August 14, 2019

Author of Book on 1955 Flood To Speak at Flemington Event

DEADLY DELUGE: During the flood of 1955, cars were stranded where they pulled up on the approach to the Yardley-Wilburtha Bridge across the Delaware River to escape the water invading the Ewing Township, New Jersey side. Before the day was out, the bridge was half gone. (Photo courtesy of the Trentonia Collection)

By Anne Levin

A trio of storms that sent flood waters rushing over the banks of the Delaware River in 2004, 2005, and 2006 caused significant property damage in communities along both sides of the water. But they were nothing compared to the flood of 1955, which destroyed bridges, wiped out homes and summer camps, and killed nearly 100 people.

“It’s definitely the record holder, which is hard to believe because 2006 is the big one for most people alive now,” said Mary Shafer, a Bucks County, Pa., resident and the author of Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955. Shafer will speak about the 1955 flood on Sunday, August 18 at 10 a.m. at the Hunterdon Land Trust Farmers Market in Flemington. The talk is part of the Historic Delaware River Series sponsored by the National Park Service’s Lower Delaware Wild and Scenic program, which aims to protect the natural, cultural, and historic value of the Delaware River.

Shafer’s book chronicles the experiences of survivors and eyewitnesses, and includes several rare images of the chaos caused by the flood. A self-described “weather weenie,” she was living near Doylestown, Pa., when she found a book at a flea market that had been published soon after the flood. “I couldn’t believe what I was reading, and that I had never heard anything about it,” she said. “I was weirded out. Because it was a really big deal.”

At the time, Shafer was writing a column called “Bucks Back Then” for the Bucks County Herald. In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the flood in 2005, she decided to write the book. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” she said. “But it has been the coolest project ever. And it changed my life in many ways. I have met a lot of people in the process who have become very good friends.”

The August, 1955 flood was caused by back-to-back hurricanes known as Connie and Diane. After slamming into the Carolinas, they charged north. By the time they hit the Hunterdon County area, they had weakened to tropical storms. But they dumped heavy rains all through the Delaware Valley.

“At the time, we were in the middle of worst drought we’d had since dustbowl era,” said Shafer. “Farmers were glad to have rain, but it was a ‘watch what you pray for’ situation. The entire Eastern Seaboard was devastated by these storms. They weren’t so much windy storms, but they were rainy storms, just sucking water out to beat the band.”

Below Trenton, the Delaware River is wider and deeper than it is further north. So while the damage there was extensive, it wasn’t as devastating as it was in places like Analomink, where 37 people at a summer camp were killed by a 30-foot wall of water. Three young girls who had snuck out of the camp before the storm hit were the only survivors. Shafer has interviewed two of them.

Further south, water breached the deck of the Washington Crossing Bridge. “It’s almost unfathomable,” said Shafer. “This was a flood of almost biblical proportions.”

It took Shafer three years to write the book. She started by putting ads in local newspapers and tacking up posters in communities along the river, from Morrisville to Milford on the Pennsylvania side; Trenton to Port Jervis in New Jersey. “I had a lot of people writing me letters, and sending me huge packages of newspapers from that time,” she said. “I had people send me diaries, and call me. I interviewed over 100 people.”

The first edition of the book came out in 2005. Since then, Shafer has updated it a few times with more interviews. “The sad thing is that it’s going to happen again,” she said. “And there are so many more people in the flood plain now.” 

The Historic Delaware River Series concludes on September 8 at 3 p.m., when journalist Rick Epstein leads a walking tour of historic Frenchtown. For information on Shafer’s talk or Epstein’s tour, call (908) 237-4582. All programs are free.