THE THOMASTON DAM
Roger P. Plaskett
Harwinton Town Historian
To fully understand the Thomaston Dam project and it’s influence on the Naugatuck Valley towns and
hamlets, one must go back much further than the flood of 1955 that most of us relate to as the sole reason for its construction.
The following is the cumulation of facts gathered from newspaper articles that were published as they
happened. Any opinions offered in this context, are my personal ones and may or may not be
supported by the people or organizations involved.
On March 11, 1936 there was a downpour in New England that didn’t stop for 14 days.
The rain then unleashed a flood that affected half of the Eastern United States.
New England had ever seen anything like it.
During those two rainy weeks, the United States experienced two consecutive downpours, among the largest and heaviest in history.
Then a third downpour prolonged the destruction and misery. Rivers turned into raging torrents from New Hampshire's notches to the Long Island Sound. The Androscoggin River rose to record levels in Auburn Maine, and so did the Merrimack in Lowell Ma. Also reaching never-before-seen heights: the Pemigewasset River in Plymouth NH. and the Connecticut River in Hartford.
Photo Fox 61 News
The 1936 flood burst dams, wiped out roads, ruined businesses and washed away homes. As many as 200 people died and 14,000 were left homeless.
A second series of torrential downpours from March 16-19 swelled the Merrimack and Piscataquog Rivers. Eighteen feet of water flowed through downtown Hooksett, N.H., sweeping away utility poles, barns, houses, schools, stores, roads and railway embankments.
The Connecticut River floodwaters rose 38 feet in Hartford, a record that still stands today. Food and medical supplies were stored at Hartford High School for safety but had to be moved as the floodwaters rose relentlessly.
Southern New England Telephone’s central office on Trumbull Street was flooded with 20 feet of water. Firefighters tried to pump out the company’s building on Jewell Street, but abandoned their steam pump to the rising waters.
National Guard units patrolled the Hartford city streets along with the Coastr Guard and police, rescuing citizens in rowboats and taking them to temporary shelters.
Not a single phone in the city worked. Switchboard operators came to work by rowboat to restore phone service. They then had to walk along an emergency catwalk from one building to the next.
The power went out, and surgeons performed operations at Mt. Sinai hospital under battery-powered searchlights. At the Bond Hotel, guests checking out were rowed from the staircase to the desk to settle up and then floated to the railroad station.
These disasters prompted Congress to act. On June 22, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Flood Control Act of 1936. This was known as Public Bill #7038. It empowered the Army Corp of Engineers to build hundreds of miles of levees, flood walls and channel improvements.
Eventually the Corps constructed approximately 375 new major reservoirs. The senate approved placing $13,000,000 towards 10 reservoirs for the Connecticut Valley which would be totally funded by the Federal Government.
Property Damage was high
Photo Boston Public Library
Lesley Jones Collection
Throughout the next few years studies were underway which included multi states in New England in a consolidated effort to achieve flood control. The Connecticut seemed to be the initial focus and there was also focus on the Housatonic River. Not much mention of the Naugatuck was found early on.
During this period there was much congressional activity in Washington regarding the flood control bill. Topics like who would own the power generated by these dams, other ownership issues etc. All the typical government red tape. Late in 1938 the Army Corp of Engineers asked to set up an office in East Hartford which prompted a study on available government owned property where the office could be located. Eventually it went out to bid. Just another example of the issues associated with getting anything done expeditiously by the government. The East Hartford location would be to support the dykes that eventually retained the Connecticut River there.
In 1939 the state of Vermont started to fight for state’s rights when it comes to the Federal Government taking lands for the purpose of flood control without the consent of the state. The rights of state and Federal governments were ambiguous in the flood control bill. Our governor Baldwin signed a bill to create the Connecticut Flood Control Commission that year. Their budget included 3 additional flood control reservoirs to be build.
On August 21st of 1939 a “cloudburst” caused flooding in Thomaston resulting in over $100,000 in damages. An iron bridge was swept away and another damaged. The stockroom at the Seth Thomas building was flooded as were many main street stores. Street surfaces in town were torn apart and a freight train derailed just south of Campville. A northbound train, dispatched from Waterbury to off aid, could not get through due to a 15’ wide by 6’ deep washout in the tracks. The Trinity Episcopal Church and the new high school were damaged. The high school had 18” of water in the gym. All of this certainly put the Naugatuck on the radar screen of the newly formed Flood Control Commission.
Aug 1st 1941 the Army Corp of Engineers made a recommendation to congress that a flood control dam be built 1.1 miles north of Thomaston. This is the first mention of a dam in Thomaston that I could find. Certainly, the towns below Thomaston along the Naugatuck Valley were most likely supportive especially the industries along the river.