By Mark Bushnell - Published: August 10, 2006
The first sign of trouble went unheeded. What was a little water in the basement? After all, since it had rained nearly every day for the last month, it was to be expected. Why should today be more dangerous?
It was at midday, Nov. 3, 1927, when some merchants in Barre noticed water rising in their basements. Others who lived and worked along the Winooski River and its tributaries were making similar discoveries.
Gerald Brock and Ralph Winter, both in their 30s worked at the Reynold's Hardware Store on Main Street in Barre. Theywent downstairs with two others to save merchandise in the neighboring Roger's "ready-to-wear" clothing store. Unknown to the four, the basement of an adjoining building already had filled with water from the overflowing Potash Brook. Then, the wall separating the basements suddenly collapsed. One man was able to escape by running upstairs; a second man was pulled upstairs by others. Brock and Winter drowned. They were Barre's first flood deaths that day.
Another 82 people across Vermont, including Vermont's lieutenant governor, Hollister Jackson, were killed. Fifteen people would die when their boardinghouse was swept over Bolton Falls on the Winooski - the deadliest river to live near on that fateful day.
Despite all the rain, the flood actually came as a surprise. The forecast, much less reliable in those days, had called for fair weather; but a tropical storm working its way up the East Coast unexpectedly veered inland and met a rainstorm coming from the west over New York. As a result, the rain fell especially hard on the night of Nov. 2. It continued for 38 hours.
When the river began washing over its banks, people had little time to save themselves or their possessions. At the flood's peak on the night of Nov. 3, the Winooski's water was rising four feet an hour.
Among those caught off guard was Frank Dawley, a former mayor of Montpelier. Dawley found himself trapped in his workshop at the corner of Court and Elm streets. As the waters climbed, the 77-year old climbed too, first, onto the counters and then up the shelves that he had along one wall. There, for 12 hours, he was able to hold his head just above the swirling water.
Percy Bailey, janitor at the First National Bank in Montpelier, saved himself by holding onto some molding near the ceiling of the counting room for 18 hours as he watched the water rise to eight feet.
Not everyone was so fortunate.
The Walter Sargent Family of Waterbury was trapped in their home on the south edge of the village. The house was in danger of separating from its foundation. Firemen tried to reach the family, but the fast current around the house made rescue impossible. Witnesses saw Sargent trying desperately to get the family cow up to the second floor. Then, the house abruptly rose in the water, and drifted quickly away, disintegrating as it struck obstacles in its path. Sargent, his wife, four children and mother-in-law were all killed.
Trying to escape could prove equally dangerous.
The Harry Cutting family of Waterbury fled their house when the water reached the second floor. Harry, who earlier had saved three neighbors, fashioned a raft from a pair of doors. His wife, Gladys, climbed aboard with their three children, ages 2, 4 and 6. Harry Cutting's weight was too much for the makeshift raft, so he held on and swam behind. As they were paddling for higher ground, the current flung a large object into the raft, capsizing it. Gladys and the children drowned. Harry Cutting managed to grab a tree and climb above the water. Rescuers pulled him from the tree 12 hours later.
A group of laborers and their families in Barre also faced the agonizing decision of whether to try to escape. They were trapped in 13 neighboring story-and-a-half houses on what was then Webster Avenue, where the Jail and Stevens branches of the Winooski converge.
Word of their plight reached rescuers about 6 p.m. on Nov. 3. Firemen, Vermont National Guard members and other volunteers rushed to the scene. The water was moving so quickly that the rescuers decided the only way to reach the houses was by stretching 60-foot ladders over the torrent. They lit the scene with car headlights and lay down the first ladder. They reached one house and then repeated the process to reach the next. To make crossing safer for the trapped, the rescuers pulled doors off their hinges and lay them across the ladders.
"The people were terror-stricken," remembered fireman John Anderson, "as they faced the choice of remaining in their homes, likely to be washed away any moment, or of making the perilous trip over the shaky and bending ladders, only a few inches above the raging current."
After the rescue, one Webster Avenue house floated away and another collapsed.
Elsewhere on Webster Avenue, rescuers managed to save four children from a threatened house, only to have the boat capsize and the children drown. A man who had been on the boat was carried half a mile down stream, over a dam and survived.
Shortly after 6 p.m., word spread that Lt. Gov. Jackson was missing. Jackson had gotten his car stuck while driving down Nelson Street, where he lived in Barre. The Potash Brook, which ordinarily passed below the street in a culvert, cut a gash through the street into which Jackson unfortunately drove his car. In the howling rain, witnesses saw him stumble as he tried to walk home. Then he disappeared. All night, his car sat in the washout, its lights on. His body was found the next day near Elmwood Cemetery.
Untold animals also died in the flood. Barre City lost a pair of workhorses when the waters tipped over the fire wagon they were hauling down Beckley Street. They drowned before workers could free them from their harnesses. In Montpelier, horses drowned in their barns. One horse became entangled in debris behind a Montpelier home in the vicinity of School Street. A neighbor, who couldn't stand the horse's loud whinnying as it slowly drowned, leaned out his window with a rifle and shot the animal.
Farms were particularly hard hit. A barn belonging to Clayton Caustic, whom a new saccount said lived on "the Montpelier Road," was flooded and Caustic lost two horses, 44 cows, a bull, 43 hogs and 175 chickens. Across the state, roughly 10,000 farm animals died.
In desperate straits, Vermonters proved themselves resourceful.
V.L. Perkins was trapped with his family and 12 others in the second floor of his home in Waterbury. Perkins, an undertaker, used what he had on hand. He hammered together a pair of coffins and used them to ferry people to safety. Perkins moved his odd vessel by pulling on the telephone cables, which thanks to the high water were reachable.
Dr. Charles Chandler and his family were trapped in the attic of their Montpelier home, also in the vicinity of School Street. They had salvaged food, but their cook stove was downstairs, underwater. They fashioned a stove from what they found. Using a marble table top as a base, they burned bits of wooden furniture inside a tin dishpan and fried bacon on a window screen. They even managed to make coffee inside a warming pan.
Elsewhere in the city, Mrs. George Buswell on Vine Street was stuck in her attic with her nine children. Mrs. Buswell had her Victrola with her, and throughout the night, she played records to distract the children from the frightening noises outside, where uprooted trees, livestock, even houses were streaming through the neighborhood.
The next day, when the flooding began to subside, Vermonters started to assess the damage. Eventually the losses would be counted at $30 million, then a tremendous amount of money. But it was surely the images that stuck with people - the dead bodies, the dirt everywhere; the miles of roads and railroad tracks washed away; the vacant lots where houses once stood.
One Montpelier resident returned home to find a dead pony lodged under his piano. Another found a live fish in his living room. Still another found a pig swimming down his hallway.
Perhaps the grimmest task was left to some people in Middlesex, where the flood had washed away part of the North Branch Cemetery, taking with it 14 caskets. Many of the caskets opened as they were pulled toward Montpelier by the floodwaters. Seven of the bodies were never recovered.
As they rebuilt their towns and their lives, residents of Central Vermont and other parts of the state couldn't shake memories of the flood.
Luther Johnson, a writer, described the terrifying night of Nov. 3 in his 1928 book, "Vermont in Floodtime":
"With their faces pressed against the windows, residents could see sights and hear sounds well calculated to appall stout hearts. Everything that could float, including articles of great bulk and weight, came bobbing or tumbling along. Now and then a huge building or part of a bridge would rush out of the darkness with the speed and force of a locomotive and disappear in a moment.
"Constantly there was the apprehension of some hapless human being beyond the reach of aid gliding along to a water grave. And the roar of the monster was terrifying, never to be forgotten, incessant, so deafening that people tried unavailingly to close their ears to it."
He was describing Montpelier, but it could have been any community along the Winooski that night.
Mark Bushnell, a former Times Argus editor, is a freelance writer from Middlesex. His Vermont history column, Life in the Past Lane, is a regular weekly feature in Vermont Sunday Magazine.