- 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.