Connecticut River Flood of 1936


By Joshua Stanley

The History Press, 175 pages.





The United States is blessed with numerous powerful and useful river systems. The flip side is that they tend to flood from time to time and a big river leaves devastation in its wake.


The 410-mile Connecticut is the longest in the Northeast, nearly 100 miles longer than the Hudson. Its floods don’t usually grab national attention like those along the Mississippi, but the Connecticut and its tributaries periodically wreak havoc. Three big ones in 1927, 1936, and 1938 were particularly fierce. Vermont was clobbered so badly in 1927 that the New York Times histrionically declared that it had been “destroyed.”


The granddaddy of Connecticut overflows occurred in 1936. It is the subject of a new book by Josh Shanley, whose background is in emergency management, fire rescue, and several other germane professions. Most studies of the 1936 floods have been local ones. Stanley’s contribution is to look at the entirety of the Connecticut River system. March 1936 involved a literal perfect storm; heavy rains fell upon thick ice formed during a colder-than-normal winter, leaving the water with few places to go except over the banks. Milder weather brought a second whammy, large sheets of dislodged ice. Instant frozen dams appeared—some higher than 30 feet-–that sped the course of the water, while other chunks split apart and slammed into bridges. Some were knocked off their moorings and several were washed away entirely, as were riverside rail tracks, roads, farm buildings, and homes. By Shanley’s reckoning, an adjusted $9 billion worth of property damage ensued and more than 100 people lost their lives.


Shanley opens his book with a look at how historical developments played a part in riverine disasters. Humans have been altering the Connecticut River in major ways since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. New England’s swift-flowing waters provided a natural power supply for factories, machines, and lighting. By the early 20th century, dams (often earthen) dotted the Connecticut River and feeder streams. Most were overtopped in 1936 and a half dozen were destroyed.


Pleasant Street Northampton


Shanley takes us on a north-to-south journey and assesses the damage from Comerford Station on the Monroe, New Hampshire/Barnet, Vermont, line to Hartford, Connecticut. Some of the worst damage occurred on Connecticut tributary rivers such as the Ammonoosuc, the Farmington, the Green, the Mill, the Millers, and the Wells. In all, 35 towns and cities suffered crippling storm damage. By way of illustration, Northampton, Massachusetts, saw a trolley bridge and a 1200’ iron span across the Connecticut wash away. Waters from the Mill River flooded the downtown, threatened a gasworks, and made Pleasant Street navigable only by rowboat. Overflow from the Connecticut inundated the Three County Fairground.


Shanley takes a chronicler’s approach rather than dramatizing the tales. His matter-of-fact account is loaded with statistics whose net effect is to drive home the severity of the cataclysm. He also accumulated quite a trove of photographs—both aerial and ground level—that graphically illustrates the tragedy.


Two things jump off the pages that make all of this more than a peek into the past. First, the responses both during and after the floods were heroic and extensive. Shanley tells of power plant workers working in rising water as they battled to pile sandbags that kept waters at bay. More impressive still, 250,000 New Deal Works Progress Administration workers turned their attention to repairs and flood control projects aimed at preventing future disasters. In Northampton, they had not yet completed their tasks before the town was buffeted by another flood in 1938, but among their efforts was the diversion of the Mill River away from the downtown along the very course it runs today. Those who think that the private sector does things better than the federal government should muse upon this. On an even more poignant level, consider today’s infrastructure plan paralysis. When the hue-and-cry arises that analogous projects are too expensive, remember that we are seeking to rebuild things that date to the 1930s, including flood control projects. Moreover, those major undertakings occurred in the middle of the Great Depression!  (Think maybe our priorities are bankrupt, not the Treasury?)


As Vermonters who endured the effects of Hurricane Irene (2011) can attest, Mother Nature often delivers reminders that humans aren’t as safe as they think. With very little editorial comment, Shanley ends his book by posing the question of whether we might be heading for a future repeat of 1938. If that sounds implausible, ask residents of New Orleans if Hurricane Katrina (2005) would have been less destructive had we taken care of surrounding wetlands.


Rob Weir


No comments: