"On This Day" In Engineering History Blog

"On This Day" In Engineering History

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March 11, 1864: The Great Sheffield Flood

Posted March 12, 2007 3:52 PM by Steve Melito

Today is the anniversary of the Great Sheffield Flood, the catastrophic result of the failure of an embankment on England's River Loxley. The collapse of the Dale Dyke Dam released 650 to 700 million gallons of water from the Bradfield Reservoir into the valley below, destroying over 4000 homes and claiming nearly 250 lives.

According to Samuel Harrison, author of A Complete History of the Great Flood at Sheffield, the torrent approached speeds of 20 mph and carried over two million tons of water and debris. In little more than an hour, the Great Inundation also removed 92,000 cubic yards of material from the Dale Dyke Dam, two sloping embankments made of rubble, stone, rockfill, and shale. "Everything solid which stood in direct course of the flood was swept away," wrote Harrison; "huge rocks were torn up and floated along just as pine timber would have been floated in an ordinary water way."

In the wake of the Great Sheffield Flood, two teams of engineers advanced competing theories about the dam's collapse. Government inspectors described the deluge as a man-made disaster, blaming the Dale Dyke Dam's design and construction. According to inspector Robert Rawlinson, outlet pipes beneath the embankment had ruptured, leaked, and slowly eroded the earthworks. Because these pipes remained buried under tons of debris, however, Rawlinson's theory remained unproven. For their part, civil engineers from the Sheffield Waterworks Company, the dam's owner, countered that the Great Inundation was not a man-made catastrophe, but a natural disaster.

According to chief engineer John Gunson, the embankment was destroyed by the same landslide which had cracked the walls of nearby cottages. A local jury, after hearing both arguments, sided with Rawlinson and concluded that "there has not been that engineering skill and that attention to the construction of the works, which their magnitude and importance demanded."

Editor's Note: If you liked this story, see March 12, 1928: Mulholland's Fault.







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