Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Wet Weather in New England

It's been raining nonstop in Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire and parts of Massachusetts now for almost a full week, with flooding conditions in much of western NH and evacuations underway as I write this in a few riverside communities.

Last October brought some momentous flooding to NH and parts of VT, with towns like Alstead NH hit the hardest (including seven fatalities). Marge's work involves the Alstead school district, and she knew some of the folks nailed by that flooding; one family not only lost their home, but the land they'd built upon and owned -- all gone, washed away, cratered and valueless. It wasn't the kind of devastation New Orleans, Mississippi, and the Gulf States suffered under Katrina's fury, but it was as hard as we'd seen it hereabouts in years.

All of which brings me to today's post, which looks back at the most intense devastation flooding caused in Vermont in the 20th Century.

Here's a preview (a tease, really) of one of the feature articles I've written for Green Mountain Cinema Vol. 2, forthcoming this summer from Black Coat Press...

Swept Away: Images of the 1927 Flood

The Northeast Historic Film Museum preserves precious images of the past, as does the University of Vermont’s (UVM) Bailey/Howe Library’s Media Resources Department. Their treasures include these startling -- and distinctively different -- motion-picture records of the infamous 1927 flood that hammered Vermont...

Like many Vermonters, I grew up amid riverbanks, flood plains, and landmarks that had been reshaped by the infamous flood of 1927. I was hardly conscious of this as a lad. Though I loved science and geology, the ability to ‘read the landscape’ was a skill beyond me.

Still, there were glimmers: glib references to the flood by my parents, aunts, uncles, and other adults; the occasional mention by a teacher in the two-floor Duxbury schoolhouse; the occasional stolen glance at an ancient postcard or photograph; frequent visits, picnics, hikes and swims in and about the Waterbury Dam in Waterbury Center, which we were told was built in the wake of the flood. In the woods close to our home in Duxbury, my friends and I used to play around the partially-buried chasis of an ancient automobile amid a sprawl of what seemed to us to be old garbage; we would on occasion excavate some arcane bit of metal debris from the dirt, and wonder how it all got there. The flood was a mysterious, ominous event of unimaginable proportions, its history still buried in the soil, its ripples still spilling through time.

Many Vermont towns and villages bear similar landmarks; we all have our reference points. Though I spent most of my childhood traveling along, rafting, fishing, and playing in and around the Winooski River (where it flows between Waterbury and Duxbury), the most evident scar of that legendary flood presented itself every time I went to Bob’s Barbershop on Elm Street in Waterbury (Dad insisted on my brother Rick and I having crewcuts, so we went to Bob’s often). It seemed to me every time my father led me into Bob’s, I looked forward to seeing that evidence: a watermark, if you will, painted high above the sidewalk.

You can see that “watermark” still. If you drive into Waterbury heading east down South Main Street, just turn right on to Elm Street. Let your eyes wander up the second building on the right -- #3 Elm Street, the large brick building that is now Fisher Auto Parts, a Federated Auto Parts store -- and note the painted marker just above the sills of the second-story windows:

"High Water Mark: Nov. 3rd - 4th 1927"

As I used to say to myself, “Wow -- that must have been a lot of water!”


It was the first week of November, 1927. Our own Calvin Coolidge was in the White House, it had been a productive summer yielding an abundant harvest, and there had been few frosts. There had, however, been a great deal of rain all through October, causing high water and some washouts. But there were no dire weather predictions, no flood warnings.

In an era long before the exhaustive weather ‘watch’ and forecasting we take for granted today, the first few drops of rain that began to fall on November 2nd from the cold front moving east harbored nothing more than an early winter shower.

But the rain fell steady throughout the early morning of the 3rd, until “the clouds lifted slightly,” Harold H. Chadwick recalled (in his article “Flood” in Vermont Life, Autumn 1952). “People left their homes to view the raging streams, curious to see what was going on... no one realized the danger... the rushing waters inspired awe but not alarm until about mid-day...” (Chadwick, pg. 8). The rain resumed that afternoon and it didn’t let up. The worst was yet to come as the sun faded, the rain fell, the rivers rose, and the waters became as all-consuming as the darkness.

F. E. Hartwell, U.S. Weather Bureau meteorologist stationed in Burlington, Vermont, wrote, “Consideration must be given to the fact that October was a wet month in Vermont. The total rainfall was about 50 per cent above normal and well distributed throughout the four-week period. Consequently the ground became soaked so full of water that by the end of the month all rainfall was running off as surface water, with practically none entering the ground. This was the condition when the phenomenal (for New England) rainfall of November 2, 3 and 4 occured.... practically all of it flowed immediately into the river systems of the state without the retarding process of first soaking into the ground and running off more gradually as would have been the case if this rain had followed a dry month instead of a wet one” (Hartwell quoted from R. E. Atwood, Stories and Pictures of The Vermont Flood: November, 1927, 1928, pg. 3).

And still it fell, swelling the brooks, streams, rivers, and lakes.

These soon spilled over their banks, and the waters crept up over pastures and roads, over streets and sidewalks, over steps and porches and door sills.

It lifted bridges from their moorings and houses from their foundations, and still it rained. It bore away everything in its path, and still the torrential downpour continued.

The water rose -- and rose -- and rose -- still, it rained.

The water was a force in and of itself. Every river in the state swallowed its banks and spilled over, but the Winooski River -- arising near Lower Cabot, swelling southest between Barre and Montpelier, and continuing northwest past Waterbury to Lake Champlain just north of Burlington -- savaged its hapless neighbors with unimaginable force. R.E. Atwood wrote, “As if drunk with its new-found power, it staggered and roared its crooked way down the valley, ripping out trees, tearing away houses, barns, bridges, and gathering live stock and even human beings into its awful arms, until, spent with its Herculean effort, it passed mutteringly out into Lake Champlain” (Atwood, pg. 4).

For three days, every river -- the Connecticut, the Missisquoi, Lamoille, Wells, White River, Black River, the Clyde, Otter Creek, the West River, etc. -- and every brook, stream, river, and body of water in the state (and those nearby, including the Hoosac River in Massachusetts) matched or vied with the Winooski in destructive force. Flash floods further carved out the hills and valleys, needing no names, taking no prisoners, and leaving nothing behind, save the scars of their passing.

Thus, November 2nd, 3rd, and 4th forever marked Vermont and its people.


In hindsight, the details still astound: over five inches of rain drenched ninety percent of the Green Mountain State and parts of Northern Massachusetts within thirty hours. Before it let up, over half the state was awash with six to nine inches or more of rain. Though all parts of the region were affected, the Winooski River basin -- the most populated area of the state -- was the hardest hit. It was a storm unlike any in Vermont’s recorded history since the flood of 1869, and it changed the region forever.

Before the waters receded, the resulting flood claimed eight-four human lives (including that of Vermont’s Lieutenant Governor S. Hollister Jackson, who abandoned his stalled car mere yards from his home and tried to wade across Potash Brook to safety, only to be swept away; his body was recovered almost a mile down Potash Brook). The deluge killed thousands of livestock as it swept away almost seven hundred farms; it demolished almost two hundred homes and over two hundred factories; washed away over a thousand bridges; and ultimately devastated the area to the tune of over 30 million dollars (1927 currency), with four million dollars alone due to the extensive damage to railroads.

And then came winter. Cleanup, repair, and reconstruction were difficult once the snow blanketed all and the ground froze (thankfully late that winter, allowing for extensive repairs to be completed, particularly to the railroads; Central Vermont’s first passenger train traveled the reconstructed line by February 4th, 1928; see Chadwick, pg. 13). The back-breaking work continued well into the spring of ‘28.

For many, recovery and healing took much, much longer.

Vermont was already a financially impoverished state, its populace getting by on modest incomes at best; the flood was an enormous setback, not to mention a hell of a precursor to the Depression. But the surviving Vermonters rallied, helped one another, and endured; all worked hard to put it behind them. President Calvin Coolidge dispatched Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to the state as his personal representative in mid-November; after his tour of the devastation, Hoover commented, “I have seen Vermont at her worst, but I have also seen Vermonters at their best” (quoted from Chadwick, Ibid.). Vermont Governor John E. Weeks issued a statement which declared the flood “the greatest disaster in the history of our beautiful state.” Noting the devastation, Weeks wrote, “It was indeed a hopeless situation to meet with winter hovering in the offing. But Vermonters are not those to be daunted or broken by hopelessness. With unbelievable courage our people started to reconstruct and rehabilitate and not for a moment did they yield to a spirit of demoralization” (as published in Atwood, pg. 1).

In the wake of the flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed three flood retention reservoirs (and their accompanying dams) along the hard-hit Winooski River Basin (East Orange, Wrightsville, and Waterbury) in hopes of preventing similar flooding in the future. Subsequently, New England and Vermont weathered other powerful storms (including the floods of 1936 and 1947, the hurricanes of 1938 and 1950), prompting the building of more reservoirs and dams, “but no event has approached the Flood of 1927 for areal extent,” according to the
  • National Weather Service.
  • Many towns, large and small, still sport ‘high water marks’ for the 1927 flood on key public buildings, still-visible testimonials to the disaster. There are also many still photographs, archived in many local historical societies, countless home collections and scrapbooks, and a few even committed to postcards of the time. Immediately after the waters had receded, the U.S. federal government commissioned a “flyover” of the Winooski River, the White and Black Rivers, and the Lamoille River, and their respective basins to document the extensive flood damage. They accumulated ninety aerial photographs, sixty-eight of which are now displayed on the University of Vermont’s Landscape Change website (go
  • to this site,
  • which offers literally thousands of flood images along with the aerial views cited).

    But another visible testimonial remains: rare motion picture footage of the flood.

    [End of preview/tease -- The rest awaits you in Green Mountain Cinema II, heavily illustrated, coming this summer!]

    Tuesday Morning Factoid:

    Vermont is the only state that the capital, Montpelier, does not have a McDonalds.

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