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Historic Shelton Winters

By Robert Novak

While the winter weather, so far, appears to have fizzled as far as snow is concerned, Shelton did have a small taste of what our neighbors to the north have been experiencing for the past week. Freezing rain coated everything it touched with a icy glaze, but unlike the situation in northern New England, it was short lived.

Ice storms are nothing new to this area. One ice storm, which occurred in May of 1884, is described by a Huntington resident in the weekly newspaper Derby Transcript. The letter stated "We never saw the trees look more beautiful that they did Monday morning. Some of our oldest inhabitants say they never knew such an ice storm as we have had. Some of the roads are completely enclosed by the drooping limbs and those wishing to pass had to carry axes and cut their way through".

Roads weren't the only thing blocked by the ice. Shelton's first commercial highway, the Housatonic River itself, had chronic problems with icing. Every year, barges, tugboats, steamers, and schooners would find themselves icebound on the river. In some cases they had to wait till spring before they were freed.

The ice on the river tended to thaw in March, creating what was called freshets. Ice would flow down the river in large cakes, often forming ice jams which clogged the river to the extent that it was possible to walk across it. The back up of ice often resulted in severe flooding.

The problem with flooding and ice jams was compounded after the Ousatonic Dam was built in 1870, as it formed an artificial barrier that naturally attracted ice jams. The ice was piled at least twenty to thirty feet high on top of the dam in March of 1875. It was ice jams which was the direct catalyst of the washing out of the dam in early 1891.

While the dam only washed out once (fortunately), the ice jams continued to raise havoc for years until Stevenson Dam was built upriver. In 1902, for instance, ice floes crushed the gatehouse near the dam, wrecked the rail trestle over the river, and piled up along the shore burying three miles of railroad track, all the docks, and Riverdale Avenue under anywhere from eight to thirty feet of ice. Four hundred feet of track was thrown out of alignment by the river ice's power that year.

Ice jams clogging the river sometimes caused the water itself to rise rapidly, as happened in March of 1904. All factories were closed and the superintendent of the National Folding Box Company (which still exists today as the burned-out Chromium Process building), was stranded on the top floors of the factory. The superintendent later told the daily newspaper Evening Sentinel that "it looked as if water would reach the second story of the factory".

Not every aspect of the ice on the river was negative, however. Horse and sleigh teams used to race on the thick, smooth ice above the dam when it was cold enough. One day in January of 1877 about 150 sleigh teams from all over the area were counted on the river. Ice skating occurred above the dam too, when it was possible. Often, the snow which covered the ice was a hindrance, but there were special times, such as January of 1915, when rain would fall on the snow-covered ice, melt the snow, and then re-freeze, creating the perfect skating rink. The Sentinel stated most skaters "...were content to skate back and forth from the (Riverview) Park to the Derby shore but the wind did make itself felt a little to those who ventured up the river. Those who traveled as far as the ice jam felt well repaid for their efforts, as the jammed and broken ice was a pretty sight".

Ice would also form on the canal, which became a natural, more controlled skating rink. People would skate on the canal, under the watchful eye of local police. The Sentinel stated on February 9, 1903, that "Skating is fairly good on the canal, but care should be exercised, as in places the ice is none too safe. A little girl broke through near the gates at the Shelton Company works (the old tack company that burned next to the slab a few years ago) on Saturday and was rescued with great difficulty by the skaters". Relying upon water power to turn the wheels of industry in the factories, ice on the canal sometimes became a major problem, and on at least one occasion in 1912 dynamite was used to clear the flue of Blumenthals.

Ice used to pose problems for the trolley as well. To free the overhead high voltage power lines from ice, the trolley company came up with a simple and effective solution in 1900. Two trolleys would be hitched together, with each trolley's pole attached to the frozen wire. The first trolley, pushed by the second one, would use its pole to break the ice off the wire. The second trolley would receive enough power from the newly cleared wire to push both of them along.

Of course, ice continues to raise havoc even in modern times. It was only twenty years ago this week that a major ice storm coated an already storm-shocked Shelton on January 17, 1978. Four inches of snow fell, followed by freezing rain. The weekly Suburban News reported at least ten automobile accidents that night, and flooding was observed along Waverly Road, Huntington Street, and in the basement of Chappel Industries, located on 5 Bridge Street.

Shelton Highway Superintendent Paul DiMauro fretted that the street department was going to run out of money over the upcoming weekend, as the Board of Aldermen cited inadequate information to support his request for an extra $26,000 for more sand and salt. Because the streets would freeze, melt, and refreeze every night, the same roads were often sanded six to eight times in a short period. DiMauro was afraid that the City would have to buy salt and sand on credit, if any more storms occurred.

No one, DiMauro or the Board of Aldermen included, could have had any idea that in only a week and a half, one of the worst storms since the Blizzard of 1888 would explode into Shelton. But that, of course, is another story...

As mentioned in last week's column, Shelton continued to be hammered with storm after storm in January of 1978. A major ice storm covered the area with a glaze similar to that seen in northern New England this year on January 13 and 14. Another four inches of snow fell January 17. Rain and melting followed for the next several days, resulting in roads continually re-icing every time the sun went down and straining the Street Department's budget to the limit.

The ice was covered by fourteen inches of snow January 19, the biggest snowstorm of the decade thus far. Some sections of the city were virtually isolated. Most of the snow was cleared by Tuesday, January 24. Schools were closed, and school bus drivers threatened not to report to work unless snow and ice were cleared from about 15 particularly clogged streets. Severe icing the next day was followed by heavy rain, which combined with rising temperatures caused the US Weather Bureau to issue a flood warning along the Housatonic.

By January 26, the Street Department, which was budgeted $3,000 for the 1977-78 winter, was in a $26,000 deficit. By February 2, the deficit was up to $40,000. Governor Ella T. Grasso asked the legislature for a $2 million package for Connecticut cities, which reduced the deficit by $18,500. In addition, about 75 CETA workers, part of a Federal work program, were recruited to assist the Street Department clearing roads and storm drains. In some cased they worked with picks and shovels. Other projects done by CETA workers were clearing the Senior Citizens' Center (on Howe Avenue), elderly housing units, police headquarters, crosswalks, major arteries, and school roofs.

City officials laid out a "Storm Emergency Plan", listing the cities worst areas and highest priorities if the storms continued. Top priorities included storm drains, gutters, and fire hydrants.

Then, the REALLY big storm hit.

Weather forecasters began predicting that a major snowstorm was heading for the Northeast on Sunday, February 5. The storm began early Monday morning with very heavy snow. 18 inches of snow fell. Sustained winds of over 35 miles per hour caused snow drifts over ten feet high. The National Weather Service would later classify the storm as a blizzard, and dub it "Storm Larry". Governor Grasso declared the entire state of Connecticut in a State of Emergency, and forbade travel on State roads. Shelton and the region came together. Mayor Eugene M. Hope Jr., his Administrative Assistant Andrew J. Belotti, and other city officials stayed up all Monday night at City Hall, answering telephone calls from residents all over the City and overseeing emergency operations.

Travel came to an abrupt halt, as cars were literally abandoned where their engines quit. All exit ramps off Route 8 were impassable, causing a number of cars to be buried under 10 foot drifts on the highway. Over 100 cars were stranded on Coram Avenue alone. The stranded drivers gravitated to any place that was warm, and a number of city homes had strangers spending the night. The abandoned cars later hampered the Street Department's efforts to clean up the mess. Volunteer firefighters and ambulance personnel hunkered down in their firehouses on "storm watch". Despite the roads being closed, Echo Hose firefighters transported nurses throughout the storm to Griffin Hospital and Shelton nursing homes. Fortunately, there were no major fires or emergencies, although a Mill Street woman went into labor at 2 a.m. Tuesday. With great effort, an ambulance from the Huntington firehouse reached her and got her to Park City Hospital in time for the delivery. Ambulance Captain Clarence Oppel later said "We thanked her for waiting".

Echo Hose was set up as an emergency shelter for those without fuel oil or heat. A number of people also gravitated to the Huntington and Pine Rock firehouses, as the hills leading up Soundview, Shelton, Nichols, Ripton, and Long Hill roads were impassable. The only way to travel many city streets was by snowmobile. More people arrived at the firehouses the following morning. The firehouses were powered by generators, and many of the people who came, particularly in the Pine Rock area, had lost power and simply desired a hot cup of coffee.

A number of Shelton restaurants found themselves full of stranded customers or refugees Monday night. Many stayed open and fed them free of charge. Many stranded travelers spend the night cuddled up in restaurant booths.

School was canceled the entire week. The bad news was the school year was extended to June 15.

Ansonia mayor James Finnucan asked radio station WADS, which served the Valley out of the Ansonia Mall, to stay on the air beyond the usual sign-off time. WADS received permission from the FCC, and kept Valley residents linked and informed all night long.

Eventually, the long storm ended and the recovery began. President Carter declared Connecticut a disaster area February 8 and sent Army troops into the region to assist in the cleanup. Some of the troops were quartered in Stratford. 85 CETA workers assisted the City and the Street Department during and after the storm in a variety of ways. The Boys Club on the corner of Howe Avenue and Center Street was the storm headquarters. In many cases CETA crews had to clear snow off the roofs of municipal buildings for fear that they would collapse under the weight.

The costs were staggering. The Street Department, which was allocated $3,000 for the entire winter, had spent $140,000 when all was said and done. $85,000 was spent on the blizzard alone. In addition to the State funds, the amount was cushioned by a 5 million dollar grant from the Federal Government to Connecticut, of which Shelton's share was $50,477. The City received another $8,410 from the Office of Civil Preparedness.

Regarding this area's unpredictable weather patterns, Connecticut resident Mark Twain once said, "If you don't like New England's weather, then wait a few minutes". Anyone comparing the superstorms of 1978 with the mild winter of 1998 would be inclined to agree.