Monday, September 19, 2011

Adirondack History: Looking at Past Floods

Refrigerators can float. There are many things that can be learned from flooding, and that’s one tidbit that stuck with me from when my parents’ house took on about two feet of water more than a decade ago. When the water subsided enough to safely wade to their front door, I went there alone to assess the damage—but the door wouldn’t budge. Finally, it began to give an inch or two at a time. When I managed to squeeze in, I was more than a little surprised at what I found.

As the water had deepened in the kitchen, the refrigerator toppled and then somehow floated through the kitchen doorway into the house entrance, blocking me from getting in. The rest of the house was similarly wrecked—everything was sopping wet and coated with mud.

If you’ve worked on flood recovery, hoping to save personal items, you know the issues. Mud everywhere, in every crease, fold, and indentation, no matter what the object. Books, photographs, artwork, all beyond salvage. Yesterday’s treasure, today’s garbage.

Those memories were revived by the recent flooding in upstate New York. Though business prevented me from helping with the cleanup, my partner, Jill, represented us by toiling in Keene and Keene Valley in Governor Cuomo’s “Labor for Your Neighbor” program.

It was both heartbreaking and incredible to see photographs of the regional damage and to hear people talk about it on TV. A frequent phrase heard was, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” which was no doubt true—but that doesn’t mean it has never happened before. Not having “seen it” is often merely a function of age.

Take roads flooding, cavernous washouts, and the destruction of cars, for instance (from rain events, and not from annual spring flooding related to snowmelt.) Shocking, for sure, but no less so to the folks at Jay in September 1938, when a Packard and a Buick were washed away. Rain had fallen for three days straight, causing landslides that blocked roads in Elizabethtown, Keene, Keene Valley, Lake Placid, Schroon Lake, Upper Jay, and Wilmington.

In December 1957, six inches of rain put 27 eastern New York counties on flood alert. Route 73 from Keene to Keene Valley and Route 9N from Underwood to Elizabethtown were both closed.

In July 1963, two days of unusually heavy rains, particularly on Giant Mountain, re-routed Roaring Brook, which more than lived up to its name. Route 73 suffered extreme damage and was closed from Underwood to Keene, just as tourist season was getting into full swing.

Several cars were buried in mud, and Beede Brook Bridge was washed out, leaving a 20-foot gap in the road. Culverts were plugged with silt, making Route 73 the only available path for trees and boulders that were washed downhill by the floodwaters. Some hikers tied their cars to trees to prevent them from being carried away.

The worst that stands out in my memory happened in 1979. A section of Route 73 below Chapel Pond was washed out by heavy rain, but that was minimal compared to what else happened. Parts of Elizabethtown, particularly Water Street, were devastated. Denton Publications and others near the river also suffered serious damage, but even with over $2.5 million in losses (equal to $7.5 million today) across Essex County, there was worse news.

A 200-foot stretch of Route 9N east of Elizabethtown was washed out, leaving a gap estimated at 25 feet deep. Before the site was blockaded, three vehicles had been swallowed up by the Boquet River. Five people died, and the few who escaped were nearly lost as well.

As happened with Irene, the mess was hard to fathom. Seventy homes were damaged, and 45 families were left temporarily homeless. Many of us also remember it as the flood that finally put the Land of Makebelieve out of commission for good.

The National Weather Bureau reported that Elizabethtown had received 2.75 inches of rain, certainly a lot, but seemingly not enough to cause such extensive flooding. The destruction, said the NWB, was spawned by 8 to 10 inches of rainfall in the nearby mountains.

About a week after the storm, the massive hole in Rt. 9N was filled in. Nothing was left but the terrible memories, which were rekindled by the recent effects of Tropical Storm Irene.

Photo: From the Plattsburgh Press-Republican, the damage to Route 9N in 1979.

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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