BY RUTH EPSTEIN
SALISBURY – It happened 60 years ago, but for some the memories remain as vivid as yesterday.
The Flood of 1955 ravaged parts of the Northwest Corner, washing out roads and bridges, and wreaking havoc on residents who were caught in its grip.
The Salisbury Association Historical Society put on a program about that ferocious storm on Sunday, and invited people who went through it to recount their own experiences. Called “When Disaster Struck Connecticut: Memories of the 1955 Flood in Salisbury,” the program was hosted by member Louis Bucceri, who, in his booming voice, brought the event back to life.
“Weather is not just from climate change or global warming,” he began. “It has happened before.”
He said the flood was the result of two consecutive hurricanes, Connie and Diane, that struck on Aug. 11 of that year.
“It wasn’t so bad at first, but then our area got hammered,” Bucceri said. “They got between 16 and 20 inches of rain within a week. The rain had nowhere to go but down.”
Bucceri researched much of his information from an annual report during that time, with then First Selectman Bill Barnett recounting the stories. The storm took people by surprise and was made worse by hitting hard in the middle of the night. Barnett told about the water being 3 feet over Burton Brook Bridge by 1 a.m. Within an hour, the level of Lake Wononscopomuc was within 6 inches of flowing into nearby Factory Pond. Fortunately, it peaked before that happened.
Among the recollections was one from Nancy Smith Bushnell, who wrote that her father, Dr. F.E. Smith, had taken on the job of medical director at Hotchkiss School at that time. The school virtually was cut off from the town for several days because of the flood, she said.
Bucceri used photographs to display the full impact of the water’s power. Scenes of washed-out Mt. Riga and Mt. Washington roads, as well as a swollen Housatonic River coming within inches of the Amesville Bridge deck brought gasps from the audience. That bridge was closed for six months, prompting Bucceri to say “people then had a taste of what we’re feeling today.” The bridge has been closed for several years due to its deteriorating condition and is now undergoing repair.
The first 400 feet of Falls Mountain Road also was washed away. Two large landslides resulted in sheets of mud cascading down on the roads.
Lime Rock also was hard hit due to the overflow from Salmon Kill Creek. The Barnum Richardson mill was so damaged it had to be demolished, and the water came halfway up to the first floor of the Lime Rock Lodge.
Bucceri read an account from the late Evelyn Beligni, who talked about her daughters putting on their bathing suits and swimming to the Fred Shaw house to save a 3-foot diorama of the town that Shaw had created. She described them floating over the front hedges of his home. Bucceri said he was taken aback by Beligni letting her daughters do that; by today’s standards, she probably would have been reported to the authorities, he said. The diorama was saved, however, as was Shaw in the next boat trip.
One of Barnett’s greatest concerns, Bucceri said, was Twin Lakes. The outlet was blocked by debris, causing high water levels. The Crawford house was smashed by the water’s force and the home floated into the lake with the family carried along in their beds. They were saved, but later in the talk, someone said the young daughter’s back was broken.
The storm-related costs amounted to $253,578 at the time, but Bucceri said that total would come to $2,228,956 today when factoring in inflation. Many in the audience disputed that figure, saying it was much too low.
Ed Dorsett of Morris was a young boy living in Lime Rock in 1955. He said he and his father were driving home from Pennsylvania, where they were visiting relatives, and had no idea what awaited them. He remembered the severe damage to many buildings and the “mess” found in the area to the rear of Trinity Lime Rock Church.
Carol Kastendieck of Salisbury recalled her family having just bought the Selleck Mill when the hurricanes struck. She described seven days of lugging water to take care of their needs and the piling up of debris.
“My parents would probably be charged with child abuse today, but the water was racing down at 50 miles per hour, and they tied me and my brothers and them together with a rope, and we entered the stream to clean up the debris,” Kastendieck said. “We loved it, but my mother cried. What a wonderful memory.”
For Selectman Jim Dresser, who was 13 at the time, “It was the best three weeks of my life.”
He said all parental restrictions were let down. He and his friends decided to go into town, and he asked his mother what provisions she wanted. She requested a loaf of bread and a bottle of rye. He accommodated her, but on the return trip, he hit a pothole in the brook and came up sputtering.
“I had the loaf of bread, but just the neck of the bottle,” Dresser said. “Someone ran down the river and began drinking the water. That area became known as ‘Whiskey Bend.’”
Betty Stratton was working in the office of the Cedars Club, which was a getaway for adults on Long Pond Road. The road was washed away and prevented campers from getting there. That was the last year of its operation.
“The storm really was a death knell for Cedars,” Bucceri said.
Contact Ruth Epstein at email@example.com.