by Elizabeth H. Dow, Hardwick Historical Society
[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.]
HARDWICK – Hardwick has had countless relatively small or isolated floods. The ones included here come from the collection of vertical files at the Hardwick Historical Society.
1976: Ice began to collect in the river on Tuesday, December 7, and by Thursday, ice jams had solidified and caused the river to overflow its banks. Wolcott, Granite, Elm, and Cottage streets took the brunt, having water over three feet deep.
Sub-zero temperatures and blustery winds kept the ice frozen solid. Local officials tried to break it up with dynamite but failed.
Governor Tom Salmon declared a state of emergency and the Army Corps of Engineers brought in a claw crane, bulldozers, and bucket loaders to clear the ice, but the work went slowly. On Sunday, December 12, the Corps finally opened channels in the river and the water began to recede.1
1977: Heavy rains the night of August 22-23 dropped more than three inches of rain on the Hardwick area. The new owners of the Village Motel stood watch all night, concerned that the river might undermine the motel again.
The worst flooding occurred along Cooper Brook, although Granite Street also flooded. After the rain, the river’s water level dropped quickly. Less than normal rainfall for the earlier summer left the land thirsty, and it absorbed most of the rain.2
1980: Subzero temperatures created an ice jam in the Lamoille River over the course of several days, and by midafternoon, on December 15 it had sent water across Wolcott Street. Basements in the area flooded. The Town hired two large backhoes and a bulldozer to break up the ice jam.3
1981: Unseasonably warm weather and heavy rain through the night raised the water level of the Lamoille River. The water pushed ice up and out of the river, causing damage from Greensboro Bend to Jackson Bridge on February 11. It pushed ice onto Elm, Cottage, and Granite streets “creating the worst flood damage…since the 1964 flood.” The ice stacked about ten feet above the Cottage Street bridge, but the bridge held. Properties on both side of Wolcott Street suffered significant damage caused by fast-moving ice. By the end of the day, the rain stopped and temperatures dropped, slowing the thaw.
Governor Richard Snelling did not declare a state of emergency, so the town hired backhoes to clear a channel in the river, and 28 property owners managed their own cleanup.
1992: A quick thaw on March 10 and 11 broke up the ice in the Lamoille River, sending it downstream on a swollen river causing it to jam against the Cottage Street bridge. Laurent Bellavance’s crew used backhoes and bulldozers to remove ice from the river and move it out of the way, but as ice jams broke loose upstream, new ice filled the emptied spaces nearly as fast as the equipment could create it. The work took four hours before the last of the jams passed under the bridge and with it all danger. Both sides of the river along Wolcott Street experienced minor flooding.4
1995: The Lamoille River Valley received 5-10 inches of rain on August 10 and 11. It caused crop destruction in fields the length of the valley, and it washed out many roads and nearly destroyed Tucker Brook Road. It did not, however, flood Hardwick village. Instead it broke a water main buried beneath Wolcott Street.5
1 “Emergency is Declared,” The Gazette (Hardwick), December 14, 1976, 1.
2 “3 Hours from Disastrous Flooding,” Hardwick Gazette, August 23, 1977, 1.
3 “Icy Lamoille over Banks; Wolcott Street Threatened,” Hardwick Gazette, December 16, 1980, 1.
4 “Quick Thaw Sends Ice and Water to Flood Level on Lamoille River,” Hardwick Gazette, March 18, 1992, 1.
5 “The Flood of 1995,” Hardwick Gazette, August 9, 1995, supplement.
Lessons Learned and an Experiment
The importance of communications: In1869 people could not know what the weather would bring beyond a few hours away. They did not understand the storm they experienced, and only gradually learned of its extent. By 2011, nearly everyone expected Tropical Storm Irene to cause a problem, and they prepared for it.
Recovery help: In 1869, no governmental body helped individuals or towns recover from anything. In 2011, local, state, and federal agencies all participated in the clean-up along with a wide variety of non-governmental agencies, including insurance companies, getting community and economic life back to normal as quickly as possible.
East Hardwick village vs. Hardwick village vs. Mackville: East Hardwick has no history of catastrophic floods in the village. The mills along the river suffered periodically, but the village sits high above the river. The 1927 flood nearly destroyed Mackville, but since then it has experienced only normal flooding and washouts during heavy summer rains. The area along Wolcott Street in Hardwick village has an extensive history of floods.
Summer storms: The rain from a slow summer storm, a tropical depression, or the tail end of a hurricane creates much more general destruction than the ice-jam floods of winter. Roads destroyed, railroads destroyed, buildings damaged, crops and crop land destroyed, all manner of machinery and equipment destroyed, not to mention lives lost. When all communication depended on a postal system, communities could go days with little information about other communities. Even radio and telephone communication depended on poles and wires which fell victim to the water like everything else. Fortunately, the technology for both building infrastructure in a way that resists destruction by water has advanced substantially in the past century. Likewise, the strength and efficiency of the equipment we use to repair buildings and infrastructure has increased exponentially. Even so, the water will do what the water does, and human hubris and denial make us vulnerable to its power. We build where we shouldn’t, and we underbuild, even though we know better.
Winter storms: Ice has destroyed more during warm spells in the winter and spring thaws than moving water. The story of pedestrian bridges across the Lamoille River contains so many incidents of ice destroying bridges that the builders of the bridges routinely dismantled and removed them so the ice would not destroy them.1 Ice traveling downriver didn’t typically cause much problem, but jammed ice created a dam that blocked the moving water causing flooding. Without equipment to prevent the ice from jamming or to remove jammed ice, the community could do little but wait for the ice to melt, break up, and move on. The first reporting of the use of dynamite to break up ice jams appears when a Rutland paper reported on its use in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1886.2
In Hardwick, the Gazette reported the use of dynamite to remove an ice jam as early as 1892.3
Heavy construction equipment didn’t become strong enough or flexible enough to apply to ice removal until the late 1950s. In 1959, the Burlington Free Press reported the use of heavy equipment for pushing ice off the roads to clean up after a flood in the Connecticut River Valley.4 The same year, the Rutland Daily Herald reported an attempt to prevent flooding by using a back hoe to remove ice from a culvert,5 but the use of heavy equipment didn’t become common until the 1990s.
In an attempt to keep chunks of ice jamming into the bridge, in 1984, the town installed two homemade booms upstream of the Village Motel, using old tires to catch and hold the ice from going further. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. In the early 1990s, James Lever, PhD., with the Army Corps of Engineers’ Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, N.H., needed a site to experiment with a new idea. The Gazette quoted him as saying “Hardwick has as severe a
problem as we know about” and so he chose Hardwick as his experiment site.6
Upstream of the Village Motel, Lever had four granite blocks, each five feet wide and weighing twenty-one tons, installed across the river fourteen feet apart. Like the tires, but more reliable, the blocks hold the ice but allow the water to flow through naturally. If the ice jams, the resulting flood goes upstream onto the wild flood plain. While the blocks have not prevented all ice jams, they have greatly reduced the number.7
Today, the granite continues to block large chunks of ice from coming through the village. Further, Hardwick routinely uses a back hoe to keep an open channel in the river and thus prevent the river from freezing completely.
1 Elizabeth Dow, “Footbridges in Hardwick,” Hardwick Historical Society Journal (Fall, 2020), 6-13.
2 “Preparing for Freshets,” Rutland Daily Herald, February 8, 1886, 1. Alfred Nobel first patented dynamite in 1867. Wikipedia, “Dynamite.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamite (accessed July
3 “Village Directory,” Hardwick Gazette, April 9, 1892, 3. Hardwick may have used it earlier, but we have no evidence of that.
4 “Radio Tower Topples Due to Weather,” Burlington Free Press, April 4, 1959, 1.
5 “Man Drowns under Truck at Swanton,” Rutland Daily Herald, January 23, 1959, 1.
6 “Firm Donates Granite for Flood Control,” Burlington Free Press, August 27, 1994, 19; Cassandra Hemenway, “Hardwick Is Test Site for New Flood Control,” Hardwick Gazette, August 31, 1994, 1.
7 Nathan Meunier, “Quick Work Averts Ice Jam and Flood But Weather Bills Mounting,” Hardwick Gazette, May 21, 2007, 1.
[The Hardwick Historical Society Journal goes to the mailbox of every member quarterly. To join, go to hardwickvthistory.org]