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The Great Holiday Flood of 1948

Posted December 24, 2008 12:45 PM by Steve Melito

Winter in the Berkshires can be wonderful. As local filmmakers Billy Hahn and Robert Huculak explain, "Traditional New England architectural styled buildings are nestled in powder white landscapes full of snow laden spruce and hoar frosted branches." In a film called "Christmas in the Berkshires", the award-winning producers put wondrous images of the westernmost county in Massachusetts to music. Holiday revelers with "visions of snowmen" and an ear for Christmas carols can express their "Joy to the World".

And then there are those years when it rains during the holidays.

Nineteen forty-eight was one of those years. Sadly, the eight inches of rain that fell the week after Christmas dampened more than holiday spirits. In those days, as local historian Roger W. Rivers explains, the Hoosic River was wider and wilder than it is today. In the final years before the flood-control projects of the 1950s, the Hoosic reminded residents of North Adams, Massachusetts that "as man has encroached on its banks, the river has retaliated, trying to regain its territory."

In late December 1948, the ground was frozen in those parts of the city where the Hoosic River had escaped its banks before. During the 1930s, flooding had caused hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage to North Adams, a vibrant industrial center with mills, factories, lumber yards, and railroad tracks. Now, as runoff from the rains followed its familiar path to the Hoosic, residents worried about the low-lying industrial area near Ashland Street and Washington Avenue. The picture above, courtesy of Paul Marino, depicts an area near Eagle Street.

First, the Great Flood of '48 swept over the railroad tracks along the South Branch of the River. Mayor James A. Bowes summoned emergency personnel, but there was little that could be done to change the water's course. When the floodwaters approached a lumber yard on River Street, a man named George Bebee tried to clear the entrance to a flume that ran under the roadway. Tragically, Bebee lost his footing and fell into the culvert. Rescue crews lowered a ladder into the river, but firefighter Harry Boyer would ultimately join Bebee in a watery grave.

Today, much of the Hoosic River in North Adams is encased in concrete. These flood control structures ended the most destructive damage, but also separated the river from the people who live along its banks. Images of the great gray slabs won't be captured in a film such as "Christmas in the Berkshires" any time soon, but they have helped to prevent a repeat of the Great Holiday Flood of 1948.







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