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.