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Marker Chronicles City’s Flood History

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The next time you walk from Buch Spieler or Global Gifts across the Langdon Street bridge toward the Courthouse, look up. At the end of the bridge and higher than a basketball hoop above your head is a reminder of how vulnerable the city is to catastrophic flooding.

A new signpost above the North Branch River, along with an explanatory plaque, chronicles the history of high water in the Capital City. The highest mark commemorates the water level during the November 1927 flood and looms more than 11 feet above the sidewalk, and at 533.9 feet above sea level, is nearly 14 feet above flood stage.

While there have been several dangerous floods in Montpelier since then, none has been as costly or lethal as the 1927 event that killed nearly 100 people and affected the entire state. Much of the reason for that is the construction during the 1930s of flood control dams at Wrightsville, Waterbury, and East Barre.

The signpost, conceived and erected by the U.S. Geological Survey, also depicts our more contemporary flood events, such as the 1992 ice jam and a pair of incidents in 2011.

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The marker is a tribute to former USGS Montpelier employee Greg Hilgendorf, who died unexpectedly in 2016. His widow, Cathy, and close co-worker Bob Brown unveiled the informational plaque at a ceremony on October 25.

“Greg Hilgendorf was very instrumental in (developing) stream gauges in Vermont, which have helped protect people and property,” said Keith Robinson, director of the New England Water Science Center for USGS. “This display reflects the value we have for him.”

 

Cathy Hilgendorf admires the plaque. Photo by Tom Brown.
Cathy Hilgendorf admires the plaque. Photo by Tom Brown.

James Shanley of the Montpelier USGS office said Hilgendorf was more than deserving of the tribute.

“Greg was very conscientious in his work, which required going out in all kinds of weather, making measurements in hip waders in rushing waters and having the patience to stay and get it right before getting back in the warm truck,” Shanley said. “He covered the stream gages in the central Vermont area, including North Branch, and it was so fitting that we could memorialize him in this way at one of his work sites.”

Stream gauges (the USGS prefers the alternate spelling of gage) located on rivers around the state have greatly improved the monitoring of water levels and provide federal, state, and local officials with early warning of rising rivers and streams.

A stream monitoring station located near Green Mount Cemetery on Route 2 keeps vigil by recording the height and volume of water flowing down the Winooski River every 15 minutes. Another gauge is located near the Wrightsville dam. The Langdon Street station records water level only, replacing a truly analog method of manually checking depth marks painted on a retaining wall.

River watchers can receive text alerts or monitor the gauges at home by visiting waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/rt.

Bob Brown of the USGS and Cathy Hilgendorf, widow of Gary Hilgendorf, unveil a plaque commemorating Montpelier's flood history. Photo by Tom Brown.
Bob Brown of the USGS and Cathy Hilgendorf, widow of Gary Hilgendorf, unveil a plaque commemorating Montpelier’s flood history. Photo by Tom Brown.

Tom Brown is contributing editor of The Bridge. ..... You can contact him at tom@montpelierbridge.com