The Upper Stewiacke flood of 1942

The Upper Stewiacke flood of 1942

By Margaret E. Graham
as told to her by the mill cook, Annie Graham
The summer of 1942 was very dry in Nova Scotia. In this land of sea mists and fogs and sudden summer showers it was unusual to see the hills so bare and brown in September; the aftergrass on the intervales withered and sere; and even the earth itself baked and cracked in the hot sun. Old-timers shook their heads and predicted “freshets” and “floods” when the rains came.

But the rains did not come. All through that long, hot August it remained dry. The clouds that we occasionally sighted on the horizon either failed to materialize or passed us with a distant rumble of thunder and a half-dozen huge drops immideately swallowed up by dust. Three weeks of September passed with no change in the weather.

High on the upper reaches of the Stewiacke River, (a tributary of the Shubemacadie) four miles beyond the last white farmhouse, the owner of the sawmill glanced at the sky and wondered how much longer the weather would hold. He wasn’t worried about water to run the mill – a brand new dam at the head of the natural amphitheatre in which the mill and camps were situated, (just where the banks swung close together) held a pile of water; – not like the old one half a mile upstream – no sir! If he had to depend on that….

Lumber camps

Not like ordinary banks were these on the upper reaches of the Stewiacke, but steep and rugged and clothed with brush and trees and stumps and rocks along which, at high water, the river rushed in a torrent, but now trickled almost noiselessly, while the exposed grey-white stones lay in their nakedness. Only below were built the camps; the cook-house for the woods crew, the cook-house for the mill crew, (I was cook for the mill crew that summer), the bunk houses, the small camps for the cooks and their husbands, the out-buildings, and a few other small camps for those who desired more privacy than the large camps afforded.

At one time the river had divided into two channels; one skirting either bank, making an island of higher ground in the centre, where the buildings were placed; but at the time the dam was built, men and bulldozers had deepened the channel by the far bank, and forced all the water to go that way. The bulldozed rocks and gravel were piled as a breastwork all the way from the dam to the bottom of the ampitheatre where the banks closed in again. A road crossed the dry channel and wound in a long steep curve, up the bank and there joined the main road. This road followed the river down three miles then crossed it by a heavy iron bridge, sitting on concrete abutments.

September 21, 1942

On Monday morning, September 21, the rain started. Not a gentle, misty rain that would soak into the bosom of Mother Earth with life-giving properties; not a gusty, wind-driven rain with snatches of sun through the clouds, but a steady straight downpour without a let-up or break. The men, most of whom had spent the week-end at home, returned early on Monday morning, prepared to work, but the rain continued throughout that day, all night; all day Tuesday there was no let up. In twos and threes the men, tired of enforced idleness, melted away to their shack, or a few others.

As the rain continued its steady downpour through Tuesday night and Wednesday, things began to look grim. The gate of the dam had been raised to relieve the pressure, and a torrent of muddy, racing water was foaming down the bulldozed channel to disappear between the hills below.

Thursday morning, day-light did not come early. All night long the roar of water had kept us uneasy and we slept only in snatches. But what could possibly happen? Nothing! We were protected by a brand new dam, a breastwork of rock and gravel, and within five minutes we could be across the old channel and up the road if we must. But we wouldn’t have to – things like that just didn’t happen.

‘The old dam’s gone’

In the early, grey light one of the men took a five-cell flashlight and went to, as he said, have “look-see”. The rest stirred uneasily and wondered if the rain were over. I sighed and got up and dressed – I knew I would sleep no more that morning – I might as well get breakfast for the handful of men who were left. My husband grumbled and tried to go back to sleep without success. He got up and dressed. I took my time getting breakfast. Why hurry? None of the men would work today anyway.

We heard the sound of the “flashlight man” returning, splashing through the puddles. We all paused as he entered the camp. “The old dam’s gone” he announced, “Clean as a whistle”. “But it can’t be”, my husband argued, “it was there at dark last night”. “Can’t help that. It’s gone now, clear out of sight down the river, as far as I could see.” “It’ll never make the turn” prophesied one, “Never get this far”. But if it does? I tried to keep the fear from my voice. “Don’t worry” my husband laughed, “That new dam will hold a dozen old dams or anything else that comes down that river. Come on, let’s have breakfast and get out of here”.

So we started to eat our breakfast. The oil lamp gave a poor light, and thus it was that no one saw the water seeping through the floor cracks until I went to the stove for more food and felt it beneath my feet. My startled gasp brought them all to their feet, and in an instant we were all out of the door. And what a sight in the dull morning light! The old dam had made the turn all right, a broken, twisted, but still solid mass of rubbish, it had hit the new dam corner-wise, and where it had broken through, the water was pouring down in a thunderous torrent carrying the rock and gravel breastwork ahead of it.

Run for your life

For one petrified second we watched, and even in that second we saw the occupants of the other camps come to the doors and freeze as we had frozen. Then with one accord, we started for the road up the bank – no time to think of saving property, clothes, money or anything – only to escape, and even as we ran we saw the whole structure of the dam bulge far out, then, with a tremendous roar, collapse, old and new, in a twisted mass before the onslaught.

But already we were too late! The old channel, crossing our escape route up the bank, was already a swirling torrent, and only on the higher ground of the centre could we keep our footing. THE DEAL PILE! Could we make it? The nine-foot pile of hardwood deal stood between us and the old channel. There were hundreds of tons of hardwood in that pile , but could it withstand the awful battering rams that were coming down from that broken dam? We had no time to question – no time for anything but to try to get to that pile of lumber. Could I make it? My wet dress clung to my legs and the water tore at my feet – could I pull my lagging feet from that water? Could I climb that deal pile? Well, it was either that or drown, so with a hand from my husband, I climbed!

But everyone had not made the deal pile. Two men in one of the private shacks had come to the door, looked around, then went back in and shut the door. Why? No one ever knew. The deal carrier who was in a shack alone, was still there.

Ringside seat

From the deal pile, we had a ringside seat but one which few people would covet. We saw the debris of the dams swept past, luckily the heaviest part missed us; we saw trees uprooted that would have made logs – rocks, stumps, anything that was in the path of the monster; we felt the impact, as one thing after another banged against the lumber pile. We felt the shudder as the water tore at us and we wondered, each in his own heart, though none voiced it – “Would it hold?”

We saw the shack containing the deal carrier, lift on the water, turn around, and sail slowly down stream and come to rest against a huge, forked birch tree standing there. We watched, paralyzed and unable to help, and saw him batter his way out through the roof and sieze the tree and cling to it as his shack swung round and continued down stream, leaving him across the fork of the tree above the swirling flood.

We saw the out-buildings topple and fall, the cook’s camps, and then, before our horrified eyes, we saw the shack containing the two men, start – stop – start again like a houseboat setting forth; and then with a violent swerve, topple and swing end -over-end in the raging torrent. The men we did not see – their bodies were recovered days later, covered with debris, miles down the river.

Bridge toppled

Downstream the big iron bridge toppled and fell sideways, halting on its side, with the floor-boards upright, catching the full force of the current. Thus it travelled down river for over a mile, twisting and grating over the rocks and gravel, nor did it stop until the river widened into the intervales of the first farm. All down through the valley the water covered the intervales and meadows. Cattle, pigs and sheep were drowned in their barns and pastures. People and animals were taken from their homes by boat or raft.

But we on the deal pile, knew nothing of this until much later. All day we sat there, and all day the water raged around us. Late in the afternoon the water seemed to quiet a bit, and less flotsam banged past. Then, and then only, we saw signs of rescue – a brave man took his life in his hands, and avoiding the rubbish as well as he could, and swimming with the current, he brought us a life line and we were taken off. We were cold and stiff, but no one in serious condition; the deal carrier being the worst, as he had clung all day, to the tree.

Sometimes in the night, I think I hear the rushing of water or when the house trembles in a high wind, I remember how that lumber pile shuddered; but it was an experience I would just as soon forget!

References to the 1942 flood are contained in the diary of Elmira Blaikie between September 22, 1942, and October 2, 1942. References are also included between the same dates in the diary of Anabelle Johnson.

This account is included in Stories of the Stewiacke Valley, which were collected and printed during the Stewiacke Valley Bicentennial celebrations in 1980.