The Great 1927 Flood was easily the worst in the Vermont’s history. Torrential tropical rains of up to 9 inches from November 2-4 devastated the entire state, especially the Winooski Valley. Downtown Montpelier was under eight to 10 feet of water.
Had October not been unusually wet, the storm might not have done as much damage.
Torrential rain saturated the state. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated 53 percent of the state received more than six inches of rain, while the rest of Vermont got seven, eight and nine inches.
Rampaging waters took out 1,285 bridges and miles of roadway and railroads.
The 1927 flood also left 9,000 homeless, injured hundreds and killed 84 people, including Lt. Gov. S. Hollister Jackson. No other natural disaster caused such lost of life in Vermont.
The 1927 Flood
Nov. 2, 1927, was a warm Indian summer day, 73 degrees in Rutland with a blue sky and fleecy white clouds. When a light rain started to fall that evening, no one thought much about it. It had rained quite a bit in October, after all.
What Vermonters didn’t know was that a hurricane was barreling up the Connecticut River Valley. When the storm system reached Vermont, it stalled between two cold high-pressure systems to the east and west. The warm tropical air collided with the heavy, cool air mass and condensed rapidly. For the next two days, driving rain inundated much of New England, New York and Canada.
In Vermont, the waters rose fast and far, bringing darkness and terror to the state’s small towns and cities. Power systems failed, leaving people without light or heat during the night. They could only hear the roar of the rivers, the pounding rain, the sounds of houses and barns yanked off their foundations. The next day people watched as swollen rivers carried away horses, cattle and houses.
In Bolton, John May and his family were inside their house when the floodwaters wrenched it from its foundation. As the house sailed downriver, John May called out to a neighbor, “Well, we’re gone. Good bye!” The house crashed into the railroad bridge, throwing May and his family into the raging water.
The storm cut Vermont off from the rest of the world. It halted all rail travel, destroyed bridges, made driving on roads impossible and knocked out telegraph and telephone lines. People fled to churches and schools on high ground, but couldn’t get food, fuel or medicine.
In the absence of communication from the outside world, rumors began to spread. Two hundred had died in Montpelier. Boston was completely underwater. A rumor that the Chittenden Dam had broken cause several thousand people to try to flee on muddy, flooded roads.
The flood tore up railbeds, halting trains or wrecking them. Passengers got stranded overnight or for several days and cargo got swept away in the surging waters. Two trainmen spent a cold, miserable night on top of their locomotive before their rescue. One of them died shortly afterward. With no rail service, cities couldn’t get milk, and Massachusetts Gov. Alvan Fuller ordered it conserved for children.
The other New England states got hit, too. But Vermont got hit hardest. The floodwaters killed 85 people, but only one of them — a woman in Westerly, R.I. — died outside of Vermont.
Lt Gov. Hollister Jackson was one of the casualties. His car stalled after he hit a hole while driving through the rising Potash Brook near his home in Barre. A witness saw his hat and glasses knocked off, and he seemed dazed. He then got out of his car and began walking toward his home. Rushing water carried him away, despite attempts to save him. He drowned, and the next day his body was recovered from the Potash about a mile from where people saw him last.
Burlington, Vermont’s biggest city, didn’t suffer too badly, but Rutland, the second largest, did, A dam collapsed, the flood engulfed the power station, took out close to 20 bridges and closed all roads out of the city but one. Martial law was declared and three people died. Montpelier experienced a similar horror: people trapped in attics, martial law declared, the business district a lake, darkness and fear.
A dam broke in Cavendish, and overnight the floodwater dug a gulch half a mile long and 50 feet deep where Main Street used to be.
Another dam broke in Barre. People who hadn’t fled took to their attics and lit newspaper on fire so rescuers could find them. Four boys drowned when the boat that came to rescue them tipped over.
Fifty people died in Waterbury and Duxbury, the flood having drowned entire families. Waterbury set up an emergency morgue in the railroad depot, and dead livestock lay along the river banks. Bolton suffered even more with at least 25 deaths.
Years later, people remembered the noise: the screams of the terrified, the booming of the waters, the crack of trees torn from their roots, the crashing of homes off their foundations.
After the floodwaters receded, Vermont rebuilt its infrastructure. New bridges were constructed on reinforced concrete and new two-lane roads and railroads rebuilt on raised beds of rock and dirt.
To mitigate future floods, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built three reservoirs in the Winooski River basin at East Orange, Wrightsville and Waterbury. In 1949, the Corps finished the Union Village Reservoir and dam on the Ompompanoosuc River.
By the early 1960s, four more reservoirs were completed in the Connecticut River basin at North Hartland, North Springfield, Ball Mountain and Townshend. Those post-flood changes shaped Vermont’s landscape today.
‘I Love Vermont’
In 1928, President Calvin Coolidge visited his native Vermont to see how the state had recovered from the 1927 flood. He gave a speech in Bennington praising ‘the people of this brave little state of Vermont.’
Vermont is a State that I love. I could not look upon the peaks of Ascutney, Whittier, and Mansfield without being moved in a way that no other scene could move me. It was here that I first saw the light of day; here that I received my bride. Here my dead lie buried, pillowed among the everlasting hills. I love Vermont because of her hills and valleys, her scenery and invigorating climate, but most of all I love her because of her indomitable people. They are a race of pioneers who almost impoverished themselves for love of others.
If ever the spirit of liberty should vanish from the rest of the Union, it could all be restored by the generous store held by the people of this brave little State of Vermont.
For a documentary about the 1927 flood click here: http://bit.ly/171DIzg
This story was updated in 2021. With thanks to The Troubled Roar of the Waters: Vermont in Flood and Recovery, 1927-1931 By Deborah Pickman Clifford and Nicholas Rowland Clifford.
Images: First Connecticut Lake By Dmoore5556 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81340072.