This week a brief look at the floods of 1896 and 1936 as well as the Crown Hill Fire in 1930 and how Hudson residents became spectators to these events.
Floods, or ‘freshets’ as referred to by Kimball Webster in his History of Hudson, were common events along the Merrimack River and were recorded in his history of our town. This is particularly true in the bridge area with the mouth of the Nashua River just a few rods to the north. Coupling this with the spring rain fall along with snow and ice melting from the north and west contributes to flooding and the potential for the destruction of property. In the 1800’s notable freshets were recorded in 1818, 1824, 1839, 1841, 1843, 1852, and 1862. In April 1895 a freshet occurred which raised the river to a higher point than any for many years. The east bank of the Merrimack opposite the Nashua River overflowed and covered land along Webster Street.
Our first photograph shows residents of Hudson watching the flood water of the river from the recently constructed iron bridge during the freshet of March 1896. Just before midnight on March 2 the river gained its highest point and began, slowly at first, to recede. The weather turned colder the next day allowing the water to fall very rapidly. At the highest point the water covered all of Webster Street directly west of Kimball Webster’s house. The flood water rose to within six feet, six and one half inches from the underpinning of his house near the front door. Near the iron bridge the surface of the flood was between three and four feet below the floor of the bridge.
On Sunday May 4, 1930, in the early years of the depression, many Nashua residents were suddenly made homeless by a huge fire which destroyed the Crown Hill residential area. This area was East Hollis and Allds Streets eastward to the bank of the Merrimack River, just a short distance south of the Taylor Falls bridge in the area of the railroad bridge.
The blaze began in a trestle of the B & M Railroad where it spanned the Nashua River off Temple Street. High winds escalated the blaze and carried the fire across Temple, down Spruce, and across East Hollis Streets to the Crown Hill area. Fire equipment from surrounding towns in both New Hampshire and Mass. came to assist. Individual residents pitched in with bucket brigades, shovels of dirt, and even blankets. In the end some 400 homes were destroyed and that section of Nashua reduced to wasteland. Most of the property owners had little or no insurance. One year after this disaster more than 400 homes were rebuilt and the area was making a comeback with new zoning and wider streets.
Homes and property in Hudson were protected from the spreading blaze by the Merrimack River; although there were some instances where sparks jumped the river, due to the severe winds, and had to be extinguished. As shown in our second photo, some Hudson residents set up their chairs along the Hudson side of the river and became spectators to the fire.
In March 1936 the most severe flood for this area occurred. By Thursday morning, March 19, the Taylor Falls Bridge was closed to traffic as the banks of the Merrimack were overflowing with tons of water on both sides of the river. At 7:00 A.M. the river was rising at the rate four feet per hour. Residents living near the bridge were forced to evacuate. Officers were stationed at both ends of the bridge to stop traffic.
Families along Webster Street and Litchfield Road were evacuated. The Paradise section near the river (Kenyon, Merrimack and Federal Streets) was completely flooded and the fire department evacuated residents by boats. In the areas mentioned, water rose to the first floor windows.Extensive flooding occurred at all homes along the Webster Street and Litchfield Road.
During the height of the flooding, a log coming down the river did so with such force that it banged head long into the railing of the cement Taylor Falls Bridge. This left a permanent hole in the railing, removing the concrete, and showing only the underlying mesh. From that day until the removal of the bridge, the damage was never repaired. It remained as a reminder of the of the potential force of the river current.
Again, our fellow residents of town chose to walk on the bridge and observe the flood water barreling into the bridge on it;s north side. Needless to say, this occurred either before or after the height of the flood. Water was ether receding or still trying to reach it’s maximum height. Our third photo shows Hudson residents leaning over the north side of the bridge as the flood water approached the bridge.
The Worcester, Nashua, and Portland line of the Boston and Maine Railroad began operation through Hudson in 1874 and continued until abandoned in the early 1940’s. The railroad line entered Hudson by crossing the Merrimack River just south of the present Taylor Falls bridge between Nashua and Hudson. The line then took a gradual north and easterly path to Hudson Center and then on to West Windham.
The original wooden railroad bridge was completely destroyed by fire in June 1909 when sparks from an east bound freight train ignited one of the timbers. The resulting blaze was so spectacular that an estimated 1,000 folks in the area watch the blaze against the midnight sky. The destruction of this bridge seriously interfered with the traffic between Worcester and Portland; some 32 trains per day used this bridge daily along the single track line to West Windham and Portland. A temporary bridge was put in place within a week and a replacement steel bridge was completed in record time.
By December of 1942 the days of this line had ended. It was decided to use this steel railroad bridge for army maneuvers. On Saturday December 26, 1942 two preliminary blasts of dynamite were set off near the Nashua side of the bridge. These were staged to acquaint the military unit with the explosives. A detail from Maryland was delegated for this task. According to the Nashua Telegraph the Army Engineers planned at some later time to conduct extensive maneuvers ending with the blowing up of the bridge. According to officials of the railroad, the railroad bridge had been turned over to the U.S. Army about one month earlier.
These explosions occurred without warning to or previous planning with local officials. The first blast consisted of 50 pounds and a second of 150 pounds. Residents of the Crown Hill section of Nashua as well as of the Hudson Bridge area were frightened and hundreds of phone calls were made to police and fire headquarters as well as to the local paper. The resulting explosions rocked houses and blew out hundreds of panes of glass. Many residents were in a near panic and several women were hysterical.
Complaints and protests occurred on both sides of the river. Scores of residents from Crown Hill district reported window broken and other damage. On the Hudson side many windows were blown in and plaster was shaken down in many of the homes. Significant damage was reported to the windows and frames of the Hudson Community Church. The effects of the blasts were felt as far away and Benson’s Animal Farm in Hudson Center.
Needless to say both Nashua and Hudson officials registered their protests through Senators Bridges and Tobey. The senators conducted an investigation into the blasts. Army personnel from Fort Belvoir, MD as well as First Corps Area were called back for the session. First Army Corps of Boston claimed they had no prior knowledge of the maneuvers. No advance warning of the blasts had been given. Much, of the damage and emotions could have been controlled with advance knowledge of the blasts and simply opening the windows just prior to the last. Army officials met with Hudson Selectmen and property owners in order to access the damage. Shortly thereafter forms were provided to the property owners for reimbursement of damages. Reimbursement for at least part of the damages by the U.S. government did occur up to 1 year later.
Once the Senators and officials from Nashua and Hudson learned that these blasts were preliminary to blowing up the bridge with a 500 pound charge at some future time an official protest to further blasting was registered. It was pointed out that it made more sense to salvage the bridge for scrap material for the war effort than to blast it and sink it into the river.
In October 1943 salvaging of the bridge began when Governor of New Hampshire, Robert C. Blood, applied the torch to the first steel girder of the old railroad bridge. In the end, 500 tons of steel were scrapped and turned over to the State Salvage Commission to be used in the making of war materials. By January 1944 the old railroad bridge was gone. All that remains of this bridge today are the old abutments in the river, visible just south of the Taylor Falls Bridge.
This photo is from the Historical Society collection. It shows the railroad bridge during the hurricane of 1938; just a few years before the army maneuvers to blast the bridge. In this photo a train was stationed on the bridge during the hurricane to stabilize the bridge. Details of the blasts, resulting damage, and the probes were reported in the Nashua Telegraph for Monday December 28, 1942.