Recently the Hartford Courant has begun publishing a series of articles focusing on memorable events in Connecticut’s history since the newspaper’s founding 250 years ago. And let’s face it, there have been plenty of significant events to cover. Staff writer Jim Shea, better known for his humor column, tackled the story of flooding in Connecticut in a front page article, “Wild Waters”, in this past Sunday’s issue. Among the wet and wild events covered was the great August 1955 flood, the result of back-to-back hurricanes.
This particular disaster really resonated with me because (and here I am probably giving away my age…) this is the earliest memory I can readily recall. Like many people, I suppose, memory is vital to the process of providing context by which I can try to make my way in the world today.
OK, so I grew up in the Thompsonville section of Enfield, arguably the center of American carpet manufacturing (at least it was in ‘55). A prominent physical feature here was Freshwater Brook, flowing into Thompsonville from the east side of town. The brook first emptied into the aptly named Freshwater Pond, before dropping precipitously to meet the Connecticut River. This natural fall line and the waterpower it provided is what attracted Orrin Thompson when he established a carpet mill (and the pond) in the late 1820s.
By 1955 Thompson’s original wooden mill had long been replaced by a huge complex of brick structures that employed thousands of local workers, including many of my French-Canadian relatives and neighbors. (Last year I posted a blog about these French-Canadian mill workers.) All along Main Street, across from what was then the Bigelow-Sanford Carpet Company, stretched a line of 19th and early 20th Century buildings housing a mix of shops, small businesses and apartments.
The brook flowed quietly just behind this row of structures. That is, until August 1955 when, following days of record-breaking rain, all hell broke loose. The disaster struck many different parts of the state, but to a young kid, it was all local.
The day after the rain ceased my mother pushed me in a stroller the three blocks from our house to downtown, safely parking me in front of the First National supermarket to watch the spectacle. Freshwater Brook roared beyond its banks, turning Main Street into a torrent that inundated the many buildings along the route, all the while scouring pavement and sidewalk like some milling machine run berserk. To me the noise of the water was deafening, and the sight of armed National Guard troops a bit confusing. At the rotary intersection of Main, North Main and Pearl Streets across from the fire house there was a freestanding traffic control structure, which took on the appearance of a channel buoy in the flood. While CHS has riveting photos of the flood I decided to share some of my family’s snapshots as a way of revisiting this particular event, the stuff of my memories. I’m not sure who took the photos but I suspect it was one of my uncles or teenage cousins.
The floodwaters receded within days, but the physical damage took much, much longer to repair. In retrospect the flood hastened a process of deterioration that was quietly gnawing at the fabric of Thompsonville; the relocation of most carpet operations to Greenville, South Carolina in the following years put an exclamation point on the village’s decline.
Happily, in recent years Thompsonville has been working to redefine itself. With the anchor of a large apartment complex on the site of the carpet mill, a new appreciation of historic buildings such as the Strand Theater and St. Patrick’s Church, and the prospect of commuter rail service in the offing my old hometown is on the move, a far cry from those awful days in August 1955 that for me remain such strong memories.