The Great Flood of 1936

1936 high water mark on Wilton Falls buildingYou have to have good eyes for this, or at least a pair of binoculars. If you stand in the small parking lot at the western end of Main Street, looking at the north side of what is now the Wilton Falls building (formerly Wilton Pressed Metals, and, before that, part of the Whiting Mill complex), you can see the faint remains of some writing next to one of the windows on the street level, above the river and the building’s granite foundation.  There are two marks painted there; they are dates, just barely legible, and the one that concerns us for the moment is the lower of the two, much more readable than the one above it:  3-19-36.  It is the high water mark of the flood that 1936 High Water Mark Closeupdevastated not only Wilton, but much of the greater Merrimack River valley, from as far north as Franklin down into Manchester, Nashua and the surrounding areas over several days in March of 1936. 

It began on Tuesday March 17th .  On the tail end of a cold and very snowy winter that year, a warm spell hit the area, accompanied by torrential rains. On Wednesday March 18th the dam on the Souhegan at New Ipswich bursts, releasing large amounts of water downstream.   The situation is exacerbated by the large existing snowpack, considerable ice in the Souhegan and its tributaries, and the sudden rise in temperatures.   From Wednesday into Thursday, the ice jams in the Souhegan, Blood Brook and Stony Brook cause them to quickly overflow their banks and flood surrounding areas. 

By Wednesday afternoon it is clear that many homes and businesses are in danger, not just from the rising water but from the large chunks of ice and debris that are careening into mill buildings and homes.  Contemporary newspaper reports paint a chilling picture of the damage: Forest Road to Lyndeborough is flooded and impassable, parts of it are washed out entirely and many homes north of the Library are in danger of being swept away; the Davisville section of town is under two feet of water as Mill Brook overflows; the road from Wilton Center to Davisville is washed out. 

Whiting’s Mill Pond (no longer there; it was where the parking lot at the Police Station is now) becomes jammed with blocks of ice; this in turn backs up the water flowing down Stony Brook which inundates Forest Road upstream, with water flooding basements and large blocks of ice smashing into and damaging  many houses.  Backyards were filled with water, according to the newspaper account, to a height of ten feet. Lumber, logs and farm machinery stored at the Whiting barn (now the apartment building next to the Wilton House of Pizza) are swept away downstream.

Forest Road at the Old Curtis Mill Site

Above: Forest Road at the Old Curtis Mill Site

The Island is flooded entirely, forcing those who live there to evacuate their homes. The railroad tracks from Milford are undermined, the gate house at the small railway stop at Pine Valley is washed away, and a stone pier undergirding the bridge at Pine Valley was moved almost a foot from its original position.  Whiting’s Brook, behind Town Hall (no longer there; it was diverted underground into culverts not long after this), overflows as well, sending a torrent of water onto Main Street which floods several of the businesses.

Members of the Abbott and Whiting families supervise workers at their mills -- the Abbott Machine Shop and the Abbot Worsted Mill, Whiting’s Mill, and the Hillsborough Mills just over the border in Milford – while they work frantically to move machinery and goods out of basements and first floor areas as water fills those spaces; they also stack sandbags to try and keep the water at bay.   Ice and debris in the Souhegan severely damages parts of the Abbot Machine Shop and the Worsted Mill; one small building is completely demolished and an entire section of the Machine Shop is torn off as the huge blocks of ice and the accumulated debris from damage upstream rolls eastward.  All during this, crews work to dynamite the ice jams in the Souhegan, the Whiting mill pond, and Blood and Stony Brook; it is believed that the entire Main Street area will flood because of a massive jam on the Souhegan between the Abbott Mills and Hillsborough Mills – the water is rising at almost one foot per hour – but the work is finally successful and, with a roar that could be heard for miles, the ice is broken up sufficiently to allow the flood to subside.  By Friday the worst has passed; but there are whole swaths of town still inundated through Friday into Saturday.

A week later, the town is slowly assessing the damage, which is estimated at nearly $100,000.00 (just shy of $2M in today’s dollars). The rail line from Nashua is seriously compromised, which will take weeks to repair.  Trucks take over for the train, shipping the mail, and much-needed goods and essentials, via the routes that were still passable; crews are working diligently to repair the other roads and bridges.  The bridge at Gray’s Corner (behind where Monadnock Mountain Spring Water now sits) is damaged sufficiently to have the state condemn it; it will have to be rebuilt.   Route 31 south to the Greenville line is almost completely destroyed; a chunk of the hillside near King Brook Road had come loose and fallen onto Route 31 and into the river at two points, covering the road with almost seven feet of rock and soil, in addition to the accumulated debris – ice, telephone poles, trees – which litter almost the entire length of the road from Gray’s Corner to Greenville. 

Route 31 Looking South Towards Greenville

Above: Route 31 Looking South Towards Greenville

It is generally agreed that this is the worst damage by water to hit the town in over sixty years, since the last great flood in 1869 that destroyed homes and mills all up and down the waterways of Wilton. But there was more to come.  Take another look at the picture of the 1936 high water mark; the one above it, mostly illegible, in all likelihood commemorates the high water mark of the great New England Hurricane of 1938, which will do much more sustained and lasting damage to Wilton and the whole region.    That storm, while causing significant flooding, was more noted for the havoc wreaked by high winds that exceeded 100 miles per hour.  Buildings were torn off their foundations, roofs were separated from their structures and sent flying, apple orchards and dairy farms were leveled. 

1938 Hurricane Aftermath at Whiting's Mill

Above: 1938 Hurricane Aftermath at Whiting's Mill

So much destruction in so short a period of time could hollow out and crush the spirit of a town and its people; but Wiltonians, as they had after the fires that destroyed the East Village again and again in an eleven year span in the 19th century, rose to the challenge and together began the hard work of rebuilding.    As the Milford Cabinet reported after the storm, “. . . [W]hen towns became crippled and torn by the elements. . . there was no disorder or panic.  The courage bred of Yankee stock and the ability to stand against overwhelming catastrophe was one of the dominating highlights.”  You can knock us down, but we always get up again.

For the Milford Cabinet's coverage on March 19, 1936 of the flood in Wilton, click HERE. 

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