Aftermath of 1869 Flood, Brattleboro, Vermont

The scene looking north on Main Street from the Whetstone Brook in Brattleboro, apparently in the aftermath of the October 4, 1869 flood. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo is undated with no caption, but it almost certainly shows the aftermath of the October 4, 1869 flood, which was among the most disastrous floods in the history of Brattleboro. The town has always been vulnerable to flooding, given its location on the banks of the Connecticut River, but the majority of the damage in this particular flood was caused by the small but fast-moving Whetstone Brook, which passes through downtown Brattleboro in the foreground of this scene. Originating in the hills to the west of here, the Whetstone provided the water power for many of Brattleboro’s early industries. However, this proximity to the brook also made these factories vulnerable to flooding, which could come with little warning.

Although rapid changes in the water level were not uncommon, the October 1869 floodwaters were higher than any in recorded history up to that point, and came after 36 hours of heavy rainfall. The flooding began shortly after 11:00 on the morning of October 4, and initially the primary concern was removing goods from the basements of homes and businesses on Flat Street, which runs along the north side of the brook. However, within ten minutes the water level had risen to the point where the focus shifted from saving property to saving lives. The book Annals of Brattleboro, 1681-1895 provides a detailed description of the subsequent events:

John L. Ray’s livery stable floor was completely covered with water. Many ready and willing hands were there to seize his horses by the bridle and lead them to a place of safety; all his buggies and horses were taken to high ground on Main Street. So suddenly did the waters spring upon the workmen in the blacksmith shop of Mr. Hall, that the floor was afloat and the workmen were obliged to break through a back door and climb up a stone wall and take shelter upon Elliot Street. A frame workshop just beyond the smithy was washed from its foundation and swung completely around. Mr. Dunklee, occupying the first house on the right-hand side of Flat Street, had just begun to gather up his things on the first floor of his tenement when he was obliged to call for help for the rescue of himself, wife and two other females. Help was promptly given him by Mr. John Rogers of the Revere House, who did yeoman’s service and saved them, although they were all pretty well drenched. In the next house resided Mr. Frank Holding, whose wife had been for four weeks dangerously ill with typhoid fever; their lower floor was completely inundated. Ropes and boats were procured by the spectators, who numbered hundreds, and after much peril and great exertion, the family were taken alive. The house of Willard Frost, on the lower side of the street, was in a peculiarly exposed situation. Fences were broken down by the ferocity of the current, the woodshed was veered around, the barn was shaken on its foundation, and inevitable destruction seemed imminent. The house was occupied by the female members of Mr. Frost’s family together with Mr. Eugene Frost, Mr. Wells Frost and his mother. They all went to the upper chamber of the house and there made signals of distress from the windows to the assembled multitude on Elliot Street. The rapid current which eddied and whirled around the house on all sides made it next to impossible for a boat to live in the waters. Several attempts were made to reach the house, but without success and these people suffered agonies untold for many minutes, until at last the timbers which had floated between the buildings formed a raft, on which they safely passed to the shore.

The large dam at B. M. Buddington’s gristmill was washed away, and the tannery which stood below was demolished and two thousand hides taken down the stream. Spenser & Douglas’s shop was entirely swept away and the road all along ruined. The bridge near the old woolen factory went down, on which two ladies had stood a moment before, barely escaping with their lives. The swollen stream then swept over Frost meadow reaching Estey & Company’s organ factory, doing no damage to the buildings, but carrying off thousands of feet of lumber and tearing up the road badly. On the south side of the brook, Woodcock & Vinton’s canal for about two hundred rods was torn out and one of the buildings and some paper injured. The flood swept away in a moment, Dwinell’s furniture shop with all its contents, furniture, tools, stock and account books, the Main Street bridge, A. F. Boynton’s shoe shop, office of I. K. Allen, lumber dealer, and Boyd’s fish market. Several men were in the market, among them the proprietor – he felt the building tremble and singing out “Run for your lives,” quickly he followed his flying guests. He sprang out of the door, turned around to look and saw nothing but a mass of water where a second before had stood his place of business. On the other side the planing mill of Smith & Coffin was cleaned out of its machinery, tools, etc.; the machine shop of Ferdinand Tyler was struck by the timbers and a part of the underpinning knocked away, the sawmill near the bridge and the foundry below were swept into the Connecticut with all their contents.

Nearly all of the bridges across the Whetstone Brook were destroyed by the flood, including the one here on Main Street. The first photo shows a large ditch where the bridge had once been, with wreckage strewn across the scene. The flood caused an estimated $300,000 in damage, equivalent to about $5.6 million today, and also killed two people. One of the victims was Adolph Friedrich, a Prussian immigrant sho left behind a wife and five young children. Twelve years earlier, Friedrich had survived the sinking of the treasure ship S.S. Central America, which was lost in a hurricane off the coast of the Carolinas. He had been returning from the gold fields of California, but he lost his fortune in the shipwreck. He eventually made his way to Brattleboro, where he found work at the Estey Organ Company. Friedrich was working there when the flood hit, and was swept downstream on a raft of boards. He was last seen going over the waterfall near the Main Street bridge, and his skeletal remains were later discovered on a riverbank. The other victim of the flood was Kittie Barrett, a 16 year old girl who had been watching debris float by at the tannery. She was killed when the upstream dam broke, and her body was recovered about a quarter mile downstream.

Today, nearly 150 years after this disastrous flood, this scene has remained remarkably unchanged. Some of the old buildings, particularly on the left side of the street, were replaced in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, but overall the area retains a similar scale in both photos. The right side, though, has been well-preserved, and a number of the buildings from the first photo are still there. The most noticeable of these is the Van Doorn Block on the far right, with its large, pedimented gable. Built in 1850, the brick building survived the 1869 flood and still stands, with few noticeable changes over the years. Further up the street, other survivors from the first photo include the Devens, Exchange, and Cutler Blocks, which were built in the early 1840s and form a continuous facade from 85 to 97 Main Street. Even further in the distance, near the center of the scene, are several other mid-19th century buildings that are still standing. Today, all of these buildings form part of the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

Lost New England Goes West: Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, San Francisco (2)

Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral, at the corner of California Street and Grant Avenue, in the aftermath of the April 18, 1906 earthquake and fires. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection.

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The church in 2015:

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As mentioned in an earlier post, this church was built in 1854 as the first Catholic cathedral in San Francisco. The archdiocese moved to a new building in 1891, but Saint Mary’s remained a parish church. In 1906, though, the building burned in the earthquake that destroyed much of the city. The first photo shows the church after the fire, with interior was completely gutted. The stained glass windows were gone, and the heat of the fire even melted the bells and the marble altar.

However, the brick walls withstood both the earthquake itself and the fires, and the church reopened in 1909 with a new interior. Over a century later, it remains an active congregation, and it is a prominent landmark in the middle of San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood.

This post is part of a series of photos that I took in California this past winter. Click here to see the other posts in the “Lost New England Goes West” series.

Lost New England Goes West: Sacramento Street, San Francisco

Looking down Sacramento Street from near Powell Street in San Francisco, on April 18, 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Arnold Genthe Collection.

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Sacramento Street in 2015:

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The first photo is probably the most famous image from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and it was taken by noted photographer Arnold Genthe in the hours that immediately followed the earthquake, before the fires spread across the city. Most of the other post-earthquake images that I have featured here show the city days or weeks after the fires had been put out, when the city was beginning to rebuild. However, this scene shows the disaster as it was still unfolding, as residents stood in the streets and watched the city burn below them.

Years later, Genthe mentioned the photograph in his autobiography, commenting on the almost surreal nature of the scene, with the city burning in the distance and spectators sitting in chairs on the sidewalk, calmly watching as the fire moved closer. He wrote,

“Of the pictures I had made during the fire, there are several, I believe, that will be of lasting interest. There is particularly the one scene that I recorded the morning of the first day of the fire [along Sacramento Street, looking toward the Bay] which shows, in a pictorially effective composition, the results of the earthquake, the beginning of the fire and the attitude of the people. On the right is a house, the front of which had collapsed into the street. The occupants are sitting on chairs calmly watching the approach of the fire. Groups of people are standing in the street, motionless, gazing at the clouds of smoke. When the fire crept up close, they would just move up a block. It is hard to believe that such a scene actually occurred in the way the photograph represents it.”

Perhaps the people in the photo assumed that the fire was too distant to threaten them, but as they were watching the fire department was struggling with broken water mains and limited manpower, and the city government was making poor decisions that, in the coming days, would enable the fire to spread far further than it otherwise may have. By the next day, the fire had moved up the hill, and all of the buildings in the foreground were destroyed.

When the first photo was taken, the bay was not visible because of the dense smoke in the distance. Over a century later, it still isn’t visible from here, because of the tall skyscrapers that have since been built in the Financial District. The cable car line in the first photo was eliminated years ago, and the street is now served by a bus line that runs off of the overhead wires at the top of the 2015 photo. While the buildings from the first photo may be gone, at least one pre-earthquake organization is still here. The brick building partway down the hill on the left side of the photo was the Presbyterian Mission House, a Christian organization that worked to rescue Chinese girls from slavery and sex trafficking. After the earthquake, the organization rebuilt on the same site, and today it is still operated as the Cameron House, named in honor of Donaldina Cameron, who was the superintendent at the time of the earthquake.

This post is part of a series of photos that I took in California this past winter. Click here to see the other posts in the “Lost New England Goes West” series.

Lost New England Goes West: Palace Hotel Fire, San Francisco

The Palace Hotel, seen from the corner of Market and Montgomery Streets as it burned on April 18, 1906, in the aftermath of the earthquake. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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The scene in 2015:

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As explained in an earlier post, the Palace Hotel was San Francisco’s premiere hotel from when it opened in 1875 until its destruction in 1906. Like so many other buildings across the city, the hotel survived the earthquake itself with minimal damage, but fires soon began to spread throughout the city. Once they reached the hotel, the substantial amount of wood paneling inside allowed the flames to quickly engulf the entire building, as seen in the first photo. In the foreground, soldiers stand guard on Market Street, watching helplessly as one of the city’s most prominent landmarks was gutted by fire.

The view in this post, taken facing the opposite direction on Market Street, shows the burned-out remains of the hotel after the fire. It was soon demolished, and in 1909 the present-day Palace Hotel opened on the same spot. There is one building left standing from the first photo, though. Barely visible on the far right of the photo is the Monadnock Building, which was still under construction at the time of the earthquake. It survived the fires, and was completed the following year.

This post is part of a series of photos that I took in California this past winter. Click here to see the other posts in the “Lost New England Goes West” series.

Lost New England Goes West: James C. Flood Mansion, San Francisco

The James C. Flood Mansion on California Street in San Francisco, in the aftermath of the April 18, 1906 earthquake. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The house in 2015:

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James C. Flood was born in New York City, but when he was in his early 20s he joined the California Gold Rush and moved to San Francisco in 1849. He had limited success in gold mining, but after a short time running the Auction Lunch Saloon, he began purchasing shares in silver mines and eventually made his fortune off of the Comstock Lode in Nevada. In 1886, he built this mansion on Nob Hill, where many of the city’s other millionaires lived at the time.

He only lived here for three years before his death in 1889, and at the time of the 1906 earthquake his daughter Cora lived here. Most of the other Nob Hill mansions were made of wood, so although the Flood Mansion was completely gutted by the fires, the stone exterior survived. The property was sold to the Pacific-Union Club, who rebuilt the interior and added wings to either side of the building and a third floor. Today, it is still used as their clubhouse, and along with the nearby Fairmont Hotel it is one of the few pre-earthquake buildings still standing on Nob Hill.

This post is part of a series of photos that I took in California this past winter. Click here to see the other posts in the “Lost New England Goes West” series.

Lost New England Goes West: Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco

The Fairmont San Francisco, seen from the corner of California and Powell Streets in the aftermath of the April 18, 1906 earthquake. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The hotel in 2015:

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The Fairmont Hotel was still under construction when the 1906 earthquake hit. Structurally, it was heavily damaged, but it survived, and for a time was even used for emergency planning meetings before the fires made their way up Nob Hill. The burn stains over the windows in the first photo show the extent of the fire that gutted the hotel, but it would soon be repaired. The owners hired architect Julia Morgan to oversee the reconstruction, and the hotel opened exactly a year after the earthquake.

Nearly 40 years later, in 1945, it played a role in establishing the United Nations. While World War II was just coming to an end that summer, representatives from 50 countries met here at the hotel to draft the United Nations Charter, which was later signed at the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, and went into effect on October 26, 1945. Since then, it has remained a prominent San Francisco hotel, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

This post is part of a series of photos that I took in California this past winter. Click here to see the other posts in the “Lost New England Goes West” series.