Stormy Weather: How Floods Shaped Vermont’s Landscape

-Sally Blanchard-O’Brien, Archives Month Committee. This is a revised version of an article that appeared originally in the History Space Column of the Burlington Free Press, printed June 5, 2016. 

Roads and bridges washed away.  Railroad lines destroyed.  Farmland devastated. And worse, 84 deaths – including Vermont’s lieutenant governor.  The aftermath of the storm that ravaged Vermont on November 3 and 4, 1927 created an unprecedented disaster for the state.  Heavy rains and high water deposited layers of mud and slime in homes and businesses, with losses estimated at about $25 million dollars.   

Telegram from President Coolidge to Governor Weeks following the flood, November 10, 1927. Courtesy of the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration.

Extraordinary action was necessary to deal with a catastrophe of this magnitude. A meeting was held at the Vermont State House with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, and among his suggestions for relief was the involvement of the Red Cross, headed by President Calvin Coolidge. On November 30, legislation was passed to issue bonds for $8.5 million of reconstruction. Within three years, the State Highway Board considered flood damage repairs to be nearly complete. But the flood of 1927 had left Vermont open for major changes in its landscape. With the national push for hard-surface roads and flood control, and Vermont’s budding tourist economy, the state embraced the idea of coming back “better than before.”   

Sample of a Vermont State Flood Bond, 1927. Courtesy of the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration.

The increase in tourist traffic and the challenges of road and bridge maintenance called for the creation of a state-controlled system of highways, and in 1931 Act 61 authorized the construction of a state highway system. The State Highway Board proposed the construction of about 550 miles of hard surface over the next decade to meet demands. With improved infrastructure, a bustling tourism economy, and revitalized families, farmers, and business owners, there was the natural desire to protect assets from further flood damage. State advisory reports recommended reservoirs as the most feasible and effective method of reducing this threat. In the 1930s, the nation’s New Deal was underway, which included large scale public works projects. On July 19, 1933, the Vermont legislature formally approved the cooperation of Vermont with the federal government, creating the Board of Public Works. By 1936, and after another significant flood in Vermont, the federal government was advancing flood control proposals all across the country. 

Creating reservoirs meant building dams, but not all Vermont residents were eager for an extensive program of dam-building. While dams offered protection from future floods, as well as the benefits of more power and more jobs, the costs were more than monetary. Towns were irrevocably altered and individual properties affected by the construction of these dams. There was also the concern that not all Vermonters might benefit from the proposed flood control projects. As time went on, these issues continued to be battled out amongst Vermont lawmakers, leaders, and citizens. 

Poster advertising public auction for properties at the Wrightsville Dam Site, 1933. Courtesy of the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration.

Ten years ago on August 28 and 29, 2011, heavy rains fell from Tropical Storm Irene. Destruction was eerily evocative of the 1927 deluge, with nearly every river in Vermont flooding.  Four people drowned.  50,000 Vermonters were left without power.  There were over 260 road closures, with thirteen rural towns completely cut off. As with previous disasters, the initial response was first to take care of storm victims’ immediate needs before tackling the more costly, longer-term rehabilitation.  But repairs commenced quickly.  Over 500 miles of damaged roads and bridges were rebuilt in four months. 

The major difference in financing relief efforts between Irene and 1927 was the existence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), created in 1979 following pressure by states for centralized federal emergency functions. Vermont received its first post-FEMA presidential disaster declaration in 1984 and one month after 2011’s Irene, FEMA had approved more than $16 million in assistance to individuals and families. 

Dealing with floods and their aftermath has been an ongoing challenge for Vermonters throughout our history, and over the decades we have looked to our government for support and relief.  Advisory reports from 1928 and 1936 both indicated that storms with the potential for causing great damage have the probability of occurring every fifty to seventy-five years. The 1984 Interagency Flood Hazard Mitigation Report declared flooding to be the greatest natural hazard found in Vermont. 

Section of a map depicting road damage following Tropical Storm Irene, September 5, 2011. Courtesy of the Vermont State Archives and Records Administration.

But if one constant is the fact that flooding will continue to occur in Vermont, the other is the resilient spirit of Vermonters in the face of adversity.  After the 1927 flood, Governor Weeks repeatedly spoke of the courage of Vermonters in facing the greatest disaster in the state’s history, saying “the faith and valor of Vermonters has turned catastrophe into opportunity.” Governor Shumlin echoed the words of his predecessor when, in January of 2012, he stated that that Vermont “has demonstrated over the course of the past year what it means to be united as one community to overcome tragedy.” 

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