Waterbury: Changed Forever

Haddonfield, N.J.

For the last 50 years, no matter where I've been, no matter what I've been doing, I've drifted back through time to my memory as I stood, holding my father's hand, on a hill that marked the edge of my neighborhood, watching the Naugatuck River pour over its banks into downtown Waterbury.

The raging river had just ripped out a piece of railroad track. The track smashed into the little bridge that carried traffic from my neighborhood to where my Uncle Adam operated his furniture-repair business. Only the top of the building was visible. I remember my father saying he was worried about the huge tank of natural gas that looked as if it were moving. It held, but we saw one giant oil tank finally take out the little bridge.

My father, my mother and I got into the Studebaker and drove as far as we could along the main route to downtown. We parked near a church and walked to the street that usually led to downtown. We walked to the top of the street; the lower half was full of water. The railroad trestle under which the road passed had collapsed in a heap, and all you could see was the top of the tower of the brick factory on the other side. The city, as with the towns north and south of it, was cut in two, and would be until the Corps of Engineers could build temporary bridges.

I recall my father's friend Rocky, who owned a pool hall, holding a pile of mud-soaked money he took out of his safe a few days later. I also remember having to get water for a couple of weeks at a spring, because the reservoirs were polluted, and having to get a tetanus shot at the local school. There was no gas service, so we bought a two-burner electric portable stove. There, the memories end.

The great flood of 1955 effectively destroyed the region's 150-year-old manufacturing economy. It killed 87 people and left thousands homeless. A lot of what had existed was razed and never rebuilt. Whole residential areas of the downtowns disappeared, replaced by elevated highway. Flood-control projects were designed so it would never happen again.

It did something else. Even though my father and I grew up in the same location, as he and his father had, what they remembered no longer existed. No amount of federal aid can reverse that kind of destruction.

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