Home Commentary The Way I See It: A Changing Relationship to the River

The Way I See It: A Changing Relationship to the River

She remembered the 1927 flood vividly. Elizabeth Carpenter Metcalf, who was a child at the time, recalled walking home with her brother and father from school through rising water on the afternoon of November 3. They spent the night in their dark house on Elm Street listening to water from the North Branch of the Winooski River roil the furniture in the dining room below, banging it against the walls. Her father, who could not swim, regularly checked the rising tide coming up the stairway, and swallowed his own panic, even when the neighbor’s barn was swept off its foundation and slammed into their barn, which miraculously held. 

I know all this because Elizabeth Metcalf, nee Carpenter, approached me on the sidewalk in front of my house about 30 years ago and introduced herself. I was scraping paint off the front clapboards when a car pulled to the curb and she stepped out to ask if I was the owner. Her family had moved into the house in 1922 and stayed more than 40 years. She had grown up here, she explained, and was curious to see the house again. Of course, I invited her in.

How and why the Carpenters stayed after the 1927 flood boggles my mind. For most of the next decade, there was nothing that would have prevented this catastrophe from happening again. Between 1933 and 1935, however, the Civilian Conservation Corps built an enormous earthen retention dam on the North Branch at the intersection of Worcester, Middlesex, and Montpelier. This meant moving or dismantling roughly 30 buildings in the village of Wrightsville and moving the village’s cemetery to accommodate the new Wrightsville Reservoir. (The East Barre Dam and the Waterbury Reservoir were constructed at the same time.) 

The Wrightsville dam was more than 1500 feet long and 115 feet high, meant to withstand the worst flooding anyone could imagine. And it did withstand the great hurricane of 1938, but by the mid 1950s, long before most people were thinking of climate change, engineers were imagining worse floods. The height of the dam was raised by 20 feet and its length extended 275 feet. Still the Carpenters stayed on, demonstrating a shocking faith in the meteorological predictions and engineering feats of the time. 

When we moved into our house, brush had grown up in the far backyard, obscuring the river. This was true of nearly every backyard we could see from our house. Clearly, the neighborhood had turned its back on this ribbon of water. One of the first things we did was remove the invasive bushes and plant grass. Over time, the grass took hold and opened a vista from the back of our house to the water beyond. That vista has given us thousands of hours of delight over the years. We have watched beavers and muskrats; moose and deer; wood, mallard, and merganser ducks; herons; Canada geese; and bald eagles. We bought first a canoe and later kayaks to explore the river’s reach. We ice skated on it in the winter. We consider the rich diversity of wildlife the river has brought to our doorstep one of the house’s great assets. 

Much had changed in Elizabeth Metcalf’s childhood home since she had last seen it, but as she shared her cautionary tale of the river’s turbulent past, it was clear that the Flood of 1927 was still present in her memory. Never having seen it at its worst, we accepted the regular rising and falling of the river that we were witnessing as something benign. At times it overflowed its bank and flooded the yard; at other times the river ran low, exposing mud flats. There was a predictable rhythm to the river’s life that depended as much on the season as on the rainfall.

Until July. Not even the Montpelier floods of 1992 and 2011, which left us relatively unscathed, dissuaded us from feeling as if we had some agreement with the river that it would do us no harm and the dam would keep us safe. But because the river is normally placid, we lost track of the fact that it is still something wild and therefore ultimately uncontrollable. As high as the dam is, we were unprepared for the ways in which the climate has changed our world.

This summer’s flood was something else. We watched the water rise through the yard as the rain continued to fall. The water was brown, silt filled, and ominous. By the time it was lapping at our back steps, it was terrifying. And it kept coming. We fled for one night and came home to water in our basement, a first in the 45 years we’ve lived in our house. My relationship with the river has changed. This summer’s flooding has put the fear of God in me.