The long and oft-contentious relationship between Waterbury and the Naugatuck River came to head on August 19, 1955 during the epic natural disaster known as the Black Friday Flood, or simply the Flood of ‘55. The devastation first visited the Chase Metal Works, whose buildings stood on the northern edge of town. A series of photographs, taken soon after the flood waters receded, illustrate the extensive damage. The rail lines which connected the Chase Metal Works with the nearby rolling mills and the transportation network of the Naugatuck River Valley, were twisted, mangled, or undercut by the raging water and swept off their beds (photographs 1 & 2 show the damage done to the railroads). Debris and sediment were deposited in many of the buildings, which, at one point, were under fifteen feet of water (see Photograph 4) Days later, portions of the complex were still covered by shallow pools of water (see Photograph 3) No lives were lost in this confrontation but the financial losses incurred by Chase were considerable. Along with rest of the Brass Valley, Chase was forced to regroup and rebuild, chastised by the angry river’s might.
In order to gain a better understanding of the circumstances that led up to this catastrophic flood, it is necessary to consider the geology of the Naugatuck Valley region. In Western Connecticut, the rivers are swift and relatively shallow. They are hemmed in between high ridges, in from which numerous tributaries flow. The water drains from the uplands of gneiss and granite, which are largely unsuitable for farming, and into steep-sided valleys. The relatively precipitous gradient of the Naugatuck River and its tributaries was directly responsible for the industrialization of the region that would come to be known as the Brass Valley. The development of waterpower as the driving force of industry in the 18th and 19th centuries drastically changed these watercourses. Rivers and brooks were diverted, sequestered, and tamed. Mills sprang up in the narrow valleys, usually located close to the river banks.
In an 2011 article in the Waterbury Observer, Raechal Guest described how the relationship between Chase Brass and the Naugatuck River began around 1910, when Henry Chase purchased 25 acres of land in Waterville. On this relatively flat expanse by the river, Chase constructed a brass mill which began operations in 1912. The Naugatuck River was moved from its natural channel in 1914 to make way for an expansion of the mill. This was not the first major injustice to be done to the river, but the latest in a long line. For years, the river had been dammed, channelized, and put to work, first to supply water power, and then as a solvent for use in various manufacturing processes, and to transport waste products generated by the brass industry and the growing population of Waterbury. The latter practice had rendered the river nearly devoid of aquatic life forms by turning the once pristine waters into a chemical sewer.
Pollution was not the only consequence of the valley’s short-sighted development plan. The early industrialists could not have foretold the many consequences of the rapid economic growth of the region, one of which was the process by which much of the valley was paved and built upon. As the hills themselves had proved, water runs fast from relatively impervious surfaces. This factor contributed to an increase in the the strength and number of floods, but due to a lengthy shared history, the people of Waterbury had made allowances for the river and did not give it its proper respect. Henry Bronson gives the account of first major blow the Naugatuck River dealt the settlers. “In Feb. 1691, happened the Great Flood, so called. Owing to rains and the sudden melting of the snows, the river left its banks and covered the meadows, rising to a height never known before or since” (111-112). This flood had the effect of chastening the settlers, but, over time, people became less cautious, and built extensively on the lower elevations. Destruction of buildings and other structures, including bridges, was commonplace, and photographs that portray earlier flood damages are easily found, indicating that the citizens of Waterbury knew well the wrath of the river in spate.
Prodigious floods struck in 1875 and 1896, causing widespread damage, and a photograph of the 1924 flood shows the destruction of the Freight Street Bridge. The disaster of 1955 was unprecedented, however. The Waterbury Time Machine describes how Hurricanes Connie and Diane brought a combined total of over 20 inches of rain at the end of a wet summer. A flood timeline reveals that tributaries of the Naugatuck River overflowed on Thursday, August 18th, and at 1:57 a.m. on Friday, the Naugatuck River flooded its banks near the Chase factory. The rest of Waterbury lie to the south, essentially defenseless in the lower-lying areas. Twenty-four city residents would lose their lives before the river receded at 10 p.m. that night.
In the years following the flood, the Army Corps of Engineers began an ambitious dam building project in the Naugatuck River watershed that would ensure that a repeat of the 1955 disaster would never occur. Many of tributaries of the Naugatuck were impounded, and the main river is now held back by the Thomaston Dam, which was placed at a spot about six miles north of Waterbury. According to data kept by U.S. Geological Survey, the river has crested above flood stage from time to time since 1955, but these have been minor occurrences. The heavy rains that fell during Hurricane Irene in August of 2011 resulted in high waters that caused the USGS flood gauge in Beacon Falls to exceed the 14-foot Major Flood Stage rating, but the peak streamflow during this time did not exceed 20,000 cubic feet per second. In contrast, the peak flow during the 1955 flood was approximately 106,000 CFS. Key acts of environmental legislation and strong community support have enable the Naugatuck River to bounce back from near-death, and now it is possible to fish along much of the river’s length.
In contrast to the Naugatuck River, which has become an unlikely success story, the decline of Chase Brass was swift and steady in the years following 1955. The trend toward globalization of industry proved to be more devastating than the flood to Waterbury’s brass industry, as one by one, the mills closed down and shut up shop, never to return. Recreational use of the Naugatuck River is a growing source of revenue, and an ideal scenario would be a time when this income would exceed that brought to Waterbury by metal manufacturing. This would be symbolic of the river’s final comeuppance, and the closing of the book on a long, dark chapter in the history of the Naugatuck River Valley.
Raechel Guest. “The Big Three.” Waterbury Observer. Waterbury. 22 May 2011. Retrieved 16 Oct. 2014. Web.
Waterbury Time Machine III. “Conclusion of the Vintage Images Tour of the Brass City – 1955 Flood.” 2014. Retrieved 30 Oct. 2014. Web.
Naugatuck River. “Naugatuck River Flood and Flow Information.” 2012. Retrieved 30 Oct. 2014. Web.