Runaway Pond Creates Path of Destruction in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom

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Earth-shattering event commemorated in small Vermont community recalls the day when Runaway Pond burst its banks 200 years ago and changed their lives, leaving behind incredible destruction -- plus an entertaining story that gets told and retold until this very day. In fact, some folks think the story of Runaway Pond has become even bigger than the event itself. And a whole lot more fun!

Sometimes it's just plain dumb to tinker with Mother Nature.

Most everybody in the vicinity of Glover and Barton, Vermont, probably has plans to turn out the weekend of June 6th to commemorate the day in 1810 when their valley got carved up with billions of gallons of water to make way for their town. The event they’ll be celebrating, and no doubt talking about with considerable energy throughout the 3-day affair, is Runaway Pond. And for people who live beyond the cluster of small communities south and west of Lake Memphremagog in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom -- or in fact, just about anywhere, the Runaway Pond object lesson is worth considering: that it’s just plain dumb to tinker with Mother Nature. Or put another way: sometimes it’s best to leave things well enough alone.

The story begins quite innocently enough. The owner of a grist mill decided that the stream that turned his stones wasn’t working hard enough, as the countryside was in the grip of a drought that had turned the water flow to a trickle. So why not help things along?

Several miles up the valley, a small pond fed his stream. And there was another, much bigger, pond above that. Trouble was, the stream from the big pond flowed south -- away from his mill, a fact that was not likely to change on its own considering things had been like that for something like 10,000 years.

So the miller, whose name was Willson, gathered a willing crowd, hiked up the rugged valley and began digging a trench at the north end of the pond to direct what he hoped would be a workable stream down toward his mill. All went well until the first bit of water began to flow over the lip they had chopped out of the hardpan that was holding the pond back and determining that its outflow would go south instead of north, which was of no value to Willson whatsoever. The water simply disappeared down the hole they had dug to start the trench. Soon, more water began to flow over the edge and down the hole -- and then even more water, which turned the fine sand they had been digging in to a soupy sort of quicksand. That, in turn, undermined the hardpan of the 100-foot deep pond, and the whole thing gave way with a flourish.

Somehow, the men weren’t swept away and lived to tell the tale, which is this: the pond that had no practical purpose until that time suddenly proceeded to create a significant legend for itself and run away down the swampy valley, making enough noise in the process that folks even some miles distant were convinced that Judgment Day had arrived. It carved out the little pond below, ripping up whole forests and generally creating chaos until eventually reaching the vicinity of Willson’s grist mill. The water proceeded in fits and starts, first turning trees to kindling and then piling them up like a dam before breaking through again and resuming the path of destruction. That gave a fellow named Chamberlain time to run ahead and warn the miller’s wife to get out just in time (or so the legend grows).

From there, Runaway Pond ran away toward Lake Memphremagog off in the distance, which is so big it probably never even noticed the new arrival. In its wake, the steep valley got filled with mud and busted up forest, which is where -- in time -- Glover Village decided to build itself, where the aforementioned commemoration is being held.

Drive Vermont Route 16 today, which runs through the area from Hardwick to Barton along the path of Runaway Pond, and you can still see some of its effects: a scooped out area where the pond used to be, its former shoreline marooned a good way up the steep hillsides that surround its former resting place; the small shallow pond below (later called Mud Pond for obvious reasons, then Tilldy’s Pond, and finally Clark Pond) and a bit farther on, Glover Village itself, which probably would have been put somewhere else had it not been for Runaway Pond.

And all of this, of course, is great cause for celebration, including bicentennial events for young and old and more tales told -- along with their embellishing, and even some serious speculating. What would have happened, for instance, had the Miller Willson and his rough and ready crew not tipped the scales of Mother Nature and released the deluge? Would the pond have held? Or would it have run away on its own at some later, more inopportune time? And should that be the case, where would Glover Village and all the good folks further downstream in Barton and Orleans be today? It’s worth pondering.

The Runaway Bicentennial celebration begins June 4th at the historic plaque that marks the location of the pond before it ran away. There will be opportunities to walk the path of destruction and a reenactment of Chamberlain’s tumultuous run for those hardy souls who choose to participate (and who pre-register). There will be bus tours that go from the former pond to the present day Glover Village site, 5.5 miles down the road. The governor will be there, too, for those who want to hang around and hear him talk. And there even will be a chance to dunk the hapless miller, Aaron Willson, which he probably deserved the whole time anyway. Donations to help support the events are cheerfully solicited. See you there.

Betsy Day
Glover Historical Society
P.O. Box 208
Glover, VT 05835

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Randy Williams, Betsy Day
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