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At nature's mercy: Vermonters prove their mettle through floods, flu and blizzards

From The Burlington (Vt.) Free Press, March 29, 1999

By Nancy Bazilchuk

Nothing could have prepared Frank Eastman for what happened in the fall of 1918. Then again, no one was prepared.

Eastman was a lineman with a small power company in Montpelier and Barre that would become Green Mountain Power Corp. A fastidious man, he kept a detailed, precise diary. Friday, Sept. 27, Eastman wrote that nine of his crew were sick. By the next day, 14 were out. Two weeks later, he recorded the first deaths among his men: "Carpenter Wiley died this morning and the switchboard operator this afternoon."

Eastman's men were dying from the Spanish flu, a sudden, virulent epidemic. In Vermont, 1,772 people died. Around the world, millions died -- more than were lost in World War I. It was a dreadful calamity, the most severe natural disaster to hit Vermont in the 20th century. There have been others that devastated lives and caused widespread damage in Vermont. We've come to expect them: forest fires and floods, blizzards and ice storms.

In 1903, forest fires raged through the Northeast Kingdom. In 1927, 84 were killed when floodwaters ripped out bridges and carted away homes - with families still in them. In 1938, a freak hurricane roared up the East Coast, flattening forests and crops, leaving scars that are visible in places today. Hundreds of people were killed.

All these catastrophes have tested our character, our ability to get up and continue on. Through it all, people like Frank Eastman have worked in sometimes indescribable discomfort to help people they didn't know, had never met. They did it without question, without expectation of any thanks: quiet heroes in the storm.

Each disaster brought change as well - slight, almost imperceptible in some cases, drastic in others. We owe our bridges to the flood of 1927. We owe our modern weather services to the hurricane of 1938. We are better warned, better prepared now, though we still are at nature's mercy. In 1998, an ice storm left thousands in the cold and dark; it drove many from their homes for days. Last summer, violent, heavy rains forced people in the Mad River Valley to dash from their homes near raging, swelling rivers.

Time will tell whether these storms will be the stuff of legends for the next generations. Looking back on this century, though, there are plenty already.

Deadly flu of 1918

Frank Eastman, born on a dairy farm in East Calais in 1876, described himself as a "maintenance man and general useful person." He was a handyman who understood machines at a time when everything from cars to hydropower turbines to tractors was only beginning to dominate our lives.

He was a big, powerful man with huge hands and feet and a broken nose that kept him from breathing with his mouth closed. He married twice - his first wife died of illness - but never had children. Instead, he gave his life to the electric company, stringing wires and keeping the power on.

For more than 40 years, Eastman kept his diary, making note of his life, opening a remarkable window to the changes - and calamities – around him.

The flu was the worst. Scientists today don't know why this flu was so deadly. It killed more than 600,000 people in the United States and more than 30 million around the world. The flu disproportionately killed the young and healthy. It sometimes killed extraordinarily quickly. There are stories of healthy travelers boarding trains only to die during the day's journey. There is a story of a group of four women who played a pleasant evening's game of bridge and went to bed; only one survived the night.

Consider this description from a doctor known only as "Roy" who served at what is now Fort Devens in Massachusetts:

"These men start with what appears to be an ordinary attack of LaGrippe or Influenza and when brought to the hospital they very rapidly develop the most viscous type of pneumonia that has ever been seen. Two hours after admission they have mahogany spots over the cheek bones and a few hours later ... (it spreads) all over the face…It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes, and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible."

Eastman witnessed the epidemic in Oswego, N.Y., on Lake Ontario, where he'd been sent to build a power plant. "My men began to be sick 3 or 4 at a time, at one time I was reduced to 5 men, none of whom could speak English," he wrote.

Eastman's second wife, Clara, who trained as a nurse but never completed her schooling, joined hundreds of volunteers called on to care for the afflicted. At one point Clara cared for seven families and worked 19 hours a day.

In Vermont the story was no different. Everywhere, people grew sick and many then died. Ken Bessette of Williston was 12 when the flu broke out. He was working the 6 p.m. to midnight shift at Western Union in Burlington. Back then, people didn't send telegrams unless it was bad news, and in 1918, Bessette was a busy boy.

"Everyone, it seemed, had the flu," recalled the 93-year-old Bessette in an interview at his home. "I would knock and get no answer, and I would call in and say, 'Telegram,' and they would all start to cry."

Often too weak to come to the door, they would invite Bessette in and ask him to read the dreary telegrams at their sickbeds. Western Union boys were asked to do more than bear bad news. As the casualties climbed, Bessette and his cohorts were sent to the train station to unload rough-hewn boxes carrying bodies being shipped back for burial.

Some bodies came back in expensive wicker caskets, which were in short supply. Bessette and the other boys had to unload the bodies, put them in rough boxes and then ship the caskets back to the distant undertakers who supplied them. One time, he said, "I remember it was snowing like hell and the wind was blowing the white sheets around the bodies."

In Montpelier, Phil S. Howes watched as the flu overtook residents and doctors alike. He recorded the toll in his own diary: "Miss Helen M. Greene, one of the teachers who roomed here the last two years but this year at Fred Wilson's, died at the hospital of pneumonia resulting from the Spanish grip," he wrote Wednesday, Sept. 25. "Poor girl; it took her out in just a week."

The numbers soon began to overwhelm Howes.

"The epidemic ... is very serious as there is probably 300 cases with a great shortage of nurses and doctors," he wrote Sept. 27. "There is no one to care for the sick and in some cases whole families are stricken at once and many cases are developed into pneumonia and proved fatal."

He and his wife volunteered to help at the local hospital Sunday, Sept. 29.

"We came down from the hospital at 7:30, and they are surely in need of help," Howes wrote the next day. "Every nurse from the matron down is sick. ... The conditions are pitiful not only there but about town and other places. It is a terrible epidemic."

Montpelier officials asked Howes to help keep track of the sickness. A partial count Oct. 2 showed 1,237 residents severely sick in bed and another 1,876 recovering. "Dr. Turner of Worcester was brought in today with a bad case of pneumonia and it don't look as though he has a chance," said Howes' Oct. 5 entry. "He is the only doctor there and kept going long after he should have been in bed." Turner died the next day.

In spite of their contact with the sick, neither Eastman nor his wife became ill, nor did Howes or Bessette. Neither did Bessette's father, who used to gargle nightly with kerosene to protect himself.

Eastman marveled at his luck. "Every man except myself and one old tough Italian had it sooner or later," he wrote. "Why we didn't I never knew."

Hardest hit was Washington County, where 437 people died, mostly in Barre and Montpelier. Barre residents were more susceptible because of their work - immigrant laborers toiled long and hard in the granite quarries and their lungs were irritated by the dust. In Montpelier, state workers came in contact with people from all over the state who brought the flu with them. In Chittenden County, 265 people died. Statewide, the death toll was 1,772. No other illness has claimed so many Vermonters' lives in such a short time.

Fear of the illness was palpable. Towns issued bans on public gatherings, closing movie houses, clubs, churches, lodges and even schools. Even funerals were regulated: Only immediate family members were allowed at the burial site, and church services were limited or prohibited.

Then, just like that, the flu was gone. By Nov. 11, when Germany signed an armistice ending World War I, news of the flu fell off the front pages of the nation's newspapers and into memory.


Nine years later, Eastman was in the thick of disaster again.

Nov. 2, 3 and 4 in 1927, two storms collided over Vermont - one from the Gulf of Mexico and one from the Great Lakes. In 45 hours, nearly 9 inches of rain fell in Vermont. Coming on top of an extraordinarily wet October, the water had nowhere to go. Nov. 3, Eastman nervously recorded the long, hard rain and the surging Winooski River.

"All the afternoon we watched the river rise, remembering that the crest of a flood here usually comes four hours after the rain stops," Eastman wrote. "And it didn't stop."

The rain kept coming and so did the rivers. By 4 p.m., the Winooski River rolled over its banks and down Montpelier's streets. By night, the river topped out - 12 feet above downtown city sidewalks. In Waterbury, the surge also came in the late afternoon. Ruby Dalley was 14, living on Winooski Street, right near the iron bridge over the river. She remembers how fast the water rose.

"My father had gone up the street to get groceries because we didn't know what was going to happen," Dalley recalled in an interview for the Vermont Folklife Center. "While he had gone down the street, my mother and I are standing in the door, and we hear a terrible, terrible crash" of the bridge washing out.

Dalley's father returned with the food and saw the home was threatened. He put his groceries on a chair in the kitchen and moved the family out to higher ground. He dashed back for the groceries, but already his packages were afloat. Moments later, so was the house.

"Our house moved across the road and so did the garage," Dalley said recently at her Moretown home. Dalley and her family survived. Her neighbor, Harry Cutting, wasn't so lucky. A foreman in the local lumberyard, Cutting lived with his wife and three children not far from Dalley's home. The water rose so quickly Cutting and his family were trapped on the second story. In desperation, he lashed doors together to make a raft and tried to float the family to safety.

"When it got in front of the Catholic Church, it bucked a tree, and his whole family went, but him," Dalley said. "He got in a tree and his whole family drowned."

Henry Royce was 8 years old when the flood filled the Little River valley just north of Waterbury. He remembers people running to escape the river. He also remembers seeing a small pig swimming for dear life. Somehow, he and his sister rescued the animal.

"I loved that pig," he said recently. "I never could bring myself to eat it."

For Eastman, the flood brought his own tragedy: One of his men, John May, was killed along with his wife and three children when their Bolton home was carried away by the floodwaters. As a news account described it: May "climbed to the roof and waved goodbye to neighbors helplessly watching on distant banks as the structure went careening down the raging Winooski River carrying him to his death."

Eastman and his crew had a job to do - and a dangerous one at that. The downed wires could start a major fire or could electrocute someone. Yet he couldn't let the floodwaters shut down the area's power: Electricity had grown critical to area hospitals and the Red Cross. He and his crew worked through the first night, catching only a few hours' sleep.

"Got out circuit map book and tried to plan ways to restore service," Eastman wrote Nov. 4. "There are six places that lines cross the Winooski. If one is left we could restore house lights as I had men both sides of river."

By dawn, the floodwaters had dropped 3 feet, Eastman reckoned. After waking at 4 a.m. he gathered his men and worked out a plan. His efforts were stymied by an unlikely source - the telephone operator.

"I hastened to a telephone and got central alright but she refused to call saying only emergencies were handled. I asked her what an emergency was and she said, 'Somebody dead,' and I said I wanted to re-establish electric service," Eastman wrote. "She replied 'There will be no electric service for a week,' and cut off."

Eastman wasn't able to raise the operator for two days, although, he wryly noted, his wife took many utility-related calls at the couple's Montpelier home.

Block by block, Eastman and his crews restored power to key areas of Montpelier. The repair was "a poor job, as some men were without tools," Eastman wrote. The workers "used shoe makers pinchers and small auto pliers contributed by public spirited people who, though nearly ruined themselves, wanted to help."

By Saturday, the water was out of Main Street and the lights were back on in most of Montpelier.

A stunned populace took stock of the statewide destruction: 84 people dead; 1,450 bridges wiped out on major rivers; 690 farms destroyed; miles of train track twisted apart; 9,000 people left homeless. Highways were impassable; mail had stopped; telephone and power lines were out. Damage has been estimated at $100 million - nearly $1 billion in today's economy.

The aftermath

The state was helpless, so it did something it had never done before: It borrowed money, and it accepted help from Washington.

The flood made Vermont "willing to go into debt to fix things," Vermont historian Thomas Bassett said. "Before, if you couldn't afford it, you went without. But we had to have bridges and roads, and so they went and did that; they borrowed."

The Legislature appropriated $8 million to build and pave 200 miles of road. In 1928 alone, the state built 1,329 bridges to replace ones destroyed by the flood. Green metal truss bridges, such as the one that crosses the Winooski River in Richmond, were erected in record numbers.

The state received $2.6 million in federal aid from a government led by Vermont native President Calvin Coolidge. Other federal money went to help the Red Cross relief effort, and the Bonus Army, teams of World War I veterans, came in to work on dams and other repair work.

The flood left another, less visible, mark on Vermont and the nation.

The flood was followed by the Great Depression and the New Deal. The Civilian Conservation Corps, the program set up by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create jobs for the unemployed, built three flood-control dams on tributaries of the Winooski River.

One, the Little River Dam, became embroiled in a dispute among the state, the federal government and Green Mountain Power Corp., which owned the land where the dam was built. The issue was control – the federal government wanted to build the dam for flood control; GMP and the state wanted also to create power.

The dispute was so controversial the dam almost wasn't built. The dispute found its way to the desk of Roosevelt, who responded with legislation extending the authority of the federal government over all the nation's waterways.

That law formed the basis for federal control of dam projects throughout the nation. It also was the basis for the federal Clean Water Act and other important environmental laws that followed.

The hurricane of 1938

The general populace received no warning of the 1938 hurricane.

Most hurricanes travel northeast into the Atlantic, not into inland New England. But this hurricane - brewed east of the Bahamas - steamed up the coast and hammered Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. More than 700 people were killed by the storm before it bore north over the Connecticut River Valley. It brought three days of record rain and violent winds that toppled thousands of Vermont's maple trees.

Eastman wrote Sept. 21 the winds began to blow with gale force about 5:30 p.m., uprooting trees that smashed buildings and brought down power lines. Big old elms lining towns' streets snapped. Raymond Hitchcock was sitting in the Montpelier movie house when the storm hit full force.

"The movie stopped, and the manager said the electricity was out due to the storm," Hitchcock remembered. "’Stay where (you) were, they’d be in operation soon.' The next thing I knew, I was flat on the floor, with my friend sitting next to me and bricks on our heads."

The winds had blown a giant elm down on the Playhouse theater, toppling a heavy chimney and ripping a 25-foot hole in the roof. "I don't remember the movie. All I remember was just before this happened, saying to my friend, 'Death, where is thy sting?' then whappo! I found out."

Hitchcock was severely injured. His skull was fractured, his collarbone broken. He spent a month in Heaton Hospital in Montpelier.

"Part of my skull was down below my ear," the 81-year-old remembered. The accident filled his neck with grit and soot from the fallen chimney - grit that Hitchcock remembers the doctors removing with a wire brush and kerosene.

In Island Pond, Glenn Chesney Sr. watched as freight trains for Boston roared in and out of the town's rail yard. Chesney was a worker for the Canadian National Railroad. The destruction in southern New England was so substantial, Chesney explained in a letter Sept. 26, the rail line through Island Pond had become the only one open between points west and Boston:

"The woods are full of double-headed freight trains in both directions. There was over 1,100 cars passed through here yesterday. We are having trainloads full of fruits, foodstuffs and livestock in good-sized quantities for the Boston area."

Throughout central Vermont, damage to timber was substantial. Eastman spent the next two months cruising GMP's forests to determine what should be cut and what could be saved. His accounts of forest damage and replacing power lines were peppered with more tragic tales.

"$1,000 reward was offered for the finding of the body of James Persie's son who was drowned in the storm of Sept. 21. Hundreds of people searched yesterday but he had not been found yet," Eastman wrote Monday, Oct. 3. "He was the only fatal accident around here."

There's no record Persie's body was ever found.

Only five Vermonters died in the storm, second only to the 1927 flood in damage. Southern Vermont towns were flooded by heavy rains and flattened by the winds. Two thousand miles of roads were blocked. Apple crops were blown off the trees. Farmers, delayed by a wet fall and unable to cut their corn crop, lost it all. The damage was so severe in Vermont and the rest of New England that the federal government again mobilized the CCC to help the cleanup. In the spirit of the New Deal, the federal government also set up the Northeastern Timber Salvage Administration, to protect landowners from catastrophic losses caused by a timber glut.

Christmas blizzard

Frank Eastman stopped writing in his diary in 1961. He died four years later at the age of 89.

During his years -- perhaps even without realizing it -- he made note of how Vermont had changed the way it responded to disasters. No longer were men like Eastman the mainstay of the state's disaster response. State government established its own emergency management program in 1951. More and more the Vermont National Guard was called out to help people in need.

Although airplanes first flew to help Vermont after the 1927 flood, helicopters are now used to help with everything from rescue to airlifting generators and equipment into a disaster area. Dams have reduced the catastrophic flooding in the larger rivers. In addition, the weather has been kinder: Statewide disasters have been less frequent.

In 1969, though, there was a blizzard that certainly would have made for many entries in Eastman's diary and for much work for his crew. The afternoon of Sunday, Dec. 28, Wendall Slayton, then 45, had to drive from Cambridge to Burlington during the storm. He was a member of the Army National Guard. Gov. Deane Davis, himself stranded by snow in Framingham, Mass., had declared much of northwestern Vermont a disaster area.

Sixty-four hours of snow, following closely on the heels of a heavy storm just before Christmas, dumped 30 inches in Burlington by Monday, Dec. 29. Like hundreds of Guardsmen, Slayton left his family - a wife and nine children in Cambridge - and made his way to Burlington to help. He doesn't remember the drive as much as the exhaustion of working for days with bulldozers, bucket loaders and graders. "The streets were plugged solid," Slayton remembered. "We worked about four days continuously."

Ninety percent of GMP customers were without power. Thousands were without phones. Operators reported to work on snowshoes. The airport was shut down for 2 1/2 days.

"We could not get out for three days," she said.

It was a scene replayed in January 1998, when a three-day ice storm knocked out power throughout northern New England.

The National Guard was again called out. Thousands of acres of woods were flattened. Grand Isle County went without power for days. One enterprising Guardsman, who grew up on a farm, set up a roving generator to go from farm to farm to help with the milking.

"We ran that for more than a week," said Lt. Col. Andrew Shattuck, who coordinated the disaster response for the Guard. As with all the disasters of the century, Vermonters responded; they helped; they volunteered. Henry Royce, who as an 8-year-old saved a pig from the floodwaters in 1927, said he's seen a lot of change during his years, mostly in technology and machinery. The change has been mostly for the better, he said.

Surviving disaster, though, has given him gifts beyond measure.

"If you go through tough times and you struggle ... you learn the value of things," the 80-year-old said recently. "It makes you a better person. It makes you think a little bit more about life itself."

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