Recalling the Flood of ’55

by Hilary Bentman – The Intelligencer

Mary Shafer of Ferndale is writing a book about the bad flood of 1955. Schafer has been working on the project for the past two years.......09-21-04 Rick Kintzel/The Intelligencer

Mary Shafer of Ferndale is writing a book about the bad flood of 1955. Shafer has been working on the project for the past two years…….09-21-04 Rick Kintzel/The Intelligencer

Mary Shafer of Nockamixon has spent years scouring archives, and traversing the banks of the Delaware River for Devastation on the Delaware, a book about the 1955 flood.

Photo by Rick Kintzel

It is mid-August 1955.

In Erwinna, 20-year-old Dick DeGroot is trying to get back to Fordham University in New York to begin his senior year of college. But he’s stranded — the bridges are out.

In Lumberville, Bill and Sue Tinsman are forced to use a rowboat to get into the second floor of their home to grab dry clothes for their children. The first floor is underwater.

In Carversville, Edwin Harrington is in his Jeep, the only four-wheel-drive vehicle in town. He’s on a food and beer run for his neighbors.

In Upper Black Eddy, May Snyder is watching a small cottage — lifted off its foundation by the torrent of water — smash into the side of a bridge. She also watches as her town’s little post office just floats away.

Nearly 50 years have passed, but these memories are ingrained in the minds of those who call the Delaware River home. They can’t forget the flood of 1955.

From Aug. 18 to 20, torrential rain from Hurricane Diane flooded homes, lifted buildings from foundations, overtook bridges and melded the Delaware Canal and the river into one.

“It rained so hard for so long. You knew it was not going to be good,” remembers Sue Tinsman. “The stench… the cesspools flooded, oil tanks flooded; the horror of the whole thing. You think about what people are going through this year.”

To some, it seemed last weekend that Diane had reared its ugly, wet head again as river residents endured another storm and another flood. This one was Ivan, and by the time the water began to recede, it had caused the river to crest to more than 30 feet in some spots, forced about 2,500 people from their homes, and caused an estimated $25 million in damages.

But, locals say, that’s nothing compared to the devastation of Diane.

“It was terrifying and fascinating at the same time. It was like watching a house burn down, a morbid fascination,” said DeGroot, who remembers watching chicken coops float downriver, with chickens still perched on top.

These are some of the memories Mary Shafer is trying to capture in her book Devastation on the Delaware, a look at the ’55 flood. The Nockamixon author has spent the past couple of years scouring archives, interviewing residents, and traversing the banks of the Delaware River, from Port Jervis, N.Y. to Trenton, N.J.

Shafer got some firsthand eperience to top off her reserach last weekend when she watched how fast the water came rushing past her home on Center Hill Road. “It really brought it home to me,” she said.

Hurricane Diane landed in North Carolina and proceeded north toward Pennsylvania, following in the footsteps of sister Connie, which had soaked the parched, drought-stricken Delaware Valley just days before. On Aug. 18, Diane dumped nearly a foot of rain on parts of eastern Pennsylvania.

By the time Diane dissipated, not before wreaking havoc on New England, the storm was responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of damage and killed 184 to 200 people, including young children staying at Camp Davis in Analomink in the Poconos.

“It hit us all by surprise. The Poconos and Catskills flooded and down it came,” said Harrington, 84. “I found the whole town of Carversville rolled up in a ball. The roads were all rolled up. Water had ripped through the middle of town.”

Diane invaded a world that some today may not recognize. It would be years before The Weather Channel, the Internet, Doppler radar and round-the-clock storm coverage.

“No one had a television. You were lucky if you had a telephone,” said deGroot, whose family, which owned the general store in Revere, had one of the few phones in town. “This was a very poor area.”

And Shafer adds that radar was still primitive. “We were only 10 years off World War II.”

Information about flooding came trickling down through a network of neighbors telling neighbors and through the bridge officers working for the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge commission, said Shafer. But some didn’t get the news until water arrived at their doorsteps. And the weather on Aug. 19, the day it flooded, was no indication of the problems looming.

“It was 94 degrees. A beautiful, sunny, hot and muggy day, and nobody had a clue,” Shafer said.

For some, worse than the actual flooding were the weeks and, in some cases, years of cleanup.

In Lumberville, the Tinsmans’ house collected about 7 feet of water. They never lived there again and instead sought higher ground. And the family’s lumber business had about 12 feet, said Bill Tinsman. “The entire business was wiped out. There were lumber piles all over the place. It took three or four years slopping around there to clean up the mess,” he said.

In Upper Black Eddy, May Snyder’s ice cream shop and luncheonette near the Milford bridge was a washout. “We sold it. We lost a lot of money and had to put in a new heater. The ice cream was no good. We didn’t want to stay there.”

In New Hope, employees of a bank on Main Street spent hours trying to save soaked bills, bonds and stock certificates. A little ironing and clothespins did the trick, Shafer said.

And up and down the Delaware, residents remember food pantries set up, the typhoid shots given, and Mennonites coming in from other areas to help out.

Despite the damage in 1955 and the ever-present threat that the Delaware will rise above its banks again, many, like Mildred Williams of Kintnersville, choose to stay where they are. She has called this river home for more than 85 years.

“I think the Delaware is one of the most beautiful rivers,” Williams said.”It’s very treacherous and you never know where there’s a hole or eddy, but I have great respect for the river.”