfield, and Trumbull as they grew after the war.

In the end, Sam Senior’s persistence and vision prevailed. Easton Lake was built, and as a result, lower Fairfield County will likely never be short of the water in needs to survive.

Setting the pipes at in the base of Number Three in May 1925.
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By Bruce Nelson

Director of Research for the Historical Society of Easton Town Co-Historian for the Town of Redding, Connecticut Author/Publisher at Sport Hill Books