Devastation on the Delaware:
Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955
by Mary A. Shafer
Because the Delaware River Valley flood of 1955 wreaked such havoc with everything from travel to telephone communication over such a widespread area, the news media of the time had to do the best they could to report the event with a meager supply of verifiable facts. More than a few stories consequently were reported less than accurately during the immediate emergency.
Later, as facts became clear, many casual readers no longer followed the story, even if they did get reported. These facts often didn’t get reported because the media sensed that their audiences had grown weary of the tragedy that seemed to drag on and on. The upshot of all this was that many people heard only the sketchy initial reports about many facets of the flood, and never did get their facts straight about what really happened. This FAQ is provided to help clear up some of these common misconceptions about the flood.
Is it true that, at one point, there was a 40-foot wall of water rolling down the Delaware, that was caused by the collapse of Metropolitan Edison’s hydroelectric dam in Easton?
No. Easton experienced no dam breaks during the flood of 1955. Tributaries of the Delaware experienced many small dam breaks, but with the exception of the Brodhead Creek in Monroe County, these were responsible for a large, slow-moving crest, not a fast-moving “wall” of water. As will happen during disasters, many rumors flew about among apprehensive, uninformed people during the uncertain hours of the water’s rapid rise. This was but one of them.
Were there any other big rumors during the flood of 1955?
Yes. In fact, there was one rumor that was so frightening and dangerous that, three years later, it was studied by government researchers interested in how such rumors affect the behavior of large groups of nervous people. Not surprisingly, this rumor also centered around another supposed dam break. The panic caused by this rumor took place in Port Jervis, New York, on the night of Friday, August 19, 1955. Someone from Sparrowbush, to the north, incorrectly reported that the man-made hydropower dam on the Lackawaxen River at Lake Wallenpaupack had collapsed. Such a break would surely cause a huge amount of destruction and death in Jervis, as it had previously, but it didn't happen in '55.
Were there ANY major dam breaks at all during the flood?
Yes. The Wallenpaupack River, as it came out the southwestern side of the lake and was swollen by the sudden surge of runoff, put so much pressure on the dam at Pocono Lake that it did collapse. It caused at least one death—a 17-year-old boy who was driving over a bridge just as the surge hit it —before it emptied into the Lehigh River. From there, the burgeoning volume of water proceeded to swamp areas of Bethlehem and, further downstream, Easton.
There was a second dam break, this one on Culver’s Lake at the foot of Kittatinny Mountain in New Jersey. The dam was old and in poor repair when Diane’s rains swelled the lake and pushed out the degraded earthen walls of the dam around one o’clock in the morning on August 19. The resulting deluge took out most of the main street in Branchville, and threatened many lives but took none.
Were there any areas not located right on the Delaware River where these storms caused a lot of destruction or death?
Absolutely. In fact, the major areas for such devastation were along the Brodhead Creek in towns such as Henryville, Canadensis, Analomink and the Stroudsburgs in the Poconos.
Another place where a normally small waterway went berserk was in Scranton, where the Roaring Brook tore out two huge sections of town and killed several people. That brook fed into the Lackawanna River, which then empties into the Lehigh River.
The Lehigh flows throug and flooded Bethlehem, and eventually empties into the Delaware at Easton, where it caused water to back up into the city for five blocks in some areas.
Incidentally, though the 1955 flood was the worst to date on the Delaware River, there was another flood in May of 1942 that was actually worse in some places in the Poconos, such as Hawley, Carbondale and Honesdale.
What about that one camp where all the people were killed?
Wasn’t that a Boy Scout camp?
No. There were Scout camps on Delaware River islands that had to be evacuated, and some that were marooned by high water in the Poconos, but not a single Scout—boy or girl— was lost in the flood. The place that suffered the greatest loss of life was reported by newspapers as “Camp Davis.” In fact, it wasn’t a camp at all, but a tiny summer getaway owned by a retired Baptist minister from Nanuet, New York.
Rev. Leon Davis rented a collection of very small cabins and cottages to congregation members, who called the place, simply, “Davis’ ” or “Davis Cabins.” At the time of the flood, there were 46 people staying there, just south of the resort town of Analomink and four miles north of the Stroudsburgs in Pennsylvania. Three of those people had walked over a small bridge to attend an evening program at Pinebrook Bible Conference, so only 43 of the group were actually on the grounds when they were washed away by the Brodhead Creek. Of those, only 6 survived. Most of those who died were women and children, some as young as 2, others as old as 76.
What about those Scout camps on the river—what happened there?
There were Boy Scouts on Treasure Island, Campfire Girls and church campers on Pennington Island, and YMCA campers at Camp Wilson on Marshall Island near Erwinna, Pennsylvania. They were evacuated in an unprecedented, 90-minute operation involving more than a dozen aircraft, most of which were helicopters, still a newfangled vehicle at that time. It was a real nail-biter of an event, but in the end, everyone got off the islands safely. Given that the whole operation was a dangerous, last-minute crisis intervention directed by someone not even on site, it's miraculous that there were no accidents and that no one was hurt or killed.
How many people were killed by the flood of ’55 in the Delaware Valley?
Ninety-nine. Eighty-eight of those were in Pennsylvania, of whom 74 were in Monroe County alone. Eleven were in New Jersey and southern New York state. The total death toll along the Eastern Seaboard was 184 to 200 people, depending on the source you consult.
In terms of property loss, Hurricane Diane had the dubious distinction of being the first billion-dollar hurricane — and that was in 1955 dollars. $100,000,000 of that was in New Jersey alone. All told, Hurricane Diane's waters ripped out 42 road bridges, 17 railroad bridges, and destroyed 20,000 homes.
How much rain did the Delaware Valley actually get from these two hurricanes, altogether?
Again, it depends on your sources, but according to official Weather Bureau records, both sides of the river received from 3-7 inches from Connie and 2-5 inches from Diane in the Bucks/Hunterdon region, all the way up to 10-12 inches from Connie and 15-17 inches from Diane in the Poconos and southeastern Catskills. Most of this rain fell inside a 24-hour period for each storm, though that extended to 36 hours in others. Any way you slice it, that’s enough water to float an ark.
Could something like the flood of 1955 happen again?
Yes and no — it depends what you mean. We could certainly again experience two training hurricanes that could drop as much or more rain than Connie and Diane did. It could even be worse if the weather before their arrival was already wet, since Connie broke a season-long drought in ’55, so the ground was able to soak up most of her rain like a sponge.
In a 21-monh period between September, 2004 - July, 2006, the Delaware Valley again experienced significant rainfalls that caused the Delaware and its tributaries to flood to within 5-6 feet of 1955 levels.
What is highly unlikely to happen again is the level of surprise about such storms. With today’s highly evolved Doppler and NexRad radar, 24/7 satellite imagery, The Weather Channel and ubiquitous communication technology from cell phones and wireless computers to NexTel two-way radios and PDAs with GPS capability, it’s highly unlikely anyone will ever again be caught by surprise to the extent that they can’t get out of harm’s way before it’s too late, as happened in August, 1955.
One of the important programs now in place to help make sure such surprise and unpreparedness never happens again is the National Weather Service's StormReady community program. Another, more regional program is The Flood Project, an effort by the Nurture Nature Foundation, to make those living in flood-prone areas more aware of the potential for flooding, and to educate them of what they can do to lessen the loss. Focus on Floods is the latest application of The Flood Project. A massive related exhibit is now being created to educate the public at the Nurture Nature Center in Easton, Pennsylvania.
What IS worse now is the amount of permeable soil that has been paved over by building development. Every square inch where water is no longer able to soak into the ground represents that much more runoff into flood-swollen waterways. On average, Delaware Valley rainfall from Hurricane Ivan in September, 2004 was only about 63% of that which fell during Diane in ’55, but it caused 84% of the flood crest, or rise in the river’s depth.
This runoff not only increases flooding now, it also represents the increasing likelihood of long-term drought in the future. This is likely because without the natural recharge of rain percolating into the soil where it falls, aquifers could eventually run dry.
The only thing different between now and 1955, besides some smaller flood control dams, which are usually opened during flood events, is the amount of development that has increased the land’s impermeable surface. And it’s only getting worse… so who knows what the end result will be? With increasing tropical storm frequency and intensity from global warming, it seems logical that the odds are favorable for more such destructive weather events.
So why don’t we just dam the Delaware to control all that and be done with it?
It’s not that simple. First, as previously covered, the majority of the worst devastation from these rare, major flood events doesn’t even occur on the main stem Delaware. That happens on tributaries, most of which are now regulated by some type of flood control measures. The other reason is that the Delaware’s value to society comes not just as a winding river, but also in the form of natural beauty, the source of diverse wildlife habitat, recreation and water supply. The former two would be seriously damaged if not ruined by a dam. The latter two could conceivably benefit from a dam, but that’s been tried before and was proven to be a bad idea. The Army Corps of Engineers' own studies proved that the geological formation of the Delaware River's channel simply cannot support the weight and stress such a massive structure would create.
What really needs to happen is that people need to think before they build on the river’s floodplain, and then to take responsibility for their decisions to live there. They need to be honest with themselves about the fact that living close to any waterway comes with a very real cost, and about whether or not they can live with the possibility that they may be forced to pay that cost at some point. Most folks who identify as “river people” are reconciled to this reality, and live with the damage and loss when it occurs. At some point, society may decide that it’s just not worth the public cost to allow people to live in an active floodplain. Until then, people will continue to be adversely affected by the river’s occasional wild behavior.
Questions? Send the author an email.