60 Years Ago: The Flood of 1955

The Prospect Street bridge over the Naugatuck River in Torrington (Connecticuthistory.org)

The Prospect Street bridge over the Naugatuck River in Torrington (Connecticuthistory.org)

The Flood of 1955, the worst natural disaster in Connecticut history, resulted from the approximately two feet of rain dropped by Hurricanes Connie and Diane that August. Low-lying areas were already flooded on the morning of August 18th when the second storm dumped fourteen more inches that afternoon and on August 19th. The Housatonic stood at 24.5 feet deep and the Mad and Still Rivers in Winsted raged at 50 miles per hour.  In Torrington, the Naugatuck River, so peaceful looking today, swept away lumber, rocks, even buildings. Stores along East Main Street were filled with six feet of water. The city suffered an estimated $22 million dollars in damage.

Memorial to flood victims in Winsted

Memorial to flood victims in Winsted

A similar scene played out in Winsted, while the Shepaug River carried away an apartment building in Washington Depot.  Concrete sections of Route 44 were washed away and across the county, Bailey bridges – made famous during World War II – were used to provide temporary river crossings.  Twenty-five helicopters searched for survivors or dropped clean food and water.  Statewide, 87 people were killed, and over 8,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. Twenty five of the dead were from Litchfield County. Memorials stand in Torrington and Winsted to those who lost their lives.

American Brass factory, Torrington

American Brass factory, Torrington

Extraordinary acts of heroism by police, firemen, and ordinary citizens kept the death toll from growing. In its August 26th, 1955 edition the Torrington Register proclaimed, “So numerous were the many acts of heroism, rescue of the sick and invalid, neighbors’ concern for neighbors, that it would impossible to chronicle them without slighting someone deserving of great credit.

dam

Thomaston Dam

In addition to severely (in some places irreparably) damaging the state’s industrial infrastructure, the floods forced the Army Corps of Engineers to take action so that such a disaster never happened again.  The army constructed the Thomaston Dam (1960), Northfield Brook Dam (1965), and Colebrook Dam (1969), at a cost of $70 million.  The Naugatuck River, with its many tributaries, had been especially prone to flooding and the dams constructed along that river provided over 77,000 acres of flood capacity, while returning over 1,000 acres to forest.  This protection came at a price as construction displaced the communities of Fluteville and Campville in Litchfield.  Still, it is perhaps fortunate that the traveler through Torrington today has difficulty in imagining the destructive power of the now-controlled Naugatuck River. 

Please see “The Lost,” a special section of the Hartford Courant for tributes to those who died in the Flood of 1955: http://www.courant.com/news/connecticut/hc-55flood-casualties-htmlstory.html

Also see the Torrington Register-Citizen’s photo archive of the flood: https://picasaweb.google.com/lh/albumMap?uname=kaitlynmyeager&aid=5547678124797887025#map

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The Blizzard of 1888

With Litchfield stuck in a weather pattern that seems to bring more snow every day, perhaps a look back at the great Blizzard of 1888 is in order.

Drifted snow at Dr. Buel's house on North Street, Litchfield, 1888.  Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

Drifted snow at Dr. Buel’s house on North Street, Litchfield, 1888. Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

With little in the way of accurate meteorological predictions, the blizzard came as a surprise to the Northeast on Sunday, March 11, 1888.  It had been an unusually warm winter, and that day dawned with rain.  It soon turned to hail, then sleet, then ultimately snow.  Bitter cold and high winds set in, and the snow continued for three days.  When it all stopped, between 20 and 50 inches of snow had fallen in Connecticut, with drifts of 12 feet not uncommon.  (One drift in New Haven reached 40 feet high!)  The storm resulted in more than 400 deaths and an estimated $20 million worth of damage.

Dr. Buel's house after the snow had melted.  One source says the snow was melted within ten days; another says the last of the drifts didn't melt until June! Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

Dr. Buel’s house after the snow had melted. One source says the snow was melted within ten days; another says the last of the drifts didn’t melt until June! Courtesy of Litchfield Historical Society.

The following are excerpts about the blizzard from the Litchfield Enquirer:

March 12th – “The wind blew a perfect blizzard all day and the drifting and falling snow made even main streets almost impassable Monday night the storm continued with increasing fury and buildings rocked as though in a storm at sea.”

A modern view of Dr. Buel's house.

A modern view of Dr. Buel’s house.

March 13th – “On Tuesday morning the wind had lessened though still blowing a gale with the thermometer at or near zero. The most remarkable drifts are at Dr. [H. W.] Buel‘s. One, a little west of the house, about 20 feet, to a level with the eaves. There is an addition on the west of Dr. Buel‘s house, reaching- about to the eaves, which is almost completely covered by the snow, so that our reporter, walking- along the top of the drift, passed completely over the roof of this part of the house, and down on the northern side. There is a drift on the east which is even higher, shutting up one of the library windows completely, and reaching nearly to the top of one of the large firs which form a hedge on that side of the house.

March 14th – “The wind is northeast and considerable snow is still falling. People are about on snow shoes skees (sic) and snow shoes extemporized out of boards some carrying groceries to those in great want. Little business is doing. Most of the stores are closed. A few are open with people standing about comparing notes about tunneling to their woodsheds drifts over second story windows and other marvels of the great storm.”

The Lake Station, Bantam.  Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation.

The Lake Station, Bantam. Courtesy of White Memorial Foundation.

The Shepaug Railroad was out of service until March 16th. A railroad cut near the Lake Station (today the Cove in Bantam) was filled with a drift 22 feet deep!

And all this snow needed to be removed from the transportation network without the benefit of modern plows!

July 1989 Tornado

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This bell and plaque commemorate the United Methodist Church of Bantam, destroyed 25 years ago today by a tornado.

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On Monday, July 10th, 1989, a powerful family of tornados came out of New York State and ripped apart Cornwall’s Mohawk Ski Area, damaging every ski lift and carrying some of their chairs miles away.

Workers cleaning up the Cathedral Pines area after the tornado.  ctvisit.com

Workers cleaning up the Cathedral Pines area after the tornado. ctvisit.com

Atop any list of Litchfield County’s ecological treasures would have been Cornwall’s Cathedral Pines, at42-acres one of the largest stands of white pines and hemlocks (some reaching 120 feet high) east of the Mississippi. In one of the county’s first acts of ecological awareness, the Calhoun family purchased the land in 1883 to protect it from logging. The family donated Cathedral Pines to the Nature Conservancy in 1967. The tornado destroyed ninety percent of the trees in Cathedral Pines.

An early view of the Methodist Church in Bantam, destroyed by the tornado.  Bantam Historical Society.

An early view of the Methodist Church in Bantam, destroyed by the tornado. Bantam Historical Society.

Winds in excess of 150 miles per hour blew through Milton and Bantam, destroying homes, churches and stores.

Another tornado hit Watertown, and 12-year-old Jennifer Bike was killed when a tree fell on her tent in Black Rock State Park in Thomaston.

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Today, a small park at the site of the Methodist Church – built in 1901 – in Bantam commemorates tornado. Within the foundation of the church are benches are gardens, a far cry from the fury unleashed on Litchfield County 25 years ago.

I was sixteen years old, working at Lake Waramaug Country Club in New Preston that afternoon. I vividly remember the sky turning a greenish color and a vicious thunderstorm rolling through. Please use the comments area on this blog to share your memories of the tornado.