March 21, 1936

Flood Devastates Springfield

On this day in 1936, the worst flood in the state's recorded history inundated the city of Springfield. An unusually cold and snowy winter, followed by a spell of warm and rainy weather, turned the normal spring rising of the Connecticut River into an unprecedented natural catastrophe. Dams were breached, bridges knocked off their foundations, houses swept away. When the floodwaters finally receded, there was destruction everywhere. There were also jobs. The flood brought employment and business back to a town hard hit by the Depression. Springfield recovered, but no one wanted a repeat of the 1936 flood. Congress authorized construction of flood control dams all along the Connecticut River.

In Springfield,18 miles of city streets, most of them in residential neighborhoods, were under water.

When the level of the Connecticut River first began to rise in Springfield on March 15 and 16, 1936, it was a tourist attraction. There were traffic jams by bridges as people flocked to see the swollen river with huge ice chunks cascading downstream. But five days later, when the river finally crested, the city faced a disaster. Once the crisis passed, there would be an economic revival.

Each spring, as snow melt swells the brooks and streams that feed the Connecticut, the people living along its banks expect the water to rise. But in 1936 unusual weather conditions turned the annual spring freshet into a deluge.

The winter of 1935-36 had been hard, with deep snowfalls and long cold snaps that turned streams and rivers to solid ice. Then spring came early, with mild March weather. The frozen river broke up into iceberg-like blocks —some as big as cars — that were carried downstream. In mid-March, New England was hit with torrential rains. The river — and rumors — began to rise.

On March 17th, enormous chunks of ice began ramming the Vernon Dam in Vermont. The next day, as the situation grew critical, radio and newspapers reported that the dam had not held. Panic-stricken people in Massachusetts envisioned a wall of water bringing battering rams of ice blocks down river. When the report was corrected — the river had crested in Vernon and the dam had in fact not "gone out" — the residents of western Massachusetts thought the worst was over. They were wrong.

The frozen river broke up into iceberg-like blocks —some as big as cars — that were carried downstream.

Between March 19th and the 21st, when the river finally stopped rising, the flood inundated Hadley, Hatfield, Northampton, Holyoke, and Springfield, as well as smaller towns and villages along its course. In Massachusetts alone, the Great Flood killed ten people and left 50,000 homeless. It was an unmatched natural catastrophe for the Bay State, causing over $200,000,000 in damage in 1936 dollars.

The bridges went first. On March 18th, the water rose so high in Northfield that the Central Vermont Railroad Bridge was simply lifted from its stone footings and washed into the river, where its ironwork spans sank to the bottom. The same fate befell the iron trolley bridge a few miles downstream.

The third bridge to be destroyed was the 800-foot-long wooden double-decker covered bridge in Montague. Built in 1866 of huge wooden timbers, the famous bridge was considered such an engineering marvel that its plans were kept at the Library of Congress. When the water lifted the bridge off its trestles, it did not sink; it remained intact as it moved downstream propelled by the force of 240,000 cubic feet of water per second. One resident watched from his porch as a huge structure came around the bend. At first he thought it was a barn, then he realized it was the Montague bridge. "It zoomed past us down toward Sunderland," he remembered, taking out other bridges as it went.

A dangerous barrage of debris — outhouses, chicken houses, trees, barns, and livestock — was sent barreling down the river.

Near Holyoke, where the river narrows under Mt. Tom, an ice dam 15 feet high and over a mile deep formed. When it broke up, the roar of the water could be heard for miles. At Holyoke and Hadley desperate residents tried, and failed, to create a sandbag dike to hold the water rising behind the Holyoke Dam. The river spilled over and around the dam, rushed through the village of South Hadley Falls, damaging or destroying nearly every building in the center of town. A dangerous barrage of debris — outhouses, chicken houses, trees, barns, and livestock — was sent barreling down the river.

The worst fate was reserved for Springfield. There, 18 miles of city streets, most of them in residential neighborhoods, were under water. City officials used radio and siren warnings to urge people to evacuate. Some residents feared looters and refused to leave their homes; many were later rescued from rooftops after surrounding houses were swept away. The 20,000 evacuees found shelter in schools, hospitals, fraternal lodges, even a monastery. On March 20th, the power went out and looting began. City officials issued a "shoot on sight" order to police. Flotillas of boats and canoes patrolled the city.

Unemployed men and women suddenly found there were jobs to be had shoveling, sweeping, even plowing mud from the streets, pumping cellars, and rebuilding houses, roads, and sidewalks.

Once the floodwaters receded, the city resembled a war zone. Railroad tracks were torn and twisted, streets and sidewalks washed out. Buildings had been ripped up and torn apart by blocks of ice and river debris. Perhaps the most depressing after-effect was the mud. The churning river had picked up tons of sediment and deposited up to three feet of mud inside buildings and on city streets.

After the devastation of the flood, the huge clean-up effort proved to be a boon to Depression-era Springfield. The Federal government stepped in with Works Project Administration jobs. Unemployed men and women suddenly found there were jobs to be had shoveling, sweeping, even plowing mud from the streets, pumping cellars, and rebuilding houses, roads, and sidewalks. Over 1,000 women were hired to make clothes for flood victims. With the first good wages they had earned in years, these workers were able to purchase replacement furniture, appliances, and clothing, helping to spur a much-needed economic revival.

The Great Flood of 1936 devastated the entire Northeast. From Ohio to Maine all major transportation came to a standstill. Over 170 people died and more than 429,000 were left homeless — 300,000 of them in Pennsylvania alone.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Western region of Massachusetts.

Sources

"The Great Flood of 1936: The Connecticut River Valley Story," a film produced by Ed Klekowski, Elizabeth Wilda and Libby Klekowski in cooperation with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (2003).

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