I was a 14 years old at the time, finishing up a summer vacation before entering my freshman year at Housatonic Valley Regional High School in Falls Village, Conn.
My father owned a neighborhood market, Dick's Market, at the intersection of Elm, Wheeler and High Streets in Winsted, Conn. The store was located about 300 yards to the north of the major intersection with Route 44 in the center of Winsted.
We left Canaan together in the early afternoon as the waters were starting to recede. However, it took us 8 hours to make the 18 mile journey to Winsted. We would go down one road, only to have to turn back because of flooding or pavement collapse. It seemed forever, but we eventually went up into southern Massachusetts and kept circling around and finally came down through Colebrook and Hartland and entered Winsted from the north.
We entered what looked like a war zone.
The Mad River had indeed gone mad. The river paralleled main street to the south and ran from the west to the east for the entire length of the city. At the west end of town a number of buildings were constructed to overhang the river. Once the flood waters eroded these foundations, the buildings capsized into the river, thus creating a partial dam in the river. The water, having no place to go, diverted to the north and began to flow straight down Main Street! The banks of the Mad River became the homes and businesses which lined both sides of Main Street. There was NOTHING left. Most buildings fell or were left partially collapsed. Cellars and first floors were completely under water and not a single business on Main Street was able to open for several months because of the damage.
In the 1950s there were no shopping malls - all the major stores: grocery, clothing, drugs, restaurants, appliances, retail - were on Main Street. The supply center for the city was completely knocked out!
Our store had suffered some water damage to a depth of about 18 inches, but the building was undamaged. We were one small grocery store of some 12 small and large grocery stores in Winsted. When the flood was over, we were one of 3, the others being one up near Highland Lake and another at the east end of town. But we were all small stores - the First National and A&P "giants" had been on Main Street.
For the next six weeks we seldom left the store. There was a constant stream of people coming to buy needed food staples. We were so busy that when bread, milk and produce delivery trucks arrived, we simply opened the back doors of the trucks and sold the items right out of the trucks while the driver took a lunch break - it took only an hour or so to sell out and send them back for another load!
Throughout this time the state would send in tanker trucks full of drinking water and the Red Cross was dispensing food vouchers to families in need. Many of the Main Street buildings had been retail on the ground floor and apartments on the upper floors. I'm not sure where all these folks stayed, but they had been wiped clean of their homes and possessions.
Initially there was some concern about looting and there were a number of National Guard troops assigned to watch over things and to be of help to those in need. I do not recall any serious incidents of looting or of irresponsible behavior. From our perspective, while people were clearly under stress, they were also polite and civil in the face of personal and family catastrophe.
Our store usually did about $3,000 per week in business and was considered a successful small business and it supported our family of five. During the aftermath of the flood we were doing nearly $5,000 per day! One of my jobs was to run the checkout counter - we had no scanners in those days - and when I would go to bed at night I would see the register keys in my dreams!
Over the next several years Winsted was rebuilt. The Mad River was rechanneled and no new buillding were constructed along the entire south side of Main Street. Instead, a solid concrete retaining wall was constructed to contain any future flood waters. Winsted is probably one of the few cities in the country that has one entire side of Main Street free of buildings.
In later years the Army Corps of Engineers constructed a dry dam on the Mad River to the west of the city to retain and pace the flow of water through the city at times of heavy rain.
It's hard to believe that we are approaching the 50th anniversary of the flood...time sure flies...but it's comforting to know that there are now controls in place that would make a reoccurance of the Flood of 1955 a near impossibility.