Connecticut Farmington River Flood of 1955 | The Nightmare That Was True

It was raining and three o’clock in the morning, August 19, 1955. The sudden roar of a truck in front of the house jarred me awake. I plunged my head deeper into the pillow to smother the sound, but the roaring and grinding got louder. Exasperated, I pounded to the window. What I saw, I […]

By Yankee Magazine

Mar 12 2014

The Nightmare That Was True

The Nightmare That Was True

It was raining and three o’clock in the morning, August 19, 1955. The sudden roar of a truck in front of the house jarred me awake. I plunged my head deeper into the pillow to smother the sound, but the roaring and grinding got louder. Exasperated, I pounded to the window. What I saw, I did not believe. There was water in the street—everywhere—as far as the eye could reach.

The truck I’d heard was a car. The grinding quit and a man jumped out, not bothering to close the door. He swept his small son up into his arms, grabbed his wife, and the three, clad in night clothes, started up the street in water above their knees.

Through the night came the cries of women and children, and terse, barked commands from anxious men. The Farmington River was flooding.

My mother came into my room. “I can’t believe it. What are we going to do? We can’t walk out into that.” Even as she spoke, I could see the river rising. Already two feet high in the street, the black, fearsome water began to course briskly as it swelled. The street lights gave away the presence of black objects, tumbling along with the current. The rain kept falling.

At 3:30, a fire alarm blared and a fire truck swam down our street almost to our house. A voice shouted through a megaphone, “There’s 27 feet of water coming! The dam’s broken. Get ready to leave immediately. We’ll send a boat to pick you up.” The truck churned slowly back up the street.

It never occurred to us that 27 feet of water would swallow our house. The imminence of such a wall of water seemed unreal.  We seemed unreal. Yet, stunned as we were, we knew the trouble was real. It is a paradox that strength and calm can sit upon fear in time or crisis. That strange acceptance of our peril came to us.

Doing something is better than waiting. Up the attic stairs went clothing, scrapbooks, picture albums, jewelry, canned goods—in case the boat didn’t come after all. The attic became the place of refuge. Once I pictured the two of us standing in the attic with water up to our necks while all around the steadfast house the waters raged.

The apartment where my mother and I lived was on the second floor of a large, white, frame house with a double front porch. As its former inhabitants grew in number, the house had grown too, mushrooming out in two rear annexes on the first story level. Around these sections of the house and the shed beyond, the climbing water now swirled.

An hour passed. 4:30. Still no boat. I picked up the phone and called a friend who lived on a hill in another part of town. In minutes I had cleared her head of sleep. She at once offered her home to us. Encouraged by her voice, I hung up and continued to watch for the boat.

Daylight came, blurred by the wind and the rain. But the dark at the bottom of the stairs was deepening. The water was stealing steadily up. Soon the front door would be hidden.  And then? I turned from the hallway.

6:30. If only the boat would come!

“Here it is!” I shouted. My mother and I ran to the living room. An aluminum tank of bottled gas hissed as it floated past, a few feet below our upstairs front porch.

Then a real boat did go by—a shining new motorboat, captured by the runaway waters. We existed in a vacuum. We couldn’t talk.  We tried not to think about the boat.

8:30. We heard it. Stepping through the living room door onto the front porch, I began to yell and wave frantically at the amphibious craft touring the area not a hundred yards away from us. My mother called. Her voice grew hoarse. The wind grabbed the words from our mouths as they were shouted. My throat stung, my heart pounded. We were neither seen nor heard. The wind, the rushing water, and the thick foliage of the elm-lined street silenced and obscured our presence. The rain beat down.

From our kitchen window, we had an unhampered view of the river, until now hidden by the shed, catalpa trees, and weeping willows that had stood 100 years. They were all  gone. Ferocious, boiling waves raced eastward. Bits of chairs, beds, roofs, whole washing machines, hope chests charged along with the current. All the time the rain came down, a hazy curtain of water billowing with the wind.

As we stood in the old-fashioned kitchen with its towering, old, grey oil stove, and slightly sloping floor, we looked out on the river. It had been just a creek, gliding indigently through towns and valleys. Although it threaded its way right through the center of Unionville, Connecticut, it never interrupted life. Bridges tied the town together and you almost were able to ignore the river, if you chose.

Suddenly, from our kitchen watch, we saw the downstairs left wing of the house rise up, turn slightly on its side, splinter and sink away into the boiling confusion. Then there was a shudder, a wrench, and our bathroom and the annex below were gone. A doorless sill now afforded a still more panoramic view of the river.

We went into the living room on the street side of the house. A corner room, it, too, permitted a good view of the moving spectacle outside, but here the “street” water, slowed by houses and trees still standing, did not look quite so ominous. It was misleading.

Curled up tightly in a chair by the window, I stared hypnotically at the debris clinging to trees. Then terror such as I had never before known gripped me. Soundlessly, a house up the street suddenly splintered and fell away to nothing. For a second it made one last attempt to survive, seeming to clutch at its telephone wires as if they were life lines. They, too, went down.

When the water began to rise from the living room floor, we went up to the attic. Piled on the table, chests, and boxes were many things that recalled other days. But we had little chance to think of those days. The time had come. There was a tremor, a chilling shudder of the old house, and we were sinking into the murky, black depths.

The next thing we knew, we were still sitting on the bed by the attic wall. Although slumped to one side, the room was still one. Flat against the attic window was the roof of the house next door. ‘We sat still and waited.

After awhile, we groped our way down the stairs, now tilted back at an almost impossible angle. Chinks of plaster had fallen in the living room, leaving gaping, jagged mouths in the walls. About 12 inches of water was in the room. The water was brown and cold as we stepped into it.

Leaning through the doorway to the porch, I saw that the other side of the house had sunk several feet. Our side still seemed almost upright. The big house on the right had moved into ours, causing ours to leave its foundation and move into the one on our left.

At last the rain stopped. Whenever the wind caught its breath, we became aware of the whir of helicopters overhead. Were they photographing the disaster area or were they rescuing the people. A small measure hope returned.

10:30. 11:30. No sign of help from the air or anywhere.  The water ceased to rise, but did not fall.  The danger was far from over. We had to do something.

The porch held. For many minutes we vigorously waved the living room curtains back and forth out over the railing as far as we could reach.  Through the eye level foliage of the street, we saw the man.  He was more than a few hundred yards away. If only we could get his attention!  Just when it seemed utterly hopeless, someone began flashing a mirror. We had been seen!

After nine hours of anguish, our relief was short lived.  One by one a number of tremors shook the house. Plaster fell, followed by a crackling as of thunder. Through the living room door to the attic came light.  When the trembling stopped, we went to the attic door and looked up into the sky. The roof had split open.

The next two hours seemed as long as the preceding nine.  Intermittently, the tremors continued. Would help ever come?

At last it did.  At 1:30 P.M., a Navy helicopter hovered over our house, coming in as close as the trees would allow. A voice shouted, “We’re going to throw you a line. Grab it and step into the seat belt. Get a tight hold, and we’ll pull you up. Don’t worry, it’s safe.”

With a splash, the thing which was to pull us to safety hit the water just outside the porch railing. I fished it out, helped my mother into it, tugged on the line after she was straddling the railing, and up she went.

Minutes later the sling was dropped again.  Stepping into the canvas belt that served as a seat, I, too straddled the railing.  I gripped the small wheel-like disc, and tugged on the line. Straight up over the house and treetops, I swung. Soon they had reeled me up to the open door of the craft. A hand reached out and grasped mine. It was over.