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Flood of 1964 Started Small, Got Bigger

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photo courtesy Hardwick Historical Society
The 1964 ice jam and flood destroyed the basement of the Flatiron Building that stood beside the Swinging Bridge. It also damaged Jerry’s Diner on the right and the old dam which served to slow some ice flow.

[The following is an excerpt from the Summer 2023 edition of The Hardwick Historical Society Journal, reprinted with permission to provide historical perspective on recent events.]

by Elizabeth H. Dow, Hardwick Historical Society

HARDWICK – A combination of thaw-cracked ice and heavy rains caused flash flooding in White River Junction, Windsor, and Hardwick on Thursday, March 5, 1964. Hardwick received the most damage.

The ice in the Lamoille River began to break up all at once. It swept through the village so fast and in such quantity that it could not get past the 1906 iron bridge at Cottage Street. The ice jam at the bridge started with a minor buildup at 11:30 a.m., and a bigger one at 2:30 p.m. Water backed up behind the ice and spilled into the street, flooding basements and crashing into any structure in its path.

Homes and businesses along the river in Hardwick Village, where ice backed up for a quarter mile, received the most damage.

Five feet of water flooded Wolcott, Cottage, Elm Granite, and Cherry streets. Water backed halfway up the Highland Avenue hill. Floating ice damaged cars parked in the area.


photo courtesy Hardwick Historical Society
There used to be a bridge here. The arrow points to the home of Waldo and Eva Bemis.

About 11:45 the ice started to pack above the Sam Daniels Manufacturing Co. The Daniels Company sat on 150 feet of the north bank of the river. As the river rose, huge chunks of ice broke forty feet of windows and the wall on the first floor of the two-story building. It also washed away a portion of the foundation, dumping some of the foundry’s machinery into the river.

The Village Trustees looked at the growing jam about 2 p.m., and sounded the village emergency alarm at 2:45. While the bridge held, the river found new channels as it spilled into Wolcott Street on one side and a field on the other. The fire department, with aid of local trucks, began to evacuate residents’ families from their homes. The ice creaked and moaned. Water sprayed up through cracks in the bridge from the pressure. At 5:25, the bridge, called locally the Zecchinelli Bridge, began to break from its moorings, and within five minutes large chunks of ice and rushing water pushed it downriver. The river dragged it a half mile before the bridge finally got stuck.

When the bridge gave way, the ice jam cleared and flood water immediately drained back into the river. Many people speculated that if only one end of the bridge had broken loose, leaving the bridge blocking the river, it would have forced ice and water onto the bank for even longer.

The jam and flood happened so quickly that the Village didn’t have time to set up dynamite charges to blow it up, so it caused extensive damage.

Ice pulled porches off homes on Elm, Cottage, and Granite streets. Hutchinson’s Discount Store, a small building on the river side of Wolcott Street, floated and was pushed across Wolcott Street into its owner’s front yard.

Laura Zecchinelli’s store at the corner of Wolcott and Cottage streets was battered by ice and flooded, losing all its inventory; she never reopened it.

Stewart Silver lost both his house and his newly refurbished garage, Cities Service Filling Station. Avon Atkins Garage suffered extensive damage.

The basement wall of the dry cleaning building on Main Street was torn away and a 550 gallon drum of cleaning fluid carried down river.

Ice filled the full length of Cottage Street.

When the bridge went out, it broke a water main. The main drained the reservoir nearly dry before the water department could shut off the main valve. The state health department issued a “boil water” order to last the weekend.

The United Church became the designated emergency headquarters but other churches also helped. Some evacuees spent the night with friends, and others returned home at the end of the day. When they returned, they found their homes blocked by ice and had to axe their way through the ice.

The evening of the flood, Governor Phil Hoff and an entourage of state officials visited the scene. Hoff declared Hardwick a disaster area and offered equipment for removing the ice. On Friday the state sent in large bucket loaders, graders, and Caterpiller tractors with crew. Hundreds of thousands of tons of ice had to be pushed out of the streets by graders, plows, bucket loaders, crawlers and tractors in order to open the street at 9 a. m. The fire department then pumped out all the basements in the area.

The estimated damage of $434,0001 included: Cottage Street Iron Bridge, $60,000; private dwellings, $37,000; water mains, $30,000; sewers, $35,000; Sam Daniels manufacturing Co., $125,000; Ferris Block, including dry cleaner, $15,000, J. Leo Johnson Corp, $35,000; Zecchinelli’s store, $2,000; Hutchinson’s store, $2,500; Frank Cass Co., $500; cleanup costs, $4,500; pumping cellars, $500; cleanup of streets and sidewalks, $85,000. Village trustees and town select men offered Elwyn Daniels, owner of the Sam Daniels Manufacturing Company, a $1,500 loan to start the recovery process; he employed about 25 to 30 men.

The Small Business Association declared Caledonia and Windsor counties a disaster area because of the impact of the flooding on business. That made the owners eligible for three percent loans over twenty years. Town and village officials applied to both state and federal relief programs. Flood insurance didn’t exist for home or business owners, but a car owner’s comprehensive insurance would cover ice damage to cars.

The cleanup started on Friday, but by the weekend thousands of sightseers, looking at the ice and the destroyed bridge, caused a major traffic jam. On Sunday the traffic backed up to the Village Motel on Route 15 east, beyond the bottom of Plank Hill on Route 14 south, and below the Jackson Bridge on Route 15 west. The Vermont Public Safety Commissioner sent nearly a dozen auxiliary police to manage the traffic that clogged the streets all day Saturday and Sunday. One of them, stationed at the corner of Cottage and Wolcott streets, said cars passed there, bumper to bumper, all day long. Traffic grew so heavy that clean-up operations had to be suspended Saturday afternoon.

A cadre of volunteers descended on the Sam Daniels Company to help with the cleanup. Mostly teenagers, they included Leslie Lee, Normam Campbell, Doug Bedell, Bert Hooper, Brian Perry, Jimmy Willey, Duncan McNaughton, Roger Knowlton, Richard Brochu, William McCanna, Brian LaFont, Daniel Goodrich, Michael Daniels, William Daniels, George Howard, Janice LaFont, Susan Goodrich, and Ila Rae Densmore.

Adults who helped included Sonny Colbeth, Albert Farr, Frank Russell, John Hall, and Francis Hill. Frank Cass loaned a tractor to hitch to the huge cakes of ice that were jammed solid on the shop floor.2

1 Roughly $10,000,000 in 2023 costs.

2 Sources for this piece include: “Hardwick Heavily Damaged as Flooding Hits Vermont,” Burlington Free Press, March 6, 1964, 1 and 8; Mrs. Harold LaViolette, “Run for Your Lives in Hardwick,” Barre Times- Argus, March 6, 1964, 1; Roger LeCours, “Hardwick’s Loss is $500,000,” Barre Times-Argus, March 6,

1964, 1; “Damage in Flood-Ravaged Hardwick may hit $500,000,” Burlington Free Press, March 7, 1964; “Dazed Hardwick,” Barre Times-Argus, March 7, 1964, 11; “Thousands of Curious Clog Hardwick,” Burlington Free Press, March 9, 1964, 2; “Ice; Water — More Ice; More Water” Hardwick Gazette, May 12, 1964, 1, 4.

[The Hardwick Historical Society Journal goes to the mailbox of every member quarterly. To join, go to hardwickvthistory.org]