The Washington Crossing bridge, overwhelmed by the Delaware in 1955. Further downstream, the Ewing bridge was destroyed.
South Warren Street, looking south from Lafayette Street, during the Flood of '55.
|By CHRIS BAUD / The Trentonian|
|The worst natural catastrophe to befall Trenton was the flood of 1955.
City streets were turned into rivers and hundreds of families were evacuated as the normally placid Delaware River surged over its banks.
Flood damage totaled $100 million in New Jersey, mostly in property damage, with $500,000 coming from the destruction of Mercer County roads.
In the weeks leading up to the flood, the area had been scorched with temperatures hitting the 90s nearly every day in July and early August.
Worse yet, there had been little rain to ease the record-setting temperatures, as most towns considered water rationing measures.
The earth became parched, reservoirs dried up, and sewers backed up due to a loss of water pressure.
Area residents, especially Burlington County farmers who had suffered severe crop damage
due to the heat, were probably praying for rain, ignoring the adage, "Be careful what you wish for."
After the drought came the deluge, as Mother Nature flashed her fickle side.
The drought broke on Aug. 7, when 2.9 inches of rain fell on Trenton.
But that was only the beginning, as a pair of hurricanes followed.
On Aug. 12, Hurricane Connie struck the eastern seaboard, soaking the Greater Trenton area with five inches of rain within a 24-hour period.
Less than a week later, Hurricane Diane made its way up the coast, following Connie's
path. She would not be outdone by her predecessor. Although storm warnings were posted along the Atlantic Coast, no one in Trenton could have expected what came next.
On Friday, Aug. 19, Diane unleashed her wrath upon Trenton in the form of a rainstorm that caused the Delaware to flood its banks. The cumulative total of the rainstorms equaled 12 inches in less than 10 days.
By noon, rising water led forced authorities to close down the Yardley Bridge.
It was never to be reopened, as a bungalow torn from its foundations floated down the river at 8 a.m. Saturday morning and struck the bridge near the Pennsylvania side, destroying three spans, or nearly half of the 902-feet bridge.
In all, more than 50 bridges over the Delaware were damaged or destroyed.
At the Calhoun Street Bridge, the river reached its crest at a depth of 20.53 feet, as water poured into the streets at a rate of 329,000 cubic feet per second. Normal speed of the river is about 2,800 cubic feet per second.
The "Island" section and parts of South Trenton were completely under water, and phones in the neighborhood were knocked out. Furniture, debris, and sometimes entire houses could be seen floating down the streets of Trenton.
The flood easily exceeded the notorious floods of 1903 and 1936, and historians considered
it the worst since 1692.
Two hundred fifty families -- approximately 1,000 people -- were evacuated from the island section.
Sixteen-year-old Pete Schofield was working at Schofield's Cleaners, owned by his father, Phillip Schofield, when the flood hit. The Trenton High junior, who today runs his father's old business on West State Street, owned a motorboat and helped rescue several of his neighbors on Clearfield Avenue.
"Water started coming up in the streets around noon," Schofield recalls. "By five o'clock, they started evacuating people off the Island. I went down and got all of my neighbors on my boat."
After moving helping move his mother and sister to safety, Schofield and his father moved most of their belongings (including a pet bird and a cat) to the second floor of their house.
"We swam through the kitchen and the living room," Schofield said.
The State House was flooded, and Trenton's War Memorial building stood as an island in the middle of a fast-moving, debris-filled ocean. Mayor Donal Connolly was forced to leave his Riverside Street basement apartment for the Stacy Trent Hotel.
In the flood's most dramatic incident, Army and Navy helicopters rescued nearly 600 youngsters -- 400 Boy Scouts, 118 Girl Scouts and 65 Campfire Girls -- camping at Treasure's Island, Marshall's Island and Pennington Island, respectively. The girls and their camp director were in water nearly up to their neck when help arrived.
The water wasn't the only headache the town had to deal with. People fleeing the flooded parts of the city, combined with curiosity-seekers trying to witness the river's rampage, caused the city's worst traffic jam.
In the era when fallout shelters were built and the entire country was in near-hysteria over the "Red Scare," The Trentonian blasted those who flocked to the disaster scene.
In an editorial, the paper said, "After surveying the clogged roads in this area from the air, we hate to think what would happen in the event of a nuclear attack."
Rats, forced to the streets, could be seen scurrying near the water's edge. Over 3,000 phones in the city were out of service.
Bucks County was particularly hard-hit. While Trenton's drinking water supply was saved when 4,000 sandbags were placed around the city's water plant as the river crept close,
Morrisville wasn't so lucky, and the town was without clean drinking water for days. New Hope was completely isolated by the water, and the Bucks County Playhouse was submerged.
The Trentonian reported that "Yardley, Pa., quiet, cool, shadowy, the residential jewel of Bucks County, was transformed into a watery terror, abject and awesome. No civilians were allowed to enter ... the town under a state of emergency."
Pennsbury High senior Donald Elfin, like Schofield, played hero, transporting 27 families to safety in his motorboat.
Jim Abbott, working for the Titusville Fire Department, participated in rescues on both sides of the Delaware. At night, he slept on the dock to watch over his 14 boats.
After the flood had subsided, Abbott, now 72, still couldn't rest, as he had to hurry his wife Ruth to Mercer Medical Center on Sunday to give birth to the first of their seven daughters.
"I was in the waiting room with all these other fathers," said Abbott, who is still on active river call, "and I fell asleep. I said, 'Hey guys, I've been fighting the river for three days.' "
In honor of the hurricane which caused the flood, the Abbotts gave their daughter Lynn the middle name Diane.
Remarkably, no one in Trenton died, although five area residents lost their lives.
Three Princetonians drowned in the flood: Two 15-year-olds, Kenneth Workman and Patrick Maloney, who attempted to navigate the waters in a canoe, and township Ptl. William Ellis, who tried to rescue them. Diane Smith of Southampton, Pa., also died when she was trapped in her car early Saturday morning. She had apparently been trying to find refuge in the nearby trees where her body was later found.
One 40-year-old man thought the flood to be an opportune time to commit suicide. According to witnesses, Robbinsville resident William Rinyu stripped and screamed, "The hell with all of them," before, plunging into the water near the 1100 block of Lamberton Street.
Mercifully, the river subsided quickly, and by Monday almost all of the water had fled the streets of Trenton.
Altogether, however, the flood claimed 200 lives in the Northeast and caused hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage.
Fearful of disease, the state ordered more than 2,000 typhoid shots to be given to area residents within the week.
In Trenton, Island residents didn't return home until the end of August, and the massive task of cleaning-up began.
Many homes in the city still have marks on the wall indicating just how high the water came up. In the Schofields' home, it was 4 1/2 feet.
"All the furniture we couldn't put upstairs got damaged," Schofield said. "All the heaters and refrigerators were ruined. The worst thing was the odor of the mud left in the house.
"Things were pretty much back to normal by beginning of winter, but it took a couple of years for the odor to dissipate in the basement."