TAUNTON, Mass. (AP) – Engineers struggled to ease pressure on a battered 173-year-old wooden dam Tuesday and prevent a collapse that could send a wall of water crashing through this town of 50,000.

Crews opened floodgates on the Whittenton Pond Dam, and also adjusted the flow on a second dam upstream on the rain-swollen Mill River.

The river fell by several inches, but an evacuation order remained in effect, and schools and highways were closed amid fears a dam break could send 6 feet of water surging through downtown Taunton, a working-class community about 40 miles from Boston.

“As the water level decreases, it will be taking a load off the structure and that’s what everyone is looking for,” engineer Matthew Bellisle said.

Mayor Robert Nunes said officials were worried about excessive vibration coming from a rotted wooden beam at the base of the dam. He said nothing was being done to reinforce the structure for fear that intervening could just cause it to fail.

With the dam buckling under heavy rains, the mayor on Monday ordered about 2,000 residents who live near the river to evacuate. The situation worsened after some of dam’s timbers washed away, and dive teams stood by in case rescues proved necessary.

But as the water level dropped in Lake Sabbatia, the body of water behind the dam, authorities were hopeful disaster could be avoided.

“I’ve got my fingers crossed that this thing is able to hold,” said Gov. Mitt Romney, who visited the dam.

Romney ordered emergency inspections of dams across the state.

Whittenton Pond Dam is one of about 3,000 private dams in the state. It was inspected two years ago and was considered in fair condition at that time, Romney said.

The 12-foot-high dam dates to 1832 and is near homes and businesses about a half-mile upstream from downtown Taunton. It was built to power a textile mill but no longer has any industrial purpose.

Taunton has received 11½ inches of rain this month, including more than 7 inches from Friday through Sunday. The city last flooded in 1968, when the same dam broke.

AP-ES-10-18-05 1818EDT

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