New Hampshire Flooding: Don’t Blame Dan Brown or Da Vinci

I had good intentions–to delay posting this article about historical flooding in New Hampshire

At least until all this water dried up a little more. But I changed my mind when I heard some crazy stories. I have to set a few of them straight.

I BLAME DAN BROWN
The first story, bizarre I know, is via TJ at “Better Living with Chemistry.”  He says that some loons (apologies to the birds) out there are hinting that these floodwaters are God’s punishment on New Hampshire for spawning Dan Brown and thusly his book, The Da Vinci Code.  Suffice to say TJ clears up the drama. On a personal level, I … enjoyed his book, think he’s a superb writer, am looking forward to seeing the movie (today), and I’m not planning to sue him.

BUT THEY TOLD ME
The second story, that is recurring… “but we were told by the developer that this area only floods every 300 years,” or “I’ve never seen it this bad,” [and they’ve lived there 5 years]. Folks, believe me when I say that flooding around the rivers, lakes and low-lying areas of New Hampshire are historically cyclical.

ENCOUNTER PROBABILITY VOODOO
Did you know that some people (called hydrologists) spend their lives trying to figure out “encounter probabilities” for floods?  These probabilities are a TOOL for evaluating prospective damage, in order to budget or plan for such things as dams, stormwater draining systems, and disaster planning. In a nutshell they look at what the weather and water levels have been, and try to predict within a time frame (of 25, 50, 100 or more years) of when they are apt to occur again.

Somewhere into this predictive glop add the fact that New England Weather and climate is changing, along with the environment. “Minor” things like the existence, and ever growing presence of, pavement and buildings will alter how the land reacts to heavy rainfall.

So anyway, if I understand it correctly, these hydrology guys (and gals) create statistical tables, which PREDICT a typical interval of time in which the next distressing rain event (like we just had) MAY [not WILL] occur. They create charts which project the ‘encounter probability’ describing the chances that the flood will damage your house during your lifetime.

Now here comes a big problem. The statistics in these ‘predictive tables’ may or may not describe physical reality. Errrr..what? They predict PROBABLE consequences ONLY. In other words, the tables they create are graphical proof that the occurence of heavy flooding is simply a cosmic crap shoot.

PLAN FOR THE WORST, BE HAPPY IF IT’S BETTER THAN THAT
This means, that if you live in these river- or lake-view, low-lying areas, it’s a coin toss as to whether you will experience unexpected severe flood waters. If it does not happen in your lifetime, then it will probably happen in your child(ren)’s lifetime.   No one (including your realtor or your mother) can guarantee  that flooding will occur less or more often than is predicted.  “Mother Nature” often has her own plans, and she always succeeds in balancing the weather scales.

My father grew up in a town where flooding caused some serious damage in 1936 (Merrimack, NH). He rowed around in a boat taking photographs of it.  I donated most of those photographs to the Merrimack Historical Society [psst.. hint: time to put on a display of that flood, or maybe a “Then” and “Now” display for effect]. When I was growing up he confided, “make sure you live on a hill, or in high country. And if you don’t, own a canoe.”  Perhaps that is the best advice. But of course, that may increase your chances of being struck by lightning.

There is no doubt that the some of the prettiest scenery in New Hampshire is along the riverbeds and lakebeds of our beautiful state. This state is a remarkable place to live as long as the rain (or frozen rain) does not fall for too many days, or the “freshets” in the spring do not occur. [see definition of “freshet” later in this article].

The 2006 flood is definitely better documented than in the past, at least as far as media goes.  Instead of faded photographs, we have streaming video with sound tracks and music, created by residents of most areas of the state.  My favorites ones are found at Atlantic Ave.

EXAMPLES OF NEW HAMPSHIRE’S FLOOD HISTORY
To provide some historical facts, I looked through just a few of the town histories I’ve transcribed for my New Hampshire History & Genealogy web site.  It wasn’t long before I found many instances of flooding in New Hampshire.  This is only a SMALL sampling of New Hampshire’s flood history.  Some of the stories put the recent flooding into perspective.

1784
On the 5th of December 1784, there was a remarkable freshet in the Merrimack. Judge Patten (in his diary) says of it, “Dec, 3d, Was a great rain, but warm.” “Dec. 5th being Sabath day was the highest freshet in the Merrimack River ever seen by any person now living. Last night the bridge over the Piscataquog in Bedford, was floted off and a number of men worked all day saving the timber and plank of the bridge.” This was long remembered as the “Great Winter Freshet.” A great deal of damage was done upon the Merrimack and its tributaries. Many families living upon the intervals of the Merrimack were forced to abandon their homes, and take refuge with their neighbors on the uplands.(Merrimack River Valley, Hillsborough County New Hampshire)

1835
Flood along Merrimack River – “At one time there was an earlier burying ground along the east bank of the Merrimack River, but it was washed away in a flood sometime prior to 1835.” (Litchfield, Hillsborough County)

1838
Flood and Fire-Peterborough NH Sept 28, 1838. Formerly stone grist mill (1839) later Peterborough Transcript and Walbridge & Taylor. Lost in flood (Peterborough, Hillsborough County)

1848, 1851
In 1848 two piers were taken from the west end of the bridge by a freshet. It was repaired and remained till 1851, when it was carried completely away by a freshet. It has not been rebuilt. (Manchester, Hillsborough County)

1866

W.A. BINGHAM’S TANNERY, located on road 27, was established by W.S. Balch, in 1846, purchased by Mr. Bingham in 1866, destroyed by the flood of 1869, and rebuilt in 1870.  He employs two or three men and turns out about 2,000 hides per annu, and does custom tanning. (Lyme, Grafton County)

1869
In 1810, Peter Wilder, with his son-in-law Abijah Wetherbee, established the Wilder Chair Shop here in Wilder Village. Josiah P. Wilder and some of his brothers, sons of Peter, made over 25,000 spindle-back wooden seated chairs in forty or more designs. Stools, settees and rockers were also made here until the freshet of 1869 when the dam went out. (Site of Wilder’s Chair Factory, New Ipswich, Hillsborough County)

1870
1870, February 19–an unexpected and disastrous flood on Israel’s river occured, doing great damage to property and periling many lives, although none were lost. Main street bridge was swept away and roads damaged; many houses and cellars were flooded and property destroyed. (Lancaster, Coos County)

1882– [I realize this is a long story, but a real “thriller” so I’ve included it]
The Great Freshet of 1882 – Dr. True secured, in 1882, from Moses Goodno this description of that freshet on Peabody and Androscoggin rivers, known as the Great Freshet of August 28, 1826: “I was living with Elijah Evans, on the spot where I was born, in the interval near where Hitchcock’s barns are situated.  This was on August 28, 1826, when I was nineteen years old.  It began to rain the previous night, and rained very hard all the next day, and in the afternoon the water began to rise in the river, when at seven o’clock in the evening it touched the stringers of the bridge.  It rained fearfully hard till eleven o’clock that night before it ceased. It seemed like pouring water through a sieve, or as if a cloud had burst.  A man could hardly keep from drowning when standing still, it rained so fast.  In a short time the water rose about eight feet higher than ever known before, and carried away the bridge.  About nine o’clock the water began to run into the doors and windows, and the family started for the mountains.  It was totally dark, but they waded across the interval and crossed a small bridge, and came to another which had just been swept away, and we could not go any further.  We then turned back, hoping to reach the barn for shelter, but the bridge we had crossed before was now swept away and we could not reach the barn. Trees floating down from the Peabody river near us, and swept us down with them.  We caught into the tops and were borne down with the current a third of a mile.  I succeeded in putting the children into the tops of the floating trees.  At last the trees formed a jam about some stumps, but the water ran so swiftly that a part of the trees were torn away and carried down stream, and with them Harriet Evans and her brother, John C. Evans, and in a minute more it swept away the young man, Elijah Evans and Harriet Wilson, then living in the family.  I succeeded in reaching the girl and bringing her back, and then the boy.  The father of the family, Elijah Evans, was in Shelburne at this time. I could hear the others screaming, and though it was pitch dark I swam part of the time and waded and followed the direction of the sound till I succeeded in reaching them, and found Harriet in the water clinging to the tree tops. I pulled her out of the water with her brother clinging to her clothes without her being aware of his being there.  I succeeded in getting them onto a dry knoll.  The old lady and two boys, Harrison and Sam were still on the first jam, holding on to a stump.  I thought they were quite safe there.  I saw a streak of light in the sky, and being a good swimmer I struck for the mountain, well knowing that I could do no more for them there, and they they would all be drowned if the water rose much higher.  I swam part of the way, and waded the rest.  I struck a sheep pen just below John Burbank’s barn, climbed into it, and jumped down into the water, well soaked with manure, to the armpits, and had some trouble getting out.  I went to the house, opened the outside door, when the brooks from the mountains rushed in.  I succeeded in shutting the inner door, went to the fire-place, caught a burning brand and put it in the oven so it should not be put out by the water, and shouted for Mr. Burbank. His wife sprang out of bed, lighted a candle, when Mr. Burbank followed, but fainted as soon as he arose.  We placed him on a bed, and called her hired man.  Isaac Carleton, and we let the cattle out of the yard, which was full of water, to keep them from drowning. We now lighted a lantern, took off the great doors from the barn and made a raft, but it flopped over, and we could do nothing with it. We next yoked the oxen and went to Mr. Joshua Kendall’s house, who had a large lye-trough, which had been made by digging out a large tree like a boat.  We hitched the oxen to this, Kendall rode in the boat while Carleton and I each road an ox.  In this way we went across the interval, but did not dare to take the women into the boat, through fear of tipping over, and waited until daylight, when we made bridges of plank, and succeeded in bringing them all safely to Mr. Burbank’s house about eight or nine o’clock in the forenoon. One of the boys had gone further down the stream on a jam, when he caught near Merrill Head’s house at a distance of half a mile. He could not swim, but succeeded in keeping out of the current in the main river, and the family had given him up for drowned, but when they reached the house, to their great joy, and surprise they found him. The escape of the whole family was certainly a marvellous one. The effects of that freshet were remarkable.  The channel of the Peabody river previous to this time could be crossed on a single plank, but the floods of water tore away the banks, taking out large trees by the roots, and widening the channel to its present condition. The river was a milk white color, from the mud taken from its banks.  It tore away about ten acres of excellent interval, and the land where Hutchinson’s interval now is, making hollows and channels all over it, some of which still remain.  Jams of trees covering five acres of land and fifteen feet high were formed. These were afterwards burned off.  The reason why Evans’s buildings were not swept away was owing to a jam of trees which lodged on some pine stumps and against the orchard which divided the current of water.  The only building swept away was a vacated log house belonging to a man by the name of Brooks.  It was several days before the news of the Willey catastrophe reached us.”   Such was Mr. Goodno’s story of one of the most interesting events in the history of the town.  It was a very disastrous freshet to the crops.  Large quantities of wheat and other grains floated down the river and were lost.  Such another rain-fall never occurred in modern times in the vicinity of the White Mountains. (Gorham, Coos County)

1886
April 1, 1886–Israel’s river swollen to an enormous degree, broke up the ice and a tremendous gorge was formed at the head of Frank Smith & Co’s mill pond, obstructed by the solid mass of ice formed in the channel during a previous thaw….flooding occured into Mechanic Street..the ice and water struck the Town Hall building, carried away Aetna Engine No 2….No lives were lost (Lancaster, Coos County)

1887
At the Glen Manufacturing Company’s works this immense mass of waters is poured through a narrow chasm thirty-three feet in width, descending in the space of 100 yards nearly twice as fast.  At times of high water, notably the great flood of June 1887, the view combines the terrible, majestic, grand and beautiful in a wierd and fascinating combination. (Berlin, Coos County)

November 1927 Flood
Affected New England, New Hampshire to a lesser degree than other states

1936 Flood – affected New England, especially the Connecticut, Merrimack and Souhegan Rivers, and tributaries. It was the greatest disaster ever recorded along the Connecticut River, making 430,000 people homeless and leaving over $500 million worth of damage in its path. (In today’s dollars, the cost would have been over 6.5 billion!)

Janice

Additional Reading

Make a map of a flood hazard area at the ESRI and FEMA web site-

New Hampshire’s Flood History-

Everything You Didn’t Want to Know about Hydrology (click on “Hydrology” under Technical Appendices)-

Description of hydrologic models

Tracking and Taming Water-

Ice Jams PDF-

Definition: fresh·et  (frsht), n.
A freshet can refer to one of two things:
A flood resulting from heavy rain or a spring thaw. Whereas heavy rain often causes a flash flood, a spring thaw event is generally a more incremental process, depending upon local climate and topography. The term freshet is most commonly used to describe a spring thaw resulting from snow and ice melt in rivers located in the northern latitudes of North America, particularly Canada, where rivers are frozen each winter and thaw during the spring. A spring freshet can sometimes last several weeks on large river systems, resulting in signficant inundation of flood plains as the snow pack melts in the river’s watershed. Spring freshets associated with thaw events are sometimes accompanied by ice jams which can cause flash floods.

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1 Response to New Hampshire Flooding: Don’t Blame Dan Brown or Da Vinci

  1. Reuben Rajala says:

    Hi

    Great website and a most interesting collection of articles!

    We have many Guy Shorey pics (many turned into postcards) of the 1927 flood and another in 1943. Gorham and elsewhere in NH have a long history of floods, many in the late Fall (due to hurricanes?) and sometimes in the Spring.

    After 1927, the town and state did major dredging and straightening of the Peabody River and some on the Moose River. The Andro has generally been pretty well managed, given all the dams.

    Thanks.
    Reuben

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