Remembering Past Adirondack Floods

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1979 EtownFloodNYHRefrigerators can float. There are many things that can be learned from flooding, and that’s one tidbit that stuck with me from when my parents’ house took on about two feet of water more than a decade ago. When the water subsided enough to safely wade across the road to their front door, I went alone to assess the damage—but the door wouldn’t budge. Finally, it began to give an inch or two at a time.

When I managed to squeeze in, I was more than a little surprised at what I found. As the water had deepened in the kitchen, the refrigerator toppled and then somehow floated through the kitchen doorway into the house entrance, blocking the front door. The rest of the first floor was similarly wrecked—everything was sopping wet and coated with mud.

If you’ve worked on flood recovery, hoping to save personal items, you know the issues. Mud everywhere, in every crease, fold, and indentation, no matter what the object. Books, photographs, artwork, all beyond salvage. Yesterday’s treasure, today’s garbage.

Property buyouts and the recent removal of flood-damaged buildings in the Adirondacks have rekindled memories of past floods. At such times, a phrase commonly used is, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” While that’s no doubt true when said, it doesn’t mean it has never happened before. Historically, not having “seen it” is often merely a function of age.

Take roads flooding, cavernous washouts, and the destruction of cars, for instance (from rain events, and not from annual spring flooding related to snowmelt.) Shocking, for sure, but no less so to the folks of Jay in September 1938, when a Packard and a Buick were washed away. Rain fell for three days straight, causing landslides that blocked roads in Elizabethtown, Keene, Keene Valley, Lake Placid, Schroon Lake, Upper Jay, and Wilmington.

In December 1957, six inches of rain put 27 eastern New York counties on flood alert. Route 73 from Keene to Keene Valley and Route 9N from Underwood to Elizabethtown were both closed.

In July 1963, two days of unusually heavy rains, particularly on Giant Mountain, re-routed Roaring Brook, which more than lived up to its name. Route 73 suffered extreme damage and was closed from Underwood to Keene, just as tourist season was getting into full swing.

Several cars were buried in mud, and Beede Brook Bridge was washed out, leaving a 20-foot gap in the road. Culverts were plugged with silt, making Route 73 the only available path for trees and boulders that were washed downhill by the floodwaters. Some hikers tied their cars to trees to prevent them from being carried away.

The worst that stands out in my memory happened in 1979. A section of Route 73 below Chapel Pond was washed out by heavy rain, but that was minimal compared to what else happened. Parts of Elizabethtown, particularly Water Street, were devastated. Denton Publications and others near the river also suffered serious damage, but even with over $2.5 million in losses (equal to $8 million today) across Essex County, there was worse news.

A 200-foot stretch of Route 9N east of Elizabethtown was washed out, leaving a gap estimated at 25 feet deep. Before the site was blockaded, three vehicles had been swallowed up by the Boquet River. Five people died, and the few who escaped were nearly lost as well.

As happened with Irene, the mess was hard to fathom. Seventy homes were damaged, and 45 families were left temporarily homeless. Many of us also remember it as the flood that finally put the Land of Makebelieve out of commission for good.

The National Weather Bureau reported that Elizabethtown had received 2.75 inches of rain, certainly a lot, but seemingly not enough to cause such extensive flooding. The destruction, said the NWB, was spawned by 8 to 10 inches of rainfall in the nearby mountains.

About a week after the storm, the massive hole in Rt. 9N was filled in, leaving few traces of the destruction except for terrible memories.

Photo: From the Plattsburgh Press-Republican, the damage to Route 9N in 1979.

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