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.