Mike Cain

A look back through Fairfax’s history will find that most of the memorable moments involve one of two elements: fire or weather. In the last look at Fairfax History, we talked about the fire of 1898 that did great deal of damage to downtown Fairfax. Today we advance 29 years to 1927, when two days of rain devastated not only Fairfax, but much of Vermont as well.

Lamoille River Bridge Prior to the flood of 1927 Maple Street from St. Luke's Church during the flood of 1927
Looking down Maple Street during the flood of 1927 A view of St. Luke's Church during the flood of 1927
The Covered Bridge at Fairfax Falls destroyed in the 1927 flood The Maple Street Covered Bridge which survived the flood of 1927

To understand why the flood of November 1927 was so devastating, we need to back up one month to October, where the monthly rainfall amount averaged 1.5 times the normal amount. Places like Rutland, Bloomfield, Chelsea and Northfield, which normally get 2.5 to 3 inches of rain in October, got twice or three times that amount. Due to the fact that during the month of October, the rains came on the 4th, 13th, 19th and 20th, sufficient rain fell each time, but was spaced out so no flooding took place. This did however, saturate the ground.

On Wednesday, November 2, 1927, a long north/south air mass was working its way into the area. By 9 p.m., rain started falling in southern Vermont and had reached the Canadian border by midnight. There was not much moisture in the air mass. On Thursday, November 3, 1927, around 7 a.m., a moist airstream from a dissipating tropical storm over the Atlantic Ocean was traveling northeast when it was stopped by a high pressure system over Newfoundland. A low pressure system coming from the west developed a second center off the Carolina coast overnight. This center absorbed the remnants from the tropical storm and consolidated the moist air into the new low pressure system. It then directed the warm tropical air from the southeast over New England at 30 to 40 mph.

When the air flow reached Vermont, it had two things standing in its way - the hills and mountains of Vermont, rising to three or four thousand feet in places and the dense cold front of the low pressure system already here. What happens when cold and hot air mix? Hot air rises. The warm tropical air had to go up and over the mountains and the cold front and when it did so, the warm air was rapidly cooling. The moisture in the air condensed and “voila” - It Poured!

During the late morning and early afternoon on November 3, 1927, rainfall records were washed downstream for both hourly density and single storm totals. A contemporary meteorologist estimated that a cubic mile of water had been lifted off the Atlantic Ocean and deposited on Vermont.

The water had nowhere to go. The ground, already saturated from heavy October rainfall, could not absorb any more and the water flowed into brooks, streams and rivers, swelling them beyond their banks. A rain gauge in Northfield at 4 a.m. had registered .3 inches. In the next seven hours, 1.65 inches of rain fell, a rate of .2 inches per hour. From 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. 4.24 inches fell at a rate of .5 inches an hour. It didn’t stop. Rain continued for another 16 hours, finally easing about noon on November 4th.

The largest amount of rainfall was 9.65 inches in Sommerset, near Bennington and Windham counties. Rain gauges were not exposed at higher elevations, but it is believed that 10 to 15 inches of rain must have fallen. Runoff from the mountains and hills only added to the already swollen rivers. The saturated ground gave way along river banks. Trees were uprooted and carried downstream, helping the raging water do more damage. Bridges were swept down stream; homes and barns and even cattle were swept away.

In all, 84 people died as a result of the flood, including Vermont Lt. Governor S. Hollister Jackson. Mr. Jackson was trying to get home and was within a couple hundred yards from his house when, trying to drive through water, the engine stalled. He got out and was trying to wade through the water when he was carried into a deep hole. His body was found a mile away.

Hardest hit was the Winooski River Valley, from Barre-Montpelier up through Winooski to Lake Champlain. Forty-eight people lost their lives in that area alone, accounting for 58% of all lives lost in the state.

For the town of Fairfax, the residents were a little luckier. While there is no official record of any one losing their life, damage was great. Four of the five covered bridges in town were destroyed, the only one being saved was the bridge on Maple street. That bridge was taken off its foundation and drifted down stream where it rested against some trees. The farm of Albert Naylor was under attack from high water and as the family was trying to escape, 14 cows lost their lives. Someone went to the home of Fay Marvin, who lived across the river from Fairfax village and warned the family to evacuate. They did not heed the warning and went to bed, only to be rescued later by rowboats.

While dams were giving upstream, Fairfax Falls held its ground, forcing the water over the dam and its banks and down adjacent roads. The double covered bridge going into Fairfax Village next to the Fay Marvin residence went out the morning of November 4th. The Southard family, who lived next to the bridge in the house where Donald and Isabel Boutin now live, were trapped on the second floor of their house. The living room piano ended up floating out onto the front porch.

Francis Sheltra, currently living in Binghamville, was 11 years old when the flood hit. He remembers events of a couple of people on Maple Street next to the covered bridge. One was a school teacher, Bertha Ryan, who also did not heed the warning of evacuation, and was finally rescued with a rowboat. She was sitting on top of her piano in the front room when they got to her. Across the street, William Wells left in such a hurry, he left his false teeth soaking in a jar on the kitchen counter. The rising water took the jar, gently lifted it up to the ceiling, then when the water receded, gently lowered the jar down to where it was found, sitting in mud and silt that gathered on the floor. The teeth were still in the jar.

After the rain had subsided on the 4th, Mr. Sheltra rode along with his uncle, Clifford Cherrier in Mr. Cherrier’s Model T Ford, up to Fairfax Falls by way of Shepardson Hollow. Mr. Sheltra says that about 50 people had gathered on the hill overlooking Fairfax Falls and watched as buildings and debris made their way down the Lamoille River and over the Falls. At one point, a man was sitting on a small shed or henhouse that was making its way downstream. Holding a lantern, the man looked at the gathering on the hill, waved the lantern and said, “So long, boys,” and over the Falls he went. Mr. Sheltra said he has no idea how the gentleman made out.

Later, after the waters had receded, Mr. Sheltra helped Harry Rugg drive a team of horses around to pickup drowned cattle, horses, and chickens to be taken away and buried. Like the dam, the Electric Power Plant at the Falls also held its ground. Although cables were taken down and swept away, the plant itself held firm. Water was up 8 feet on the outside of the building itself, but water got into the plant and churned its way up 25 1/2 feet inside. When workers were able to get to the Power Plant at Fairfax Falls, Albert Rich was one of those workers. Mr. Rich tells of making their way to the hillside of River Road near the Falls and then having to go across the river in rowboats. Getting across the river was quite treacherous. Not only was the current still quite strong, says Mr. Rich, but you had to avoid all the debris floating downstream - uprooted trees, parts of structures and dead cows and horses. Once the men made it to the station, they worked round the clock in 10 hour shifts, stopping long enough to set some sleep. It took a few weeks to get the machinery in the plant cleaned up and operational.

After the flood, reporters from area newspapers made their way out to survey the damage. The area between Jeffersonville and Johnson was said to resemble the battlefields of France. Once in a while a person was spotted, but otherwise the areas were void of people. Barns and houses were damaged. Some cows and horses had wandered down out of the hills to a barn, but no one was there to take care of them.

Before long, reports came in from around the state on the total destruction the rains and the flooding had caused. In Fairfax, to keep traffic flowing along Route 104, a temporary bridge was put in across the Lamoille River. At first, it was a narrow foot bridge that hung above the water. Then a pontoon bridge was installed so vehicles could get across the river. Eventually a steel bridge was erected. The covered bridge on Maple Street was saved and put back on its foundation where it still stands today.

The rains and the flooding of November 1927 is only one of many memories the weather has given the Town of Fairfax and the State of Vermont. Other memories include large snowstorms, a couple of blizzards, cold snaps, a few thunderstorms, and a tornado that touched down in Fairfax in 1973 that we will talk about someday.

Information was taken from The Vermont Weather Book by David Ludlum (1985), Vermont Historical Society, Stores and Pictures of the Vermont Flood Nov. 1927 compiled by R. E. Atwood (1927, Flood Plain Information, Lamoille River, Georgia, Fairfax and Fletcher, Dept. of the Army, New York District, Corps of Engineers, NY, NY, May 1976.

Author: Michael Cain,President
Web Site Design: Henry A. Raymond
Updated: March 15, 1999

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