Readers share their firsthand flood experiences! If you'd like to share your personal story, please let us know.
You've come to the right place to read the stories of those who lived through the record-setting Delaware River flood of August, 1955. It was an event that changed the face of the Delaware River Valley forever.
The Ghost of '55
I noticed the presence immediately when my parents bought the house on Warrington Avenue in the fall of 1968. The house was in dreadful shape from not being lived in for some time. My dad basically gutted the whole house. I would see her mostly at the top of the stairs. She was almost invisible, a young girl. Not big, not small, but average, mid-length hair. Looking very desperate, not evil... I guess that is the best way to describe her. She would vaporize into the back bedroom, which was closest to the tree she had drowned in. That room was always ICE cold!
But mind you? No one told us for some time that the house had been underwater, yet a girl had drowned on the side of the house, clinging to our trees. My mother never believed me, and thought I was seeing things. Poltergiests are trapped and more prone to show themselves to young children, more so to adolescents! I just always felt something was always there watching. Finally, my mom saw the image actually come flying out of the bathroom when I was in there as teen, washing my hair. I absolutely saw a shadow of a being on the bathroom tub wall. It was then my mom believed!
It ran up the stairs and my mom watched it vaporize into the back bedroom! From there, my mom had the church come in and smudge the house, but I knew that was not going to take her from this place to where she needed to go. A lost soul…she is still in the house, I am sure.
Her name, I later found out, was Diane Smith. I don't know her age, but her car was overcome there on Street Road, right in front of our home. The story told by all the neighbors was that our home was under at least 5 feet of water, and she and a male climbed the tree on the side of our property, closer to the Street Rd. bridge, closer to Valley Rd. He was swept downstream and rescue tried terribly for hours with boats, etc. Even locals Bob Roth and Frank Coverdale had to be rescued from the rescue team trying to get her. Finally, she drowned in the tree and wasn't recovered till the water went down.
There is a spike in the tree — been there forever — in memory of her. But she made her presence known for years in our house. I couldn't possibly make this up. Honest-to-God truth and I'd swear on a bible. I do know this: I hate the house, always have and don't go near it. The tree was still there last time I was.
"Such a state of confusion…"
Here's a video recollection from a Stroud Township survivor of the flood.
Excitement at Camp Ministerium
In the thick of things between the Stroudsburgs
After hours of friendly socializing, a group of my friends and I returned across the steel bridge spanning the Brodheads Creek at about 11:30 p.m. We had enjoyed the night at the Stroudsburg Colonial Diner, when we saw the high Brodheads Creek. We initially thought nothing of how high the water level was or that the metal spans seemed to be “singing.” But as we watched it expand like a river under the bridge from Stroudsburg to E. Stroudsburg, we revved our car up to high speed. We barely got across swaying, shaking bridge, with water washing about 3-6 inches over it, before making it to safety.
There were no emergency cars or people in authority there, so we drove up the East Stroudsburg hill. I made it home to 125 S. Green St. and had barely hit the bed, when my father said our neighbor, Al Myers, requested our assistance. He needed help clearing the lower two floors of his East Stroudsburg furniture store to keep the merchandise out of the water.
That took us a few hours as we were already tired, and then we started hearing various official alarms. In the ensuing early morning hours, wailing emergency sirens and radio accounts warned that a Scranton area dam had broken, washing out all of our surrounding bridges and flooding lower-lying areas!
After finally hearing an emergency description on the radio, I proceeded to East Stroudsburg Fire Department, where I met other members of my Boy Scout Explorer Post 98 and some non-Scouts. We were assigned to a rescue team and began what ended up being weeks of effort, as emergency crews mobilized the following morning.
I mustered with Explorer Post 98, coordinating with Civil Defense leaders to assist in rescue work. Joining a massive local area effort, we spanned swollen creeks with hawser lines and used motorboats to save many people and animals. Water levels rose to 15-20 feet along low areas surrounding both towns.
All surrounding bridges had been washed away, so East Stroudsburg was isolated. We first set up ropes high above and along the deep water (15+ ft. in roads), to swing across the swirling “river” to rescue many stranded members. As the floodwaters fell in 2-3 days, we began to find over dead people and MANY animals!
Helicopters soon began to bring in emergency assistance, including medical help, coffee and food, as Army pontoon bridges were constructed. Fortunately, our hospital was on high ground and remained un-flooded, but electric power was inoperative for most of that first week after the flood.
Only four miles away, the Delaware River rose so high that it washed out a high side of the famed Water Gap railroad line, plunging a passing freight train into the raging waters.
All surrounding bridges were “out” and, due to our full isolation from Stroudsburg, Dad and I could not get to his store. Reports told us the streets were flooded. Dad’s store was severely flooded, damaging considerable stock and staining interior walls.
Even in higher areas, such as our property, excessive rains flooded the saturated ground, causing septic system failures and health dangers. National Guard ground and helicopter units came to assist, as stores remained closed and food and water were becoming very scarce.
In the following weeks as the brown waters fell, our searches located many of the dozens who perished. This was the worst disaster our Pocono Mountain area had ever experienced.
Washed-out bridges, English muffin pizza and rheumatic fever
Mary Anne Pennington
Island camper remembers evacuation
New Jersey native recalls aftermath
We were evacuated from the drive-in movie in Matamoras not long after that, and were all sent up toward Hawk's Nest. They told us the Wallenpaupack Dam may break. Thank God it didn't.
Colorado reader remembers her close brush with death in the flood
Warrington reader remembers stories of the aftermath
I am enjoying your book about the 1955 storms and ensuing flood of the Delaware River. For years, I have driven past the "high water mark" painted on the rock formation along the river road; and took it for granted. I was born in 1957 and was blessed to experience "Sunday drives" up and down routes 32 and 611. Your book brings back many memories of my Dad teaching us about the various floods over the years. Thanks again for your hard work and diligent research.
A seven-year-old's vivid memories
Our house was on River Road, just south of New Hope. The garage was picked up and carried away and the house was left standing but totally destroyed inside. As you probably already know, the river would rise on regular basis. My mother was at home and my dad was at work in New York. When the river got higher than usual, my mother called my dad. He arrived home about 2 hours later and the water already covered the lawn. They moved the furniture to the second floor. The flood crested with 4 feet of water in the second floor. I was 7 at the time; however, I have vivid memories of the whole affair.
Grateful for relatives' story
I read a portion of your book and I was grateful that you told the story of how my great grandmother (Minnie Burd and her husband, David Burd) passed. They lived on Day Street and Lenox Avenue [in East Stroudsburg]. There is more to that story because their lives were so tragic.
If the flood hadn't killed my great-grandma, there is a good chance I would have known her in my lifetime. It was really sad to hear of the circumstances of her death and I don't even think my grandmother had the whole story. My mother mentioned something about a boat trying to rescue them and I was hoping to validate the story. I will be purchasing your book as I think my mom would want to read it. Thank you.
Deanne Sneath Schroeder
Survived the flood and polio—at the same time!
I was in Bucks County Hospital in 1955 with polio. I was 10 at the time, but I won't forget that day. My mother and father, who lived in Levittown at the time, had to go rescue my Aunt and Uncle Sakowski. They lived on River Road at the time. Their house was underwater, except for the top of it. It was a complete loss.
Family lost everything in Stroudsburg
My mother has told me this story over and over on many occasions, as we reminisced about our life in Stroudsburg, PA. I currently live in Allentown.
My family lived in Stroudsburg in the middle of a field that intersected Third Street and Kramer Avenue. My father built the house with his own hands. It later became a part of what is now Helen Amhurst Park, and was since torn down. My father’s mother and father lived on Third Street, the last house on the row before the hill leading up to Fifth Street (turning left) or leading to Second Stree (turning right), the Stokes Mill cement plant and the dikes near the Brodhead Creek.
I was 3 years old at the time of the flood; my brother, 7 and my sister, 6 years old. Mother tells us that it was my Father’s usual practice to be away from home in the evening after dinner, playing cards with friends. However, this evening he had stayed home because he wanted to watch the Jimmy Pearsall story on TV. She remembers my father hearing fire engine sirens in the neighborhood, and he said to her, “Let me go over and check on Jim.” He wanted to make sure our neighbors, the Widdosses, were all right and see if he could help if there was trouble.
Jim and Janet Widdoss lived in the alley behind our home, between Second and Third Streets. Once my father arrived at their home, he began banging on the door to see what was going on. After several minutes at the door, he happened to notice water coming down the alley; first at his feet, then to his ankles. It was quickly rising. He continued to bang on the Widdosses’ door and began to holler.
"Get out! Get out, everybody, there’s water coming! It’s a flood…get out!”
Father realized at this point that he could not wait any longer for a response, and he rushed home to our family. He burst in the door, shouting to my mother to get the children and get in the car. "Don’t ask me any questions. There’s a flood coming, and we have to get the children out!"
Mother and Father gathered us up, and as Father was driving us to higher ground, he leaned out the window. He shouted to all of our neighbors and family on Third Street, some of whom were sitting on their porches.
“Get out! Get out! A flood is coming! WATER’S COMING, GET OUT!"
Most were puzzled and answered with, “Charles, what are you talking about?”
He continued up Third Street to his mother’s house, and stopped shortly to warn her and try to get her in the car with us. I’m not sure if she didn’t believe him or was waiting for my grandfather. Father realized he needed to get out.
By this time, Mother says the National Guard was starting to appear and warning my father that the car was not going to be of any use to him, because the water was getting too high. Somehow, he drove us up to the house of a family we knew on Fifth Street, which was higher ground. Then he went back for my grandmother. By this time, it was only possible to travel by boat onto Third Street.
The next day, Father and Mother came back to our home, having to travel through the field in boots up to their hips, because mud was everywhere. As they tried to pry open the door, shovels in hand, the mud rushed out of our home. Father made Mother go back to the house where we had stayed, and he worked with others to shovel out our home. We lost everything.
My mother always shares the story that the Red Cross didn’t help us at all in our neighborhood. It was the Mennonites who traveled from the Lancaster area [Editor's note: Actually, they were from Blooming Glen], set up tents in Stroudsburg, and helped us tirelessly to clean out our homes of all the mud and debris.
Escaped flooded Camp Miller
At that time, I was a 14-year-old counselor-in-training at Camp Miller, Shawnee-on-Delaware, PA, and living as a camper in what was then called the Pioneer Unit. As you indicate, we awoke on a bright sunny day to find the river well above normal levels. Eventually, it crossed the bank and entered the camp grounds. I found two younger campers, took their hands, and the three of us waded through the flooded farm fields, then owned by Clarence Treible, climbed the small mountain across the road from Treible's farm, and hiked the approximately 2.5 miles to Camp Ministerium, where all the staff and campers stayed for several days until the waters receded.
During a period of four days, I lived in a pair of sneakers, a white T-shirt, and a maroon bathing suit until we were able to return to our families (in my case to Bethlehem, PA). My recollection is that the camp had approximately 180 campers and about 50 staff (a somewhat different number than you report from your sources).
In the years after the flood, I returned to camp as a counselor and unit head from 1956-1960 and became, with my friend John F. Adams, the author of a brief history of the camp, which in those years appeared in the memory books. As a final event in the story (as far as I know), thanks to a never-completed project by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the camp grounds were abandoned, the camp closed, and the kind of wonderful summer experience that I and many other boys and young men had at Camp Miller lost forever.
Another Camp Miller survivor
It was my first summer away at Camp Miller (Shawnee-on-the-Delaware) as an eleven-year-old. I was only going to stay for the first two weeks of July. My parents kept talking me into staying additional weeks. The rains came in late July or early August, making the camp experience less appealing. However, I agreed to stay another couple weeks only to experience heavy rains. Maybe they were even hurricanes.
I awoke very early one morning needing to go to the latrine, which was near the river. To my amazement, the river had climbed up the riverbank probably 10 or 15 feet. I watched all sorts of items flow by: boats, docks, etc. I alerted my comrades back at my cabin, and it was great fun watching the whole show – not thinking that we were in danger – because the riverbank was quite high.
Unfortunately, the bank was lower a bit downstream in Camp Miller, so water started coming into the camp, backing up to our campsite area. At first it was a small amount, enough so that we could play in it. However, the camp staff figured out that the river was going to rise even further, and we were instructed to take our belongings to higher ground. From that higher ground, I watched as my cabin was the first one to float from its foundation. Then others followed.
After awhile, the Ministerium (Adult Camp) sent buses to pick us up and take us back to that camp, which was on very high ground. I don't remember how many days we were there. At times, helicopters landed there, bringing some people and provisions. Additionally, our waterlogged belongings were retrieved and we dried them out. We all wrote letters to our parents.
My parents came to pick me up. However, a bridge over one of the smaller rivers had been wiped out, and I was ferried by boat across the water to join my parents for my way home. Needless to say, I was not happy that my parents had pushed me into staying another two weeks…long enough to experience the flood of '55.
Anne Williams Alster
Book reminds her of old neighbors
I recently discovered that you had written a book about the Delaware River Flood of 1955 and immediately ordered it. I have not had time to read much but checked the Index and wasted no time in reading everything that resulted from your interviews with Peggy Beling Fackenthal.
My family lived directly across Rt. #611 from the Fackenthals (white frame house with a white picket fence). I was 16 years old and have never forgotten waking up early that August morning and noticing lots of cars in our driveway (very unusual). My parents (Betty and Nate Williams) and my grandmother were across the road at the Fackenthals helping to move things up to the second floor.
The day is a bit of a blur in my memory, but I do remember Mrs. Fackenthal sitting up on the hill in her chair (your mentioning that in your book brought back the memory) . . . I still have the small chair she gave me from her house after the flood so that I would always have a tangible "memory" of that unforgettable experience.
You also mentioned Mr. Fackenthal's hiring an engineer to determine the actual "flood plain" in the area. The River backwashed over the road at the north end of our property, and Rt. 611 was clear from there south toward Easton past Frost Hollow Road (where Peggy's friend dropped her off that morning). That gave us a "lifeline" to the outside world.
Peggy's memory of her father-in law brought back memories of my special friendship with him. I actually knew Mr. Fackenthal better than I knew the other members of the family. He had a garden on the property next to ours, and in the summer I would go over and visit with him for hours (while he tried to garden, of course . . . he assured Mother I was not a pest). He even came to my graduation from Moravian Seminary.
(FOLLOWUP): I have finished the book, and it is one of the most amazing results of years of research and emotional commitment . . . and a tribute to the fine "art" of writing. So many people had waited 50 years for the kind of closure that only your book has given them.
I was fascinated by all the general information about the causes of flooding, the history of the Delaware and its tributaries and the (new to me) years of considering a plan to dam the river.
One place you mentioned that brought back long-buried childhood memories was Jimmy's Hot Dog Stand. Going there was a special treat . . . Jimmy's hot dogs did not have to take a "back seat" ...even to Nathan's on Coney Island!
Thank you for your wonderful book. I know I will refer to it many times over the coming years. I have marked so many pages where there are familiar names and/or places. You have given a priceless "gift" to all of us who lived through those unforgettable August days over 50 years ago.
Richard P. Behrens
Getting Hung Out To Dry
Richard was the camp clerk at Treasure Island Scout Camp on the Delaware, where the Boy Scouts evacuated themselves via motor barge before the current got too strong. Their counselors stayed behind to try to secure the camp as best they could, and wound up having to be evacuated via helicopter airlift by 1:30 Friday afternoon, August 19th. Upon returning when the flood waters had receded, the camp safe, which had been full of water, was opened. Richard's most vivid recollection of the flood, aside from evacuating the campers, was rescuing the currency from the safe by hanging it on a line to dry. He recalls the bizarre sight of bills of many denominations hanging all over the area around the camp office.
Eerie Remainders of Disaster
In 1978, we moved to Ewing, New Jersey, but I had never heard anything about the flood of '55.
One day, my husband and I took a walk along the canal. On the way back, we walked down the embankment closer to the river. Along the embankment, we came upon some old abandoned houses—almost shacks—or at least by that time, they had become shacks.
It was eerie, as if the Rapture had happened and people were pulled out of their houses without a moment to "leave things in order." Items were still on the kitchen table. Curtains were raggedy, but still hanging. Old cars parked by the side of the houses were turning to rust. Front doors were askew on their hinges. It was totally silent. It was like what I imagined a ghost town in the West would have looked like.
Then, the following year (or two), we took the same walk, and everything was GONE! At that point, I began asking if anyone knew what was going on down there, and eventually heard that those were homes that were hit when the flood happened, and that they had been condemned by the State and eventually razed.
Grew up hearing flood stories
I am fascinated by this subject, because my parents and grandparents often spoke about "the flood." I was born in 1956, and my parents got married in June of 1955. My grandparents, the late John and Lillian Provan of North Arlington, New Jersey, owned a bungalow on the Pennsylvania side of the river, about 1-2 miles north of Dingman's Bridge. They had a line painted on the wall of the house, about 5 feet off the floor, which was the high water mark in August, 1955. I can remember that today, as if I were still there. My uncle spoke of having to leave his car and ford a stream on his way up from the bridge. I’m not sure where everyone in my family escaped to when the water rose, but they all escaped safely.
Lucky to survive when the Brodhead exploded
My sister and I, along with our grandmother and a neighbor, were fortunate to survive the flood of 1955. My grandparents' home on the banks of the Brodhead Creek at Stokes Mill, where I was staying for the summer, was directly in the line of fire when the Brodhead exploded with a fury that was absolutely terrifying. More than 50 years later, I can still see that peaceful stream becoming a raging river with wave tops reaching into the trees along the shore. Mercifully, we were spared the sight of much of the devastation, since it occurred after dark. I still shudder when I think of what we would have seen, had it been daylight.
At the time of the flood, my grandfather, William Curnow, was manager of the Stroudsburg Water Company and his home was on water company property, at the pumping station on the East Stroudsburg side of the Brodhead Creek. That house still stands today, while many others on both sides of the Brodhead were destroyed in the flood.
The creek began to overflow its banks around 7:00 PM on August 18th, and I recall vividly watching the water begin to creep across and up our front lawn toward the house. The house is situated on a slight rise on the land, and I remember my grandmother saying that the water wouldn't rise above that point to enter the house. I'm sure she knew better, but said this in an effort to keep me calm. I remember repeatedly saying, "We have to leave, we have to leave!" But there was nowhere to go.
My grandfather had left hours before, to respond to an emergency call. Our only option was to go inside and hope the water wouldn't reach the second floor or drive us to the attic or rooftop. At about 8:00 PM, we lost electrical power. My grandmother must have been on the verge of panic, but to her everlasting credit, she never lost control or let it show. She defined courage that night, and I never forgot it.
At approximately 8:30 PM, my grandmother decided it was time to go. She gathered up all of her important insurance papers and placed them in a wooden laundry basket. She bundled my sister in her arms and we headed out the back door, toward the garage light shining from a house on the opposite side of the field. That light (the only one in the entire area) saved our lives. It illuminated a portion of the field, revealing a torrent of water that forced us back into the house. We retreated back to the second floor, safe for now, but fully expecting the house to be swept away, with us in it.
We spent the rest of the night sitting and waiting. Occasionally, we would hear a thump or bang on the side of the house, as it shook in response. I spent most of the night in bed, completely under the covers and drenched in sweat, in complete terror of what might happen next. By the grace of God, we survived the night.
As dawn broke, we got our first look at the devastation all around us. It was hard to describe. As we walked downstairs, the first thing I remember was the smell of mud and dead fish. When we stepped onto the front porch, the first thing I saw was a huge hole where the lawn had been. The hole looked like a huge crater. There were several of these, created no doubt by the whirlpool effect of the water swirling in those areas.
Directly across the creek, several houses were completely gone. One man was found hanging in a tree with his clothes completely stripped from his body, but he survived. About a mile upstream stood Camp Davis, where 37 campers—many of them children and entire families—were swept away.
Patricia Nevius Peterson
Evacuating Camp Wilson
I was a twelve-year-old girl attending YMCA Camp Wilson, just upriver from the Boy Scout Camp on Treasure Island. I remember it raining for several days and it would not stop. Everything was soaked. The river kept rising and we were not permitted to swim. Finally, I remember going to the barn as that was the highest point on the camp property. We were told everyone was leaving and, just then, the first military helicopter came in to begin taking the campers out.
We were taken to Frenchtown High School, fed, and then placed on buses and brought back to Trenton, New Jersey. From the YMCA, I called my parents to come and pick me up. A sidebar to this story: During the day, my 8-year-old brother kept pestering my mother to drive to the camp to pick me up. He was listening to the news on the radio and heard how bad it was. My mother just ignored him, but then my call came through. That was between August 17-20, 1955. All this comes to mind with the recent flooding of June 28, 2006.
Family member was a flood hero
Flood memories of a six-year-old
I was just a kid when the river flooded, my first indication that there were things even grownups can't control. All kids learn this sooner or later, but to see it played out, to feel the fear and growing sense of helplessness, leaves an emotional imprint that never really fades. We tend to downplay our own life experiences, content to let the bad things happen where they usually happen. But the flood of 1955 was unique and unprecedented. My own recollection centers on the New Hope/Lambertville area, being six years old and ignorant of the towns to the north. I thought of it as OUR flood. I still do, though you've shown me the light. Having lived through it and knowing what I know now, in terms of damage and loss of life, I can see we got off fairly easy.
Eugene J. Duffy
Flood memories form the basis of lifetime friendships
My family was one of those families who rented a cottage/bungalow along the Delaware in 1955. Like others, my mother and I stayed from when school closed in June until Labor Day. My father came up on Friday evenings and went back to our apartment in Jersey City on Sunday evenings. We were renting in a small town known as Mill Rift, Pennsylvania, which is five miles up the Delaware River from the bridge separating Matamoras, Pennsylvania and Port Jervis, New York.
Even though I was only 10 years old during the summer of '55, I still vividly remember Connie and Diane very well. At that time, there were about fifteen families renting in Mill Rift, and we were all from Jersey City, Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island. Most of us kids were between eight and twelve years old, while our parents were for the most part in their lower forties.
Fortunately, no one in Mill Rift was injured or killed, but the events of these two storms helped to form friendships which have lasted until this day. Last August, we got together in Mill Rift and had our "First Annual Fiftieth Anniversary of the Flood Reunion." Although most of our parents have passed on, us kids and, in some cases, our kids – and even, in some cases, grandkids –showed up at the same firehouse that was the center of activity fifty years before.
People flew in from different parts of the country and even though many of us still keep in touch over the years, there were many faces from the past who made the trip and went through several kegs of beer and soda recounting stories of Connie and Diane.
Many of us take a ride to Mill Rift on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend for a barbeque at one of the local survivors' houses. Somehow, after all the talk about families, etc., August 18, 1955 always comes up.
Congratulations on a well written book, which I will certainly be passing around in a few weeks.
Stopped by a mudslide
I was 9 years old at the time of the flood. My mother was taking my sister and me to the "The Land of Make Believe," in Hope, NJ from Washington, NJ. We were on Rt. 46 East, just before the town of Great Meadows. There had just been a large mudslide from the left side of the road that covered both lanes. All the rain had saturated the earth. We had to go home, greatly disappointed. That is a vivid memory of the Flood of '55.
Marooned on an island in the rising river
I was a member of Troop 70 in Philadelphia. We were at the Treasure Island Boy Scout Camp the week of the 1955 flood. What I remember is the calm professionalism of the Scout leaders during this crisis. We waited by the mess hall for the barges to pick us up, as the water rose closer and closer to the mess hall. I remember the barges needed 3 or 4 motors on the back to overcome the power of the river. We were all safe, but lost our camping gear, which for some was a great expense. I believe LIFE magazine did a story on our and other rescues from the river.
Birthday cake at the Kakeout
This book is phenomenal and really touched home with me. I was only 3 in the '55 flood, but grew up hearing the stories. My mother has told me some new ones since reading this great book. My father is actually the Pen Argyl man who saved the judge from Philadelphia and his invalid wife during the flood in Bushkill, as referenced in the book.
It was my third birthday, and I remember my dad somehow getting a cake in for me. The men rigged up pulleys on trees and sent items in to us in buckets. I also burnt my nose on a kerosene lamp, which I had never seen before.
We were stranded there quite a while and eventually had to hike miles to get out of there. My mom has some pictures of the immediate area where we were. What a horrible nightmare for so many people.
The public becomes the personal
I was not quite 14 and about to enter the eighth grade when Hurricane Diane drowned the Delaware. We lived along NJ-29, just about three miles south of Frenchtown. Wilson Island was directly across from our farm, while Treasure Island lay a bit to the south. Just a couple weeks before the flood, I had spent a week at Camp Pahaquarra, and then returning from a family vacation to upstate New York, we drove home through the last hours of Hurricane Connie.
Like most everyone else in the region, Thursday, August 18 was spent inside as rain pelted our Kingwood Township home. The river was already swollen from the previous week's storm, and the little unnamed creek that ran by our house also had water in it for the first time all summer. By Friday morning, we knew things were getting worse. I climbed the hill behind the house and sat on a rock outcropping watching the river grow wider and wider. I could see far enough north and south to where the water had risen beyond its banks, over the railroad tracks and onto the highway.
Fortunately, our farm was high enough and far enough back that we escaped the deluge, although our rock wall cellar filled with almost four feet of water. One of the small bridges on Fairview Road had also washed out, and with the highway underwater, we were marooned for a couple days. We were, like most everyone, also without telephone or electricity. It wasn't until the early part of the following week that we were able to get to Frenchtown and see just how much damage had been done. Unlike so many others, we were lucky.
But that's not the end of my story. When the old Columbia-Portland Bridge spanning the Delaware River was swept downstream on Thursday, August 19, one section ended up wedged at the head of Wilson Island. The following is an excerpt from an article I wrote for---and received a Certificate of Achievement from---Writer's Magazine's annual contest:
Nearly sixty miles downstream from its piers and directly across from my parent's Hunterdon County, New Jersey farmhouse, parts of one section of the Columbia-Portland Bridge, the last covered bridge to span the Delaware, were snagged by trees at the head of Wilson Island.
Wilson is one of the larger islands in the upper Delaware. It's nearly a mile long and wide enough to have once contained a working farm, and later a church-supported summer camp. During the 1955 flood, the river rose so fast that the campers had to be evacuated by helicopter. I remember the rising waters, the evacuation, the snarl of the river as it grew wider and wider, drowning the islands and the surrounding countryside.
On Friday, after the storm's pounding rains finally ended, I climbed the hill behind our house to watch the floodwaters rise. More than water swept past. Barrels, lumber, uprooted trees, even cars and entire houses were carried downstream. Wilson Island, like a giant magnet, caught much of the flotsam. And among the debris was the Columbia-Portland Bridge.
Days and weeks later, after the flood subsided, the river's banks and islands remained awash with treasures for adventuresome boys. There were prizes of all sorts to be expropriated---boats, household appliances, cars, mysterious stuff; more wood than I and my schoolmates could use in a lifetime of fort-building.
Most of all, there was a huge section of the bridge. The island had caught part of the roadway and the underneath main support beam. Nearly 40 feet long, with much of the roadway planking still attached, this giant underpinning soon became our Holy Grail, our Mt. Everest. We would liberate the beam from its island resting place and bring it to the New Jersey side river bank.
We worked for days to remove all the debris, planking, and other attachments from the beam. Each afternoon, we'd run from the school bus, grab our pry bars and hammers, and jump in our little runabout motorboats for the ten-minute ride to the head of Wilson Island. There we'd work until suppertime, freeing our grand trophy from its ensnarement.
The beam, cut from native pine a century earlier, was huge—fully 12 by 16 inches—and, when the broken end was sawed clean, nearly 37 feet long. It was also far too long and heavy to float back across the river to our Jersey-side landing. So, with a borrowed two-man crossut saw, we cut the beam into four shorter pieces, three each of ten feet and one of seven. Even these were almost too much for our little boats and their lawnmover-sized motors. It took two boats and some mighty poling to drag the beams, one at a time, across the current to our side of the river. On one trip, the current caught us and we missed our landing by nearly a half-mile, then had to pole upstream, pulling the beam behind us.
Finally, though, we had all four beam sections on the shore. Then we had to drag them up the river bank, over the railroad tracks, up yet another bank, and into the back of Pop's pickup truck.
In the end, we split the treasure: One partner's father was a carpenter and he used his entire beam to make a fireplace mantle; another had his section cut up for planking by a local sawmill. I held on to my piece for nearly three years before Pop and I had it cut into various-sized planking. One plank became the mantle of our new fireplace; the rest was made into the dining room table and benches we sat at daily.
The bridge became an extension of my family. The bridge was where we ate dinner, where my brother and I did our homework, where my mother read the newspaper, where Pop scanned seed catalogs. When company came, we eagerly waited for someone to notice the golden pine table and benches. Then the bridge became the topic of conversation as my parents told and retold the story of how the historic Columbia-Portland span ended up in their dining room. And Pop, his chest swelled with pride, would escort our visitors into the den to see the fireplace mantle plank.
Some years back, my parents sold their beloved farmhouse and moved to town. They left behind the little silver plaque we had engraved for the mantle: 'Columbia-Portland Bridge 1869-1955.' I admit to watery eyes the last time I stood in the den, rubbing my hands over the native pine planking—my bridge!
At the country sale, when the auctioneer wanted to put the table and benches on the block, I wouldn't let him. I knew the mantle had to stay with the house, but the table and benches were mine. The bridge had been too much a part of my youth to let it go to strangers.
I wasn't quite 14 when Hurricane Diane swept across New Jersey, but I vividly remember the storm, the flood, the aftermath. Mostly though, I remember the bridge, for it truly became mine. Fate and Wilson Island brought us together—a dashed remnant from a century-old engineering project, and a starry-eyed kid who thought he was the king of the Delaware River. The Columbia-Portland Bridge and I, we go back a long ways.
It's been 51 years since the Delaware Valley was forever altered by the Great Flood. My mother, who is now nearly 91, lives in Milford, high on a hill but within sight of the river. Long ago, I moved from the Valley to New York's Putnam County. But I still have the table and benches. There are some things you just can't let go of.
On Saturday August 20, 1955 my parents drove eight of their children to Belvidere to see the river. I was six and we got within 100 feet of the bridge and what I saw I never forgot. Years later, my sister rented a room in a house on the river off of Dupue’s Road. Later, my brother Tom got the opportunity to rent a house two doors away from PPL and he is still there. As kids, we all learned how to swim at the Riverton Beach. So we had a relationship with the river.
During the summer of 2004, we thought that God really smiled upon us. The raised ranch we purchased [in Harmony, NJ] was drop dead beautiful. South River Terrace is located on a section of the river with rapids. As you already know we were flooded by Ivan. All winter we had the house gutted and renovated and in March of 2005 we were going over often to paint the trim and receive all the new furniture that we purchased. As you already know, we were flooded again on April 2 & 3.
The house is now more beautiful than ever and it is for sale. Our hearts are broken and we are sure the river will flood again in the near future. As a matter of fact, we thought it was going to flood again in October when we had seventeen inches of rain over a three-week period. Strange as it seems, the river was actually going down the last two days of the three weeks of rain. All the local creeks and rivers were overflowing, but the Delaware was going down.
So we have been through it twice in seven months. The weather this past week as I read the book had me feeling that it was happening again as I read.
Nature's surprising power
My mother, sister and I were staying at housekeeping cottages near Marshalls Creek, Monroe County in the Poconos at the time of the flood. We were astonished how small streams became torrents with no apparent warning. The ground was saturated from earlier rains, which contributed to the stream build-ups.
There was little weather forecasting then and no reporters, weather channels or non-stop news coverage to inform the outside world. My father traveled from the city, not knowing local conditions, and had to talk his way past authorities blocking off various points in the area.
We did not see the devastation until days later and were astonished at washed out bridges and the destruction of the children's camp. A reminder of the force of the waters is still visible from the trees still bent out of shape.
Randall is now a member of the Monmouth, New Jersey historical society.
Leroy, who lived in Langhorne at the time of the flood, was a carpenter by trade. Here's his story:
On August 19, I was working putting in a bay window at the home of a Dr. Sommers. The home was located on a spit of land between the canal and the river, just north of Yardley.
The river was coming up, and I saw a school bus coming along, and the water was pretty near up to the road. I thought I'd better get out of there. I gathered up my tools and followed the school bus across the bridge. You couldn't see the bridge anymore, just the side rails.
I still have a joiner that I bought from a fella. It went through the flood. He thought it was ruined, but I just put new bearings in it, and I still use it!
Leroy now lives in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania.
D. Randy Riggs
Bridge Over Troubled Water
Randy was a boy living in Yardley during the flood of '55, and was fascinated by the power of the river and the destruction it wrought. This is his story:
Here is a photo I took on July 18, 1960, looking north up the river at the Yardley Bridge. The photo is in somewhat rough shape. I was learning photography at the time, and shot it with an old WWII Kodak 35 with grainy Tri-X film. As you can see, the Yardley side of the bridge was the section built by the Army Corps of Engineers right after the flood. It was a Bailey bridge (a concept invented in 1941 for quick bridge replacement during wartime). It had a wooden deck and was in use until they opened the Scudder Falls bridge upstream about 1962. So many accounts of the flood-damaged bridge never mention this temporary replacement that served the community so well for seven years.
Randy is now Editor In Chief of Vintage Motorsport magazine in San Francisco, California.
Charlie was 28 years old in 1955, living in Lahaska, Pennsylvania. He had been married to his sweetheart, Hilda, for five months when the flood hit. He remembered:
I was working at Tinsman Lumber [in Lumberville, PA] at the time. The flood washed away a lot of the stock from the lumberyard, and a bunch of us went out into the river after the water went down to help gather up the wood that had washed downstream.
Charlie passed away a few years ago, and his widow, Hilda, keeps the memories alive in Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania.
Herb was 48 at the time of the flood. He owned Singer's Poultry Farm at The Harrow on Rt. 611 near Revere, Pennsylvania. After the flood, he used his business truck to help transport much-needed cleaning supplies, construction materials and other items to the riverfront communities that had been so hard-hit. He also transported money from a bank to the laundromat, where it was actually laundered to wash all the river muck off before being dried out and returned to the bank.
Herb later lived in Glen Gardner, New Jersey.