The Great New England Flood of 1936

Sep 06, 2017

In recent weeks, New Hampshire has joined the rest of the nation in offering its support to victims of Hurricane Harvey. The Granite State is no stranger to nature’s wrath, however— in 1936, a 14-day deluge left much of New England underwater in what was the worst flood in the region’s history.

The winter of 1936 was particularly cold. Snowpacks in northern New England contained an average of 7.5 inches of water. On March 9 of that year, a warm front crept in and stalled over the ice-bound New England states. And then the rain began to fall. ​

Three consecutive rainstorms followed, which combined with melting snowpacks to flood half of the Eastern United States. The Pinkham Notch station on Mount Washington recorded 22.43 inches of rain before it was over. The flooding wiped out roads and dams, destroying countless businesses and homes. Somewhere between 150 and 200 people were killed in the flood and 14,000 were left homeless.

Daring water rescues took place all over New England, including at the Manchester Zoo, where trainers worked through the night of March 18 to move the animals to safety. After physically lifting two bears and two leopards from their cages, the zoo trainers themselves had to be rescued from the roof of a building when water levels rapidly rose around them.​

It is estimated that the damage done by the 1936 flood exceeded $3 billion in today’s dollars. The devastation prompted Congress to pass the Flood Control Act of 1936, which President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law in June of that year. The law enlisted the Army Corps of Engineers to build hundreds of miles of levees, flood walls and reservoirs. Among these were flood-control reservoirs in the Merrimack River Basin and Connecticut River Valley, many of which still operate today. One example is the Blackwater Reservoir in Webster, NH, which was completed in 1941 and is a popular venue for fishing and kayaking.

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