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Photo Archivist's Selection of the Month: October 2002

The Hurricane of '38 and the Floods of '54 and '55

The Hurricane of '38 at the Stamford Historical Society:
Record Group RG-1.02
, "Stamford Fire Department and Southend Fire Station"

In September, 1938 there occurred two of the most strenuous weeks in the 109-year history of the South End firefighters. Station No. 2 was pummeled for four days by the Great Hurricane. Rains were so heavy the firemen were called out before midnight Sunday, Sept. 18, to pump out the Stamford Yacht Club cellar.

Schools were closed and all firemen went on emergency duty. Henry St. was completely flooded and blocked from the firehouse to Canal St. for several hours at every high tide from noon Monday through midnight Wednesday, Sept. 21. During the storm's crescendo Wednesday night the power went off for three crucial hours. At 8:30, water around the South End station was so high the engine and ladder truck were moved to Atlantic St. near Henry St. for three hours, receiving calls from Chief Veit's house. Many families needed evacuation. The firemen spent many back-breaking days pumping out homes and businesses.

The Hurricane of '38 in the newspaper, the Stamford Advocate

Excerpted from microfilm in the Ferguson Library. Sections in italics are comments of this editor. The city certainly rose to the occasion!

before the storm,
Wednesday, September 21:

Fifth Day of Rain
Increases Burden
of Storm Sewer

What strikes the reader is the difference in reporting then: It was put together in one huge article relating to the events in Stamford. Today one would find the story broken down into shorter articles, and more emphasis put on human interest stories.

Thursday, September 22

…Stamford experienced one of the most devastating storms in its history as the terrific wind and tidal wave combining with drenched areas brought death to one man, drove families from flooded homes, and caused loss through property damage estimated at several hundred thousand dollars.

Hoyt Dies. George H. Hoyt, watchman at the Canal St. lumber yard of the Getman and Judd Co., was fatally injured at 4:47 yesterday afternoon, when a large front gate at the entrance to the plant was blown back at him as he attempted to close it during a terrific gust of wind. He died at Stamford Hospital few hours later of a fracture of the skull. This seems to have been the only fatality in Stamford.

Darien Hard Hit
By Storm, Several
Houses Disappear

No Death or Personal Injuries
Reported-- Shorefront Resi-
dences Badly Damaged.


Residents of Area Walk
Shoulder Deep in Water to
Reach Safety

…Rowboats obtained by the police from boatyards, were put into use in the Walnut St., Crosby St., Elmcroft Rd. and entire South End area.

…The first group from the flooded area, taken by the police, were immediately taken into the courtroom. They included Mrs. Agostino of 42 Walnut St. and two young children; Mrs. Mary Pinto of the same address, and a recently born baby; David Ragdale, negro, and his wife of Crosby St., also three children; Mr. Mrs. Frank Lerchenfeld and two children of Elmcroft Rd. All were wet above their waist lines, and the shivering people stripped off their clothes in the candle lit courtroom.

...A dog "Jack" ,owned by Mrs. Iovino proved the least moved by all the wet and worried in the courtroom.

The children, most of them asleep in the chilly court room, were removed to the Stamford Hospital for the remainder of the evening. Others, who remained in their home during the entire night and early morning, were taken to the Stamford armory this morning, and were served hot milk.

"Poor things," spoke the chief, referring to the tiny white and negro tots, "we'll take care of them."

…Panic calls were coming in every moment over the telephone, and Detective Sergeant Hanrahan had a busy time marking down the addresses of person stranded in their houses and automobiles...Panic calls increased as people learned that high tide would not be due until 10:52 [last night].

25 Register. Despite the storm 25 men and women turned out to register for adult education classes. Their names were recorded by Miss Sarah Smith, director of adult education, working by candlelight.

In the middle of this lengthy article, there is printed a three—long—paragraph statement issued by the Connecticut Power Company on the damages occurred. It was the greatest damage so far in the company's history.

…Water under railroad bridges and along Canal State and Jefferson sts., Magee Ave., and Shippan Ave., cut Shippan Point off from the rest of the city.

…Thousands of dollars damage was reported along the waterfront as the tidal wave lifted valuable yachts and hurled them against each other at their moorings and against docks and rock-covered shores.

…Hurling itself with terrific force across Main St., after it had been torn from its roots, a large elm in West Park knocked down an iron fence and struck the cornice of a roof on a building on the south side. The damage to the roof was estimated at $600...The tree that fell across Main St. at West Park, demolished a new automobile owned by Miss Ursula Cassidy of Lockwood Rd., Riverside.

…James Watt of Remington St., occupying the second floor apartment of a two-family house, related a thrilling story of 25 or more Russian, Polish, and youths of other nationalities who obtained rowboats and performed heroic acts in rescuing families marooned by water during the night.

Remington St., flooded by three feet of water since Sunday (this story was reported on Friday!) night, was a pathetic scene for 50 or more families when the flood reached a stage of eight feet. One resident, it was told, chopped a hole through the roof of his one-story home and waited on the top of the building for a rescue party in a boats move about in the darkness on their rescue mission. Watt said that women cried from windows.

"I'll give you fifteen dollars to take us." "Twenty-five dollars," said another. "Thirty," cried another.

One After Another. The police blotter read like a log as one mishap after another was reported over the telephone at the height of the whirling core that came out of the West Indies and reached New York, according to the weather experts, in an amazing time of three days.

300 Calls. Chief Victor Veit said that the fire department received 300 calls from residents attempting to have their cellars pumped out. The department removed its two engines in the South end fire house to Atlantic and Henry Sts., when the water got on to the first floor of the station...Firemen brought trucks and boats to the stricken. Chief Veit and Supt. of Schools Leon C. Staples conferred on the housing situation for families and decided to make Cloonan School available. Flood lights used by firemen helped rescuers in their work.

(boxed by this editor for easier legibility)

The mayor issued the following declaration:

"Due to the unprecedented storm now raging and the havoc being caused thereby and the necessity for immediate action to prevent loss of lives and property and the protection of the citizens, I hereby declare an emergency to exist and authorize the expenditure of a sum of money not exceeding $10,000 for such services as may be necessary and proper to protect the lives and properties of the citizens and to make necessary replacements and repairs due to the emergency described above caused in the manner above mentioned.

"This money shall be expended by and under the supervision of the commissioner of service and the work is to be performed under his supervision.

"I hereby direct that this be filed in the office of the Commissioner of Finance."

Declares Emergency. Mayor Gonnaud's order for an emergency expenditure followed a conference this morning, of city officials who had been on the scene most of the night directing crews of workers.

Along Rippowam River. Damage was reported all along the Rippowam River, which was running at a rapid rate and extended far beyond its normal banks...The garage of Michael Beegan, Hubbard Heights Golf Club Professional, was undermined and appeared to topple over into the river. Thick ropes were used to secure the garage to large trees in the vicinity and it was held on the Beegan property...Many trees were down along the river banks, and large branches floating down the river caused the water to dam up at several points. Low land between Cold Spring Rd. and Bridge St. was inundated to the depth of several feet.

Editorial: Wind and Wave.Meanwhile the lengthy lead editorial waxes about nature and seems to be more concerned with stranded train riders and stalled trains than with the plight of the people in the South End, though it lauds the police force and the firemen for their work. Excerpts below:

"As an example of what can happen when ordinary and friendly object become infuriated was given to all those in the northeastern part of the country by the doings of the hurricane and of the various water forms yesterday. Is it at all surprising that havoc results when it is human forces which, for one reason or another, become infuriated?

"Today the air is so calm that it hardly betrays a hint of its existence. Today, unless we expressly go out of look, we forget that rivers and seas are a part of our environment. Yesterday everything was out of our minds except the rage of the wind and the anger of the floods. Ad the wind whizzed and whistled through the trees we were aghast at the power and the impalpable air…

"…It seems to be agreed that in yesterday's events Stamford experienced the worst storm of this generation. Even old-timers were inclined to admit that they had never seen the like. These things happen when nature's apparently innocuous forces become infuriated and go on a rampage."

Flood Victims Are
Probably Better
Insured Than Ever

Companies Decline to Hazard
a Guess on Amount They
Will Have to Cover.

Friday, September 23

By this time, a better assessment could be made of the damages. One wonders how much this would be in today's dollars.

Stamford was winning today in the terrific battle against flood conditions and further destruction of property in the water-locked South End, most hardly hit of the areas stricken in Wednesday's hurricane, which is estimated to have caused the loss of more than a million dollars here. A measurement, this morning, showed the height of the tidal wave, Wednesday night, was fourteen feet four on-half inches above mean low water.

Floods that drove scores of families from their homes in several sections of the South End resulting in emergency calls for social and welfare agencies to provide food and shelter for nearly 50 families, became less of a menace after city and WPA workers opened two holes in the dyke on Dyke Lane last night, and released water from the streets into the Sound. There was an appreciable drop a few hours later, and this morning many streets that saw a height of seven and eight feet of water, yesterday were passable for auto traffic.

National Guard Aids. National guardsmen turning the State Armory on South St. (now Washington Blvd.) over to welfare agencies and to other public and private groups to provide shelter for the homeless families of the South End moved into the district last night, to guard against looting and to be on hand in case of fire. They augmented police and fire department forces on duty since Wednesday.

…The Stamford Gas and Electric Division of the Connecticut Power Co. reported considerable progress in its efforts to repair the damages of the storm and to restore service to the 21,000 customers in Stamford and Darien.

Hospital First. Starting from scratch Wednesday evening, with no electric service to anyone, it was possible to restore service to the Stamford Hospital at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday night, the firm said. By 1 a.m. Thursday electricity was turned on to the center of Stamford and the high tension line to the new Springdale substation was cleared, enabling the company to restore service to sections of Springdale as well as to a part of Darien.

…Mayor Edward A. Gonnaud moved throughout the stricken area in a canoe and rowboat and personally took charge of the operations at the dyke where city forces and WPA workers were battling with the flood water.

Gamble in Success. After a conference with city engineers yesterday, the mayor gambled with the elements and decided upon opening two 25-foot ditches from the old dyke, hoping that with the lowering of the tide much of the water would be drained into the Sound. Workmen on the job this morning said the openings caused tons of water to find a course to the Sound. When the tide began to come in again sandbags were piled into the cuts in the dyke to keep the water from backing into the streets. This scheme was successful also…

Water Supply Safe. …[Commissioner of Health] Dr. Brown said that the city water supply is entirely safe, that the entire milk supply is being closely supervised to keep it pure. Breaks in electric power at pasteurization plants made the inspection necessary, he said.

Food supplies damaged by water are being condemned and disposed of with more than four tons already destroyed, the commissioner said,

…"At the electric power station at the South end men have been working continuously since Wednesday evening to repair damage of the electrical machinery cause by the tidal wave which swept the plant just before 8 p.m. Wednesday.

"A measurement made in the morning showed the height of the tidal wave was fourteen feet four and a half inches above mean low water."

…Merchants contributed coffee and doughnuts for city and WPA workers at the dyke, last night. The preparation and distribution was handled by the American Legion.

Yale and Towne Mfg. Co. officials were checking up today, in an effort to determine losses incurred when water rising to a height of seven and eight feet got into basement stock rooms and warehouses. It was unofficially estimated the company's losses would exceed $500,000.

S.N.E.T. Co. Is Hit
Hard by Hurricane

Reports It Is Confronted With
Most Severe and Widespread
Emergency in History.

Doctor's Experience. Dr. J. E. Starrett of 885 Summer St. drove throughout much of the New England flood area on his return trip from Bangor, Me., where he was summoned two weeks ago when his mother was injured in an automobile accident. He encountered no difficulty on the trip down, Dr. Starrett reported until he reached Providence where he was informed he could not continue to New London Route 1. Rerouted to Putnam and continuing toward Stamford he touched part of New London where he found storm damage was "terrible." He described countless houses with roofs off and others demolished. In some places, he said, a path through a line of fallen trees had been chopped for the passage of a single car. In one place his progress was halted by National Guardsmen until he ha secured a pass from the commanding officer. After leaving the New London section, his trip to Stamford was made without difficulty.

The above paragraph and other articles in the Advocate show that Stamford, except for the people in the South End and downed trees elsewhere, was much less affected than other parts of the state.

Hurricane of 1938, click here for images Flood of 1954, click here for images Floods of 1955, click here for images
Hurricane of 1938 Flood of 1954 Floods of 1955

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