A flood of stories

The Naugatuck River rises near the Whittemore Bridge in Naugatuck during the Flood of 55, Aug. 19, 1955. –RA ARCHIVE

The Naugatuck River rises in Naugatuck during the Flood of 55, Aug. 19, 1955. –RA ARCHIVE

NAUGATUCK — On Aug. 19, 1955, Sandra Clark stood on the Green and watched the Naugatuck River wash over the Whittemore Bridge, sweeping away a three-story building.

“It was an unbelievable sight,” Clark said. “I was just in awe about all of this.”

Clark, the borough historian, is one of the area residents who will share her story of the Flood of 1955 on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Naugatuck Historical Society, 195 Water St. The event is jointly sponsored by the Naugatuck Historical Society and the Howard Whittemore Memorial Library. The event will commemorate the 58th anniversary of the Aug. 19 flood. Admission is $2 per person or $5 for a family. There is no charge for Historical Society members or Whittemore Library cardholders.

Kirk Morrison, the reference and adult programming librarian, said he planned the first-time event to kick off an oral history project about the flood. People who tell exciting or interesting stories at Wednesday’s event will be invited to participate in the project, which is a joint venture between the historical society, the library and Naugatuck High School students in need of community service hours.

“I think it would be an opportunity, particularly if the folks are from Naugatuck, to capture that history while we still can,” Morrison said.

Morrison stressed that people from surrounding towns are also invited to participate in the event and the project.

News clippings, photos and videos from the flood will also be presented Wednesday, Morrison said.

The flood was preceded by three days of pouring rain, Clark said. The night before the flood, Clark did what any 23-year-old woman would do. She went to a drive-in movie with a friend.

Clark, now 81 and living on Johnson Street, has always remembered the movie: “Not As A Stranger,” with Olivia de Havilland, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra. When the storm came back harder than before, the two women didn’t last long at the theater in Watertown with their windshield wipers going.

“We decided this is ridiculous,” Clark said. “We can’t even see this movie.”

Clark remembers coming home that night to a hysterical mother. The next morning, she went downtown to retrieve the family car from where her father had parked it hours earlier, near his job at the U.S. Rubber Co. On the way back, a policeman asked Clark to knock on the police chief’s house and tell him not to use his gas, because water from Winsted upriver was making its way into all the mains.

“No one thought, ‘Flood,’” Clark said.

Not long after that, 6 feet of water came rushing down Church Street. Along the Naugatuck River, from Torrington to Derby, 77 people died as the water rose and carried buildings away.

Clark’s father and some others at the rubber plant found rowboats and set about rescuing people. He managed to call home and tell his family he was fine. When Clark returned downtown in the late afternoon to pick him up, the water was receding, and it took the then-famous Baz building on the corner of Maple and South Main streets with it.

Clark said she thought the oral history project was a great idea.

“I think it’s a good thing because you lose too much history,” Clark said. “The face of Naugatuck changed that day. Anyone who moved in after that doesn’t know what they missed.”

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