Death and Heroism on
the Delaware in 1955
The Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ)
August 14, 2005 p23
The rain - rain that led to the death and destruction - began falling on New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the dark of an August night in 1955. It was an unexpected and unwelcome tropic-like rain, the kind that drums on the roof so hard it can wake you. The weather forecasters didn't know it was coming.
It fell for two solid days, dumping as much as 9 inches on New Jersey and forcing the Delaware River to rage like it never had in 300 years of record-keeping.
When the waters receded, 26 New Jerseyans were dead and at least 3,000 people in the state either lost their homes or businesses or saw them heavily damaged at a total cost of $100 million. There also were countless stories of tragedy and triumph, of water sweeping away lives and belongings, and of average citizens risking all to save others.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of the "Great Delaware River Flood of 1955" - still considered the region's worst natural disaster.
"You do not think it is going to rise that quick," said 89-year-old Nels Dalrymple of Belvidere, a hero of the flood, as he reflected recently from the bank of the Delaware. "And boom, it just came down."
Residents like Dalrymple know all too well not much has changed over the past half-century to prevent a repeat of the great flood.
They have just endured two Delaware River floods - one last September and another in April - that are considered the worst since 1955. Those floods prompted evacuations and damaged nearly 2,000 homes and businesses, totaling nearly $50 million, according to the State Police Bureau of Recovery.
In the aftermath of the 1955 flood, plans to tame the waters were proposed and aborted, including the federal government's failed proposal to build a dam at Tocks Island. At the same time, more people have decided to live on both banks of the Delaware River.
"It is not a question of if but when will it happen again," said Maya van Rossum, director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.
For most of the summer of 1955, New Jersey was parched by drought.
What followed was in essence a perfect storm of events.
First, the tail end of Hurricane Connie dumped 10 inches of rain on the Delaware Valley and the mountains to the north. With the Delaware River and other waterways running high from that, the rain from Hurricane Diane began falling five days later. By Aug. 18, the Delaware could take no more.
"I saw it rise; it was very angry," said Dorothy Sassman, 73, of Belvidere, then a member of the town's fire auxiliary. "All kinds of things went down the river; outhouses, boats, buildings, all sorts of things. The water came up so quickly."
Diane's rains, about 9 inches, wreaked havoc across New Jersey and other states. River towns such as Lambertville, Phillipsburg and Frenchtown were under as much as 9 feet of water. In the end, more than 200 people were killed in the Northeast, including 26 New Jerseyans.
In the worst incident, 37 campers were killed when a 30-foot-high wall of water demolished the clubhouse they had taken refuge in at Camp Davis, a tiny cottage retreat on Brodhead Creek in the Pocono Mountains northwest of Stroudsburg, Pa. The victims included 21 New Jerseyans, mostly from Essex, Hudson and Bergen counties. Fifteen were children.
Two teenage boys drowned in the Millstone River near Lake Carnegie in Mercer County, as well as a Princeton police officer who disappeared trying to save them. A 5-year-old girl drowned in Owassa Lake, northwest of Branchville, Sussex County.
In Trenton, a 40-year-old Robbinsville man took advantage of the high water to commit suicide. Witnesses said he stripped, shouted, "The hell with all of them," plunged into the swift current and quickly disappeared.
>Four of the 12 bridges that spanned the Delaware from the Water Gap to Trenton collapsed into the brown roiling water, including the picturesque 86-year-old Columbia-Portland Bridge in Sussex County, the last covered wooden span over the river.
In the dark early morning of Aug. 20, sections of that bridge tumbled south on the flood, passed under the bridge at Belvidere and slammed into the steel Northampton Street Free Bridge - "the Gibraltar of the Delaware" - which links Phillipsburg with Easton, Pa. The 100-foot center section of the Free Bridge disappeared into the river. Bridges in Byram, south of Frenchtown, and in Ewing, north of Trenton, also collapsed, never to be rebuilt.
The flooding on the Delaware sparked a string of dramatic rescues as thousands of residents and summer visitors on both sides of the river tried to get out of the way. There was Operation Kidlift, in which military helicopters airlifted hundreds from flooding summer camps on Delaware River islands and in the Poconos. South of Frenchtown, 14 military helicopters airlifted as many as 600 Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Campfire Girls.
Dalrymple, then 39, was among the Belvidere rescue squad members rousted from their beds by the town telephone operator who reported that 50 vacationers were on Manunkachunk and Thomas islands just to the north. Dalrymple and the late Lew Jones made repeated trips in a flat-bottom 16-foot boat with a 10 horsepower engine.
"We had a job getting them off," Dalrymple said. "They had kids, and we had to talk them off."
Later the morning, Dalrymple, Jones and the late Cliff Griffin were north of the Water Gap where 75 children and priests from Brooklyn were trapped on the roof of an island camp's main building. While transporting the priests on the last trip, the boat hit a tree and everyone was dumped in the river. As the boat disappeared downstream, Dalrymple and the others swam to safety.
"The river was real high; it was outrageous," Dalrymple said. "Buildings, trees, fuel tanks, everything you can imagine was coming down fast."
Wes Hendricks, 79, then a volunteer firefighter in Stockton, recalls flash flooding when a bank of the Delaware and Raritan Canal gave way and water rushed into the center of town.
"I was out in a rowboat helping to evacuate people, and water was 5 feet deep in my living room," Hendricks said.
Former Stockton Mayor Carl Cathers, 79, was a manager at the old River's Edge Restaurant in Lambertville when the flood struck. As water rose to 9 feet deep in the dining area, Cathers and other employees dragged furniture to the roof, where they were stranded. He said that at one point, a man telephoned to request reservations for a table with a river view.
"I told him he can have it in the river," he said. "The tables ended up in the trees."
Across the region, there were other scenes:
At Flatbrookville north of the Water Gap, a couple and their three children awakened to find water rising in their riverside cottage and no way to escape. Then an empty boat floated to the door, followed moments later by a paddle. The family used both to escape.
At Manunkachunk, north of Belvidere, as water rose at the roadside attraction Sanderson's Jungle Zoo, a worker cut a wire cage and allowed Joco the Croc, a 7-foot crocodile to escape. Two months later, the crocodile was discovered across the river enjoying the warm water runoff from a power plant.
In Trenton, as water flooded the basement of the Statehouse and 300 families were evacuated from nearby neighborhoods, a legislative committee held a hearing on the just-vanquished drought.
Concerned about disease in the aftermath of the flood, the state ordered 6,000 typhoid shots for residents from Trenton to Belvidere.
When asked to describe the impending cleanup effort, Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Gen. S.D. Sturgis said "One of the biggest and toughest since the one Noah faced."
In an attempt at flood control following 1955, the federal government moved on a 5-year-old idea to build the Tocks Island Dam, a mammoth $95 million structure that would have spanned the Delaware six miles north of the Water Gap and created a 37-mile-long reservoir. It was a boondoggle of historic proportions.
Before the controversial idea was finally dropped in 1992, the federal government seized or purchased 206 Tocks Island area properties and forced out families that had lived there for generations. Two homeowners committed suicide. In place of the dam, the federal government created the 40-square-mile federal Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.
Carol R. Collier, director of the Delaware River Basin Commission, the agency that oversees the river, said a recent National Weather Service study found a dam at Tocks Island would not prevent major flooding.
While little has been done to protect against future floods, a development
boom along the Delaware River in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York has put more houses and people in the way of the water.
"Major development and land-clearing is just running rampant," said van Rossum, of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.
Environmentalists say water running off from new paved developments contributed to the two re cent floods in April and September.
Today, a repeat of the Great Flood of 55 - where floodwaters crested 6 feet higher than this Aprils flood - would cause $2.8 billion in damages, according to the National Weather Service.
In 1692, Phineas Pemberton, a settler at what is now Trenton, wrote to a friend that there had been a great flood that year where the water reached the upper stories of houses along the river. He noted settlers ignored warnings by Native Americans not to build beside the river. As the water rose, Pemberton noted, people had to flee to the hills for safety.
"The Indians were smart enough to see how the system operated," said geology professor Dru Germanoski at Lafayette University in Easton, Pa. "They did not put permanent encampments along the river."
1. A 100-foot center section of the steel Northampton Street Free Bridge - "the Gibraltar of the Delaware" - which links Phillipsburg with Easton, Pa., disappeared into the river during the August 1955 flood, which killed 26 New Jerseyans and caused $100 million in damage.
2. The Northampton Street Free Bridge was damaged by sections of another bridge floating down the Delaware River. Four of the 12 bridges that spanned the Delaware from the Water Gap to Trenton collapsed.
3. Bungalows on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River are flooded. As much as 9 feet of water covered some river towns.
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Aug 18, 2005