- WASHINGTON DEPOT
Sixty years later, vivid images still so startling and horrible awoke Richard “Tracy” Anderson at 2 a.m. on a recent Monday.
“I can see the water,” Anderson said of The Flood of 1955.
The cities wiped out by the flood that devastated the Naugatuck Valley 60 years ago today often hold their place in local history. But rural Washington Depot, home to about 1,000 people in 1955, suffered greatly when went the Shepaug River rushed its banks the night before. About 10 p.m. Aug. 18, the river started to rise, and overnight swept away buildings, cars and cattle. Two people died.
“When you looked up Green Hill Road, it was like waterfalls,” Anderson said. His parents’ home sat two houses away from the Washington Depot bridge. “I remember cars coming down the river and going under the bridge. Any time one of the cars would hit the I-beams, it was like cannon fire.”
When the water subsided, the bodies of William and Maud Foulois were found tangled in tree branches nearly 30 feet above ground.
Michael Condon, a native of Ireland, was 25 and had been in America for six months. It was the only time he ever regretted it, he said. “What the hell did I come here for?” he asked himself, watching the water rise, and rise again, from his front porch.
Condon lived with his sister and her husband. They watched the house across the street float downriver [Dash] it was the Foulois’ home. The Hickory Stick Bookshop sits there today.
Michael Condon’s wife, Nelly, was in Ireland as her husband was watching their new town disintegrate around them. She didn’t know what was going on in Washington Depot because she hadn’t heard from him in a few days. She happened to see the cover of Newsweek magazine. In the corner was a piece about flooding in Connecticut.
Romilda Muschell and her mother, Anina, lived in a single-family cape at the end of Lipton Place in Torrington, just beyond the center field fence of Fuessenich Park, hard by the river.
They both went to bed early on the night of April 18, 1955, unaware danger loomed. Close to midnight, they were startled awake by banging on the front door.
It was Ralph Sabia, a street department employee, who had driven his city truck down their dead-end street even though it was already flooded and water was lapping at the truck’s door.
“Ralph Sabia carried my aunt and another man carried my grandmother on their shoulders and put them in the truck,” said Victor Muschell, 74, a Torrington attorney and Romilda’s nephew. “Not long after, the house caved in, fell into the river and crashed into the East Albert Street bridge.”
It was 3 in the morning when the roar of the Still River awoke Sylvia Bovi, who lived on the second floor of a triple-decker on North Main Street in Winsted.
“I couldn’t get to sleep. I just had a feeling something was wrong,” said Bovi, now 78.
She tried unsuccessfully to stir her father. She raced downstairs to where her grandfather and uncle lived. Her grandfather surrendered to her demand to look at the backyard. The river had come over a stone wall. “He said, ‘Tell your father to get out now,'” Bovi remembered.
The whole family and the tenants on the top floor evacuated. As they watched the house begin to lisp toward the river, her grandfather tried to go back inside to rescue family keepsakes. “We pulled him back as the house started pulling away,” Bovi said. “It went into the river like it was in slow motion.”
They later found the house lodged a half-mile downstream, full of mud. Bovi managed to retrieve a Santa Claus doll her grandparents had given her.
Gary Sharpe lived with his parents in Weiksville, a neighborhood in the north end of Thomaston. Later, construction of the Route 8 highway displaced part of the neighborhood, but in 1955 it was intact.
At 2 in the morning a neighbor, Red Hart, called to warn them of the imminent flood. Hart worked downtown at Plume & Atwood, where he had been instructed to move cars out of the factory parking lot to higher ground. The Sharpes evacuated to a friend’s house. Their home was so damaged in the flood that Gary and his mother eventually moved in with family in Maine while his father stayed behind for his job at a fuel company in Watertown.
Sharpe, now 63, recalled it was nearly a year before their house was repaired and they could move back in. But there was one more surprise awaiting them.
“My father was taking a shower, and the water stopped draining,” he said. “We found out there was no septic tank. The flood had washed it away.”
No town could have foreseen the horrific flood, but Naugatuck may have been better prepared than most. When the federal government got rid of surplus military equipment from World War II, civil defense director Henry Racki Sr. managed to acquire an amphibious vehicle [Dash] officially known as a DUKW, more commonly called a “duck” [Dash] for the borough.
“It was parked in the armory garage,” said Racki’s son, Henry Jr. “It wasn’t too long after they got it that they used it in the flood. They did a lot of rescue work with it.”
In the flood’s aftermath, Racki led the way in setting up a shelter and soup kitchen for people who had lost their homes and in organizing food drives. Civil defense director was a part-time position, but “he worked around the clock for two months getting everything back in order,” said Henry Jr., now 71 and a Durham resident.
Even though it had been raining off and on, Naugatuck’s Sandra Clark and her friend, Bertha Duba, decided to go to the Watertown drive-in to catch “Not as a Stranger.”
“It had Robert Mitchum in it, and how can you say no to Robert Mitchum,” Clark said.
She was 23, a teacher at Central Avenue School and two years removed from getting married and changing her last name from Klonoski to Clark.
As the evening progressed, the intermittent rain turned entirely on. Even with their windshield wipers slapping back and forth, it grew impossible to watch the film. The two friends decided to head home.
As they crossed the bridge back to old Route 8, Clark remembered, the water was higher than she’d ever seen it. Crossing the Naugatuck again in Union City, it was the same. The next morning, her father, a foreman at the U.S. Rubber plant, called her to come get his car. She made it as far as the green, where she could see the Maple Street bridge submerged and her father and other men rowing people out of the factory in boats.
Among the many borough buildings consumed by the river that day, Clark, now the town historian, vividly remembers the demise of the Baz Building at the corner of Maple and South Main streets.
It housed Yeaton’s, a popular hangout for teenagers. “It had just been sold and they were going to have a grand reopening,” Clark said. “But they never did. Everything went down the river.”
A couple of days after the flood, Kathryn McKee and her mother arrived at the Pearson School in Winsted to pick up bread and milk being handed out by aid workers. The lines were long, so McKee’s mom told her to wait in the car.
“They had porta-potties set up in the field. This (National Guard) helicopter came in and circled the field. One of the porta-potties fell over with a woman in it,” said McKee, now 77. “They had a heck of a time getting her out.” The helicopter finally landed near a bank next to the field. Then, as McKee looked on, the helicopter started to lean, tipped over and rolled down the hill. She’s not sure how long it took to right the chopper. She and her mother left for their home on Moore Avenue.
Gene McMahon’s mother woke him on the morning of Aug. 19 to a scene of incredible devastation. The future first selectman lived high on Stoughton Street on the sliver of Thomaston that sits on the east side of the Naugatuck River.
“Everything was under water. It was all under water. All you could see was the roof of Plume & Atwood,” recalled McMahon, now 86. “The East Main Street bridge was completely gone.”
Until a temporary Bailey bridge was erected, people living on the east side of Thomaston had to drive through Plymouth to Waterbury to cross the river and eventually reach the downtown. A trip that normally took three minutes turned into 30.
“I don’t remember how long it was for,” said McMahon. “But it was a mess, an incredible mess.”
Eleanor Carlson lived on Lake Street in Winsted, where the overflow from Highland Lake came raging down the hill in the wee hours of the morning and washed out the road.
She awoke on Aug. 19 to find a fire department ladder spanning what had been the street. One by one, she and her family climbed across the ladder to the other side. “My mother was carrying bottles of milk for my sister, who was 2. They slipped out and fell into the (hole),” said Carlson, now 74.
For days, the family walked up the hill to the Cannavo spring to get drinking water. Her mother would wash out her sister’s dirty diapers in the river, then hike up to the lake to rinse them out.
Jim MacBroom was two months shy of his 5th birthday when the flood struck. He lived in Wolcott, but his grandmother resided in the hard-hit South End of Waterbury.
“We would fill up jugs of water from our spring to take to her,” MacBroom said. “In those days, we had those big, heavy, glass bottles. We spent day after day driving down to Waterbury with water.”
Initially, they were just taking water to his grandmother, but soon they were delivering to the neighborhood. “We would arrive and people would come out of their homes to greet us,” he said.
MacBroom, 64, is now vice president of Milone & MacBroom, a Cheshire engineering firm that 45 years later oversaw the removal of five aging industrial dams in the Naugatuck. “That brought back a lot of memories,” MacBroom said.
The Naugatuck River of 1955, which stormed its banks and destroyed neighborhoods, was not just an angry river 60 years ago, but a dead one.
“There were no fish in the river,” said Steve Gephard, a fisheries biologist for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “I’ve heard that when the state Department of Health did a survey of the river, they couldn’t even find bacteria living in it.”
How did the river get from there to the present, on the cusp of losing its official polluted status?
Stricter environmental laws passed at the state and federal levels in the late 1960s and early 1970s started the process. Many of the industries that dumped their wastes have since disappeared.
The eight municipal sewage plants along the river were upgraded or replaced, the most significant being Waterbury’s in 2000.
But much of the turnaround has been a grassroots effort.
Bob Gregorski is a 76-year-old retired math teacher from Pomperaug High School. An avid fly fisherman, the Middlebury resident was one of the instigators when the Pomperaug chapter of Trout Unlimited changed into the Pomperaug-Naugatuck chapter in 1984.
“Nobody was touching the river back then,” said Gregorski, who is also President of the Naugatuck Watershed Association and an outdoors columnist for the Republican-American. “We thought it was a diamond in the rough.”
“We saw such degradation and abuse of the river, and we thought we should try to do something about it,” said Frank McDonald, 84, a former state Supreme Court justice and another member of the chapter.
In 1987, Trout Unlimited got state permission to purchase trout and stock them in the river. “We figured if only some survived, they’d be the hardiest fish on the planet,” Gregorski said.
Shortly thereafter, the DEEP started stocking its own trout. In 1992, it started stocking Atlantic salmon.
Trout Unlimited invited community groups to join its cleanup efforts, working with a dozen different school organizations and three scout troops. Thousands of people have taken part in more than 60 cleanups in the Waterbury-Naugatuck stretch of the river over the last 30 years.
They have lugged everything from lawn mowers to car transmissions to sofas out of the river, while planting more than 20,000 trees and bushes to reduce erosion and restore the riparian habitat.
In Torrington, the Northwest Connecticut chapter of Trout Unlimited took up the cause. One year, the annual spring cleanup dredged more than 100 shopping carts out of the river. This year, chapter President Jim Fedorich was giddy after only two were found in the drink.
Kevin Zak, head of Naugatuck River Revival, is someone else who has been picking up trash for decades. Zak, a 55-year-old painter, lives on the Naugatuck-Waterbury line and can view the river from his backyard.
While he applauds the cleanup efforts, he has shifted his focus in recent years. Much of the debris now consists of Styrofoam coffee cups, fast-food wrappers and plastic shopping bags.
“We need to stop the trash from going into the river in the first place,” Zak said. “It would be easier and more cost-efficient.”
Zak found his solution on the other side of the country in Ventura, Calif., which outfitted its storm drains in 2008 with trash excluders. The devices work much like the screens people place in bathrooms sinks to catch hair, except these are made of steel and cost $150 to $200 apiece.
Zak said he has talked with every municipality in the valley. Some officials have been receptive, others lukewarm at best.
Waterbury, though, purchased 15 of the trash excluders two years ago and installed them at some of its most problematic catch basins.
“It increases the frequency that we have to clean those catch basins. Is that good or bad?” said David Simpson, the city’s head of public works. “I say it’s OK. It does prevent stuff from getting into the system, and some of that stuff could’ve jammed up a pipe, so it does protect the system.”
Asked if he would recommend buying more, Simpson said, “I would, and we may buy some more as funding allows.”
Obviously, storm runoff isn’t the only way trash gets into the river. But Zak is zealous in his efforts to get more towns to follow Waterbury’s example.
“When we stop (the flow of trash), the aesthetic value of this river will really increase,” said Zak. “The Naugatuck is a good story, but it still needs work.”
WATERBURY — Shoving an annoying, green branch out of his face, Bill Fitzpatrick fought through a stand of invasive Japanese knotweed in search of another birdhouse.
“This,” the scoutmaster said over his shoulder, “didn’t used to be here.”
The vegetation was so dense he might have been somewhere in a Malaysian jungle. He was walking a strip of land that separates the buzz of Route 8 from the tranquility of the Naugatuck River.
Twisting a screwdriver to remove the front of a green birdhouse, Fitzpatrick smiled. “We’ve got a nest,” he said triumphantly. “Tree swallows. See the eggs?”
For 23 years, Fitzpatrick’s Boy Scout Troop 140 from St. Mary Magdalen Church in Oakville has been erecting birdhouses, planting trees and shrubs, and cleaning up trash along a two-mile stretch of the river.
Fitzpatrick would seem to have reason to be leery of the Naugatuck. His uncle told stories from the Flood of 1955, including his loss of two trunks full of World War II memorabilia stored in the devastated Brooklyn neighborhood.
At 62, the Waterbury painter can also remember from his boyhood how the river would run different colors depending on what was being dumped in it that day.
Instead, Fitzpatrick’s attitude is just the opposite. “I love the river,” he cooed. “The water is soothing.”
A bevy of groups from Torrington to Ansonia have conducted cleanups. But few have been involved longer or more loyally than Fitzpatrick’s Boy Scout troop from Oakville, which originally responded to a newspaper advertisement seeking volunteers in 1992.
From Huntingdon Avenue to Colonial Plaza, the Oakville Scouts have planted white pines, white spruce, chokeberry bushes, lilies, dogwood and streamco willows (a favorite of beavers and muskrat). And that’s just a sample.
What J.R. Healey likes best is the fight in the fish.
He has hooked lots of different quarry in his waders, but the one he enjoys the most, the one that gives him the grandest of battles is the Atlantic salmon, a species renowned for its strength and stamina.
Healey, a 56-year-old carpenter from Middlebury, remembers one salmon, a 36-incher that weighed 17 pounds. It fought for 52 minutes before subduing. Yet of the 42 salmon Healey has caught in his life, most of them (27) have been pulled from the Naugatuck River.
“I’ve fished all my life. I never thought I’d fish the Naugatuck,” he said.
His dad taught him to fish as a boy at Lake Quassapaug. Back then, when the fumes of vulcanized rubber would waft up the hill to his home from the Uniroyal plant in Naugatuck, Healey never imagined he’d one day cast a fly into that river.
“My brother still doesn’t want to set foot in the Naugatuck,” Healey said. “For him, there’s still the stigma.”
Such lingering disdain is a legacy of two centuries of industrial filth and municipal sewage dumped into the river. But most of those factories have since shut down, the ones left are restricted in their discharges, and municipal treatment plants have been upgraded or replaced.
Meanwhile, five decrepit dams, once vital to industry but barriers to fish, were removed between 1999 and 2005 at a cost of $1.6 million.
Only one obstacle, the Plume & Atwood dam in downtown Thomaston, remains between the river’s mouth in Derby and the Army Corps of Engineers’ flood-control dam above Thomaston.
“(The Plume & Atwood dam) is on our list for removal. The owner ran into hard times and the dam is now owned by someone else,” said Steve Gephard, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the head of its salmon program.
In the center of Seymour, the Tingue Dam couldn’t be removed without compromising the elevated Route 8 expressway overhead. Instead, a 500-foot channel was blasted out of the adjacent bedrock, allowing fish to detour the dam.
The $5.4 million project, one of the first of its kind in the country, was designed to mimic conditions in a small stream with rapids and riffles. It was finished last autumn, and another, smaller project is now planned for the Norwalk River.
“We need to tinker with it,” Gephard said. The flow of water at the top of the passage is sometimes too strong for fish to overcome.
When all the kinks are ironed out, though, it will enable migratory species such as American shad, sea-run brown trout and sea lamprey to swim 29 miles to Thomaston.
“The hope is that the river could be a tremendous fishery for sea-run species,” said Middlebury’s Frank McDonald, a member of the Pomperaug-Naugatuck chapter of Trout Unlimited. “It could bring people to Waterbury from all over to fish.”
There’s a tunnel under the Army Corps dam that theoretically would allow fish to continue on to Torrington, but it’s so long and dark that they don’t use it.
“It would take a super fish,” said Gephard. “But to have the first 29 miles opened up, we’ve accomplished an awful lot.”
Some 42 species of fish have been found in the Naugatuck since its cleanup. And each year the DEEP stocks 10,000 to 12,000 trout at 40 sites spread along the length of the river.
But the most prized catch is probably the silver-blue Atlantic salmon, the so-called King of Fish. Anglers flock to the Campville section of the river and the stretch between Naugatuck and Beacon Falls after the state does its stockings in October and November.
Among the license plates commonly seen then along the banks are ones from New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.
“It’s strictly recreational,” said Gephard. “We want to provide the public with a variety of angling.”
That was always the idea on the Naugatuck. In 1992, the DEEP decided to start stocking the captive fish, or broodstock, used in breeding for the restoration program. Previously they were discarded.
It decided to pick one river on either side of the state. The Shetucket, near Norwich, was chosen in the east, and the Naugatuck, with its fast currents and abundance of deep pools, was picked in the west. A few select lakes, such as Mount Tom Pond in Morris, have also been stocked.
Middlebury’s Bob Gregorski, the president of the Naugatuck Watershed Association and a 30-year advocate for a cleaner river, was chosen to release the first salmon into the river, which he did in Naugatuck’s Linden Park in November 1992.
“For guys who never caught a salmon, to hook a fish like that in the Naugatuck was mind-blowing,” said Gregorski, who writes an outdoors column for the Republican-American.
The Macroinvertebrate Multimetric Index, Chris Bellucci explained, is difficult to explain.
It’s sort of like the Dow Jones Index, which tracks a select group of stocks to gauge the health of the overall stock market.
In this case, the MMI assesses the health of insects including dragonflies, caddis flies and stoneflies to determine the water quality of the Naugatuck River.
To Bellucci, a supervising environmental analyst for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the MMI is a better indicator than testing for the presence of chemicals and heavy metals.
“They’re exposed to everything that’s in the river, so we look to see if the critters are OK,” he said.
Under that formula, the Naugatuck River is getting better, but not yet totally OK. Bellucci pointed to two of the 10 testing sites on the river, Frost Bridge at the Thomaston-Watertown line and Beacon Falls, where the DEEP has MMI data back to the early 1980s.
In 1983, the Frost Bridge site had an MMI score of 16 (out of 100) and the Beacon Falls site had a score of 14. Thirty years later, Frost Bridge most recently tested at 45 and Beacon Falls at 30.
Those scores, along with other testing, keep the Naugatuck on the state’s list of impaired rivers, but Bellucci is hopeful that status could change for the upper section of the river after water samples obtained this fall are analyzed.
“It needs to be at least 48 to show attainment of good water quality,” Bellucci said. “Frost Bridge is getting close to that. It will be interesting to see if it improves enough.”
A biological sample is obtained by disturbing the bottom of the river and scooping up the contents in a kick net. DEEP workers also obtain a fish sample using electrofishing and a diatom sample by scraping the algae off rocks in the bed.
“A lot of the chemical monitoring no longer turns up as many things,” said Bellucci. “It’s expensive to do, so we’ve scaled back on our chemical monitoring.”
There are still some permitted industrial discharges into the river by remaining factories as well as historic toxins lingering after decades of dumping.
Those aren’t considered the greatest threats to the Naugatuck’s health, though.
“The No. 1 overreaching problem is nonpoint source pollution in storm water runoff,” Bellucci said.
The runoff contains a cocktail of lawn fertilizer, motor oil and antifreeze leaks, the zinc dust rubbed off when drivers hit their brakes and other contaminants. Washed off parking lots and streets by the rain, it eventually ends up in the river.
“It’s tough to manage. We are trying to address that,” Bellucci noted. “The problem in the old days was the Uniroyals, but you knew where it was coming from. Today, it’s the nonpoint source pollution and it’s much harder to deal with.”
Fish aren’t the only animals that have returned to the Naugatuck Valley since river cleanup began 30 years ago.
Mink, muskrat and otter can be found along its banks. So can wood turtles and box turtles, mergansers and wood ducks. And as areas along the river have become more forested, woodland bird species including rose-breasted grosbeak, wood thrush and veery have found new homes.
“We also have ravens in the Naugatuck State Forest. They like to use the cliffside to nest,” said Corrie Folsom-O’Keefe, the important bird area program coordinator for Audubon Connecticut. “I’m 37 and I grew up in Naugatuck. We didn’t have ravens 20 years ago.”
With the return of fish have come the birds who prey on fish. Blue herons are an increasingly common sight, and ospreys, which used to live just along the coast, now have five active nests between Ansonia and Naugatuck.
While there are no known active eagle nests along the Naugatuck, bald eagles do hunt in the valley, especially in winter when they come down from the north.
A bald eagle’s nest perches high on a hill in Seymour overlooking the river, but it has been inactive for at least a couple of years.
Another raptor that has moved into the valley is the peregrine falcon, which has been seen observed on billboards lining Route 8 in Waterbury for close to 10 years.
The falcons are believed to be living under the bridges in the Mixmaster, but no one has yet found the nest, said Jenny Dickson, a wildlife biologist for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
“Peregrines don’t hunt fish, but they do eat other birds. They’re taking advantage of that migratory corridor, which means other species are using the river,” said Dickson.
Supporters of a proposed recreation path that would travel 44 miles from Derby to Torrington hope pedal power can someday be an economic engine in the Naugatuck Valley.
The Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments in Waterbury has obtained three community grants which will pay for a yearlong study of the potential economic impact of the Naugatuck Valley Greenway.
“We want to look beyond this as just recreational and see it more as an economic development opportunity,” said Aaron Budris, the council’s regional planner.
Roughly four miles of the 44-mile trail along the Naugatuck River have been completed so far: two miles in Derby, half-mile sections in Ansonia and Beacon Falls, and a 1.1-mile stretch in Naugatuck.
From May 14 to June 11, the council set up an infrared counter on the Derby trail and received 32,960 hits. Figuring that people trip the counter on their way out and back, that means more than 16,500 used the greenway in those four weeks.
“What we want to figure out is how towns and businesses can take advantage of that traffic,” Budris said.
Waterbury expects to construct its initial 2.2-mile portion north from the Naugatuck border in 2017. Thomaston and Ansonia both have plans to construct short stretches in the coming year, Budris said.
Other, unimproved sections of the trail route are already open in other towns. When finished, the greenway is envisioned to be a patchwork of paved and crushed-stone surfaces suitable for hiking and cycling.
With each of the 11 towns along the meandering trail route pursuing their individual sections of the project, it’s difficult to determine the exact total cost for the greenway, but it could be about $60 million.
“It’s usually $1 million to $1.5 million per mile, and ours will definitely be at the high end,” Budris said.
He acknowledges it will likely be many years before the trail is constructed, but remains enthused about what it can do.
“This trail is going to connect several downtowns. That’s what will make it great,” Budris said. “A lot of bike paths don’t really connect places. This will connect the whole valley.”
Of the levees built along the Naugatuck River after the Great Flood of 1955, only Torrington’s are rated even minimally acceptable by the Corps.
The nearly 1-mile levee that protects the former Chase Brass works in Waterbury and the 2 miles of levees in Ansonia and Derby are all rated unacceptable because they have not been maintained well enough for decades, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
“That means there is a chance it could not perform during the next storm event,” said Scott Michalak, the Corps’ chief of geotechnical water resources in New England. “We’re not saying it wouldn’t. We’re saying it could. And ‘not perform’ could mean some riprap going downstream, not necessarily a catastrophic event. But if there are storm damages, then they’re not eligible for federal assistance.”
The Waterbury levee, built in 1960, sits on the Watertown line and is maintained by the state. It has leafy vegetation, including some tall trees, growing along its banks and plants sprouting from its flood walls.
Art Christian, a supervising civil engineer with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, acknowledged that maintenance of the levee has been lax.
“For 20 years, (Chase Brass) took care of it,” he said. “Then they were gone, and we have always meant to pass it along to the city (of Waterbury).
“Right now, quite a bit needs to be done to bring it up to Army Corps standards. We’re trying to figure out a cost-benefit (analysis) to determine what is the best thing to do.”
BY STEVE BARLOW
Torrington – If conservationists had their way, the downtown section of the Naugatuck River might be a trout angler’s paradise. That it is not can be blamed, in their minds, on Hurricane Katrina.
Two miles of levees in the city center were built in the late 1950s to protect downtown businesses and residential neighborhoods.
Following the Great Flood of 1955 (the result of two back-to-back hurricanes), the Army Corps of Engineers straightened, widened and deepened the river channel while also constructing earthen dikes and concrete floodwalls.
Levees also were built in Waterbury, Ansonia and Derby.
“Back then, the primary concern was the damage done and the loss of life. And of course, that was before the environmental movement,” said Tim Barry, a biologist with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “From a fisheries viewpoint, it pretty much wrecked the river.”
About 20 years ago, DEEP, the city of Torrington (which owns and maintains the levees) and conservation groups like Trout Unlimited began talking with the Corps about ways to restore the fish habitat.
The goal was to recreate a more natural setting with a canopy of vegetation to provide shade, which would cool the waters in the Naugatuck and make it more hospitable to trout.
During the summer of 2000, boulders were placed in the river, and trees were allowed to mature on the banks. “We were bringing the river back and approaching a normal river channel,” said Barry.
Then Katrina slammed into New Orleans in August 2005, and that city’s levees failed tragically. In response, the Corps grew stricter with municipalities that had signed agreements years earlier to maintain levees.
Torrington was instructed to clean up the banks, remove any trees larger than 6 inches in diameter, clear and inspect the drains, and correct erosion.
The city was warned it would be ineligible for federal disaster aid if flooding occurred and the levees failed.
“If a change (in the maintenance agreement) infringes or reduces the actual flood protection benefit, that’s something the Corps can’t compromise on,” said Scott Michalak, its chief of geotechnical water resources in New England. “It’s not that we don’t want to. We have our own environmental people. But we can’t unless Congress changes the project purpose.”
The levees in Torrington are now rated “minimally acceptable” by the Corps, which inspects them every year. There are three ratings: acceptable, minimally acceptable and unacceptable.
“We’ve done a lot of work over the last four years to bring them up to the standard the Corps wanted,” said Jerry Rollett, Torrington’s public works superintendent.
Rollett estimated his department spends $50,000 annually on levee maintenance.
Thomaston Dam Facts:
- 142 feet high, 2,000 feet long
- Made of compacted earth and impervious clay
- Highest water mark since its construction: 87.2 feet in June 1984
- 960 acres: the size of its flood storage area
- 13.7 billion gallons: how much the dam can hold
In the Naugatuck River basin, the Army Corps of Engineers also operates the Black Rock and Northfield dams in Thomaston, Colebrook Dam in Colebrook, Hancock Brook Dam in Plymouth and Hop Brook Dam in Middlebury. The state operates the East Branch and Hall Meadow dams in Torrington, and the Mad River and Sucker Brook dams in Winsted.
All of these dams were built by the Corps between 1961-1971 at a total cost of $49.9 million.
Vincent Gualtieri pulled a palm-sized spiral notepad out of his uniform pocket and flipped to a page where he had jotted down figures.
“This dam,” said Gualtieri, “has prevented $836 million in property damage. It cost $14 million to build. I’d say that’s a pretty good return.”
Gualtieri is the Army Corps of Engineers’ project manager at the Thomaston Dam, the No. 1 reason why the devastating Flood of 1955 has never been repeated.
Each day, Gualtieri confers with what’s called the Corps’ Reservoir Regulation team in Concord, Mass. about how much water to allow through the dam’s 455-foot, horseshoe-shaped conduit.
If it’s been raining heavily, the dam’s two hydraulic gates pinch off flow so downstream levels don’t rise too rapidly. Once they start to drop, more water stored behind the dam is allowed to tumble through.
When to raise and lower the gates is based on stream flow information gathered from 100 data collection sites on rivers and dams in five New England states.
The data is transmitted every 15 minutes to satellites, which bounce it to Concord, where hydro-engineers also evaluate reports from the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Weather Service.
After major storms, computer modeling plots the severity of any flooding that might have occurred if not for the dam. The Corps’ finance division estimates the potential property damage.
The damage prevented by the Thomaston Dam since its completion in 1960 “is far and above any other Corps dam in New England,” said Gualtieri, who also oversees dams at Northfield and Black Rock and the Goshen radio relay station.
Traveling more than 40 miles from its headwaters in Norfolk and Winchester to its confluence with the Housatonic in Derby, the Naugatuck is the longest river fully contained within state borders.
During that trip, it drops approximately 540 feet in elevation, a gradient of 13 feet per mile, making it the steepest, most powerful and most dangerous river in Connecticut.
“The Naugatuck is our flashiest basin, which is good and bad,” said Jack Keenan, the Corps’ chief of reservoir regulation in New England.
The steady current was good for powering the industry that sprang up along its banks in the late 1700s and flourished for two centuries. But there was a downside: The steep geography made it prone to flooding.
Flood-control dams on the Naugatuck were first considered following the Hurricane of 1938, “but World War II got in the way,” said Christopher Way, the Corps’ operations manager for the Naugatuck basin.
Then came Aug. 19, 1955, and the worst natural disaster in state history. The torrential downpours of Hurricane Diane, on the heels of Hurricane Connie a week earlier, caused the swollen Naugatuck to angrily escape its banks.
The Mad, Still, Shepaug and Farmington rivers also wreaked havoc as downtowns from Winsted to Washington Depot to Collinsville to Derby were turned into rubble.
When the floodwaters receded, 47 people had been killed in Connecticut and $370 million in property damage ($1.5 billion in today’s dollars) had been wrought.
Construction began in May 1958 and finished in November 1960 at a total cost of about $14 million. Portions of Routes 8 and 222 as well as the railroad were relocated to accommodate the work.
O&G Industries of Torrington won the $4 million contract for the dam itself, the company’s first project of that magnitude.
O&G also constructed the East Branch Dam in Torrington, the Colebrook Dam, the West Thompson Dam and the river levees in Ansonia and Derby. The work helped to turn O&G into one of the largest construction firms in the state.
In all, the Corps erected 12 dams in Connecticut in the early 1960s. It still owns and operates eight of them, while turning four over to state control.
The keystone project, though, is the 142-foot high, 2,000-foot long Thomaston Dam, made of compacted earth and impervious clay.
“This is the Big Kahuna,” Way said.
The flood storage area covers 960 acres spread across the towns of Thomaston, Plymouth, Harwinton and Litchfield, and can store up to 13.7 billion gallons of water.
For much of this summer, the Naugatuck River has been a meandering trickle through the meadows behind the dam. Dirt-bike riders, picnickers and the model airplane flying club that use the property haven’t seen their recreation inconvenienced.
But that isn’t always the case.
The high-water mark for the dam came in June 1984, when it filled to 87.2 feet.
For Gualtieri, the highest level during his 20 years at the dam occurred after Hurricane Irene drenched the state in 2011. Some 9.31 inches of rain fell on Aug. 28, 2011, causing the water to crest at 83.8 feet on the dam’s scale.
Still, neither time did the dam fill to even half of its capacity.
“We have enough capacity to handle anything we’re going to see,” said Keenan.
“If it ever does (fill up),” joked Way, “start building an ark.”
Hurricane Irene was an example of the value of the dam. In Vermont, Irene caused an estimated $733 million in property damage, and floods damaged and destroyed around 500 miles of roads and bridges in that state.
Dams in northern New England needed two weeks to discharge the excess water in the reservoirs.
At the Thomaston Dam, the rain that fell was funneled harmlessly downriver in about five days.
*Photos Courtesy of O&G Industries.
On Aug. 19, 1955, the Naugatuck River rushed its banks in the worst flood in state history. Ray Fitzpatrick’s trunks vanished in the swirling waters.
Fitzpatrick, of Waterbury, a Marine sergeant who had worked as a war correspondent alongside famed journalist Ernie Pyle in the Pacific, had come home to Waterbury with two trunks. Each was stuffed with memorabilia: Japanese flags, swords and a treasure trove of black-and-white photographs, including one from the surrender ceremony.
With little room in his family’s house on Pleasant Street beneath the Holy Land cross, he stashed the trunks in a friend’s garage in the low-lying Brooklyn section of the city. It was an awful mistake. He never saw them again.
Throughout the Naugatuck Valley, much was lost that day: homes, businesses, lives. The Still, Mad, Shepaug, Farmington and Naugatuck rivers raged into insatiable and previously unimaginable monsters, swallowing neighborhoods for miles and spitting them out in splintered heaps.
Over the next six decades, the rivers would be tamed; then polluted; then restored; and on the 60th anniversary of the Great Flood of 1955, the Naugatuck River particularly may never have seen as much love as it does nowadays.
In Torrington, the city moved its popular Marketplace event this summer to Franklin Street, where two derelict factories have been torn down along the river, and the city recently built a riverfront parking lot with hopes of encouraging future development.
In Naugatuck, some 4,000 people in June attended the borough’s 10th annual Duck Day Festival, where 10,000 rubber ducks were dumped off the Maple Street bridge in a fundraising race to Beacon Falls.
Legislation has been filed in Congress for a study to designate the entire Naugatuck Valley as a National Heritage Area, which could mean a future flow of up to $10 million in federal dollars to the 14 towns in the valley.
The Naugatuck is one of only two rivers in the state stocked with Atlantic salmon, drawing anglers from New England, New York and New Jersey.
A 44-mile greenway in the works would allow people to bicycle all the way from where the main stem begins in Torrington to the mouth of the river in Derby.
And while, after two centuries of pollution, the Naugatuck remains on the state’s list of impaired rivers, water quality experts hope the upper portion can be free of that stigma in the near future.
It is a remarkable recovery for a once-dead river infamously responsible for the worst natural disaster in state history.
For all that to happen, however, the rivers first had to be controlled.