We’ve been enjoying a stretch of beautiful weather here in Camden, but a hundred years ago the Town was digging itself out of one of the worst extreme weather events ever known.

On the evening of June 21, 1922, the town received somewhere between 6 and 8 inches of rain, resulting in damage of a magnitude that is difficult to imagine. The Camden Herald was just about to go to print for its Thursday edition when the staff woke to destruction of biblical proportions:

“As we go to press it is impossible to estimate the public and private losses caused by the flood. It is evident, however, that they will be very large.”

If not for the rain, the headline would have related to the Special Town Meeting that had been held on Tuesday to raise more money than had been previously budgeted to deal with the very serious disrepair of the town roads. Reuel Robinson moderated the “sometimes spicy” meeting, and it was noted that not only men but also “women voters” were in attendance.

Little did they know that their road problems were about to get a lot worse.

“Streets have been ripped to pieces, bridges carried away, mills and other places of business flooded, horses drowned, and the woolen factories sustained heavy losses, in some cases mounting into many thousands of dollars. The loss by the flood will be much larger than caused be the July cloud burst several years ago.”

The storm they referred to of a few years before occurred in July of 1915 and at the time was considered to be the greatest rainfall ever recorded in Camden, or perhaps east of the Mississippi if you believe the accounting of Mr. Codman, one of Camden’s summer residents who had been tracking rainfall for 30 years prior. According to Codman, the 1915 storm dumped about 6.5 inches of rain over a 24-hour period, far exceeding the previous record of 3 inches over the same period.

According to the July 16th issue of the Camden Herald “most people feel that only the fact that the lake was very low for the time of year saved our town from awful damage. All the water that came down the river was from this side of the Lake as the gates were closed and no water was coming from the lake.” The same can be said of the October 2021 storm, although the rain totals were lower.

Even so, in 1915, the bridge over Dailey Brook on High Street was completely washed out, Route One looked more like the bed of a mountain stream, Route 52 was completely gullied and impassable, the Knox Mill dam was overwhelmed (overtopping Washington Street and flooding the mill), Frye Street was destroyed, and Chestnut Street collapsed with the fury of the little brook that still causes us trouble no matter how many times we’ve tried to bury it.

Fast forward to 1922 and they were not so lucky with the lake. This time, the onslaught of water came on top of a lake that was already full.

“For the second time during the present decade a ‘cloud burst’ or something of the kind struck Knox County doing its greatest damage to Camden, although other towns felt its fury. Compared to the July storm of eight years ago, there was, perhaps, not so very much greater damage done to the streets and roads of the Town, but damage to private property was many times greater.”

Here is a summary of some of the main events:

The Tannery property (then the Camden Woolen Company) stood as an island for 2-3 days as the river raged past the Washington Street bridge, which was in the process of being replaced. At the time, there was a dam just below the bridge which created a mill pond up past Megunticook Market.

Many barrels of oil and coal were swept away into the streets and river and water entered the finishing room of the Knox mill through windows some 5 feet above the ground.

The Penobscot Mill and the Brewster Shirt Factory (Bagel Cafe) were badly flooded carrying away soaps and dyes.

One horse drowned and others were saved by cutting their halters and letting them escape Frank Collamore’s stable which was located somewhere between the Bagel Cafe and Main Street.

Dean’s stable, just across the stream was badly damaged and a wagon shed measuring 150×30 that was built above the river was entirely torn away.

“The debris was carried down against Kennedy’s building [House of Logan] and the Main Street bridge, and much of it was fished out of the stream by cutting a hole through the bridge.”

Jesse Handy was thankfully able to notify the Main Street businesses just after the building collapsed and they were able to save some of the items, but the losses to Boynton’s Pharmacy, the Masonic Temple (Lord Camden Inn) and other places on Main Street was “considerable” according to the paper.

The week after the storm, the Camden Grist Mill announced it was going out of business although the circumstances are not entirely clear.

Some reports suggested the damage to public property could have been as high as about $100,000 but the editors of the Camden Herald thought this was probably an exaggeration. It would be over $1.7 million in today’s dollars.

So, what did they do? The Town selectmen called another Special Town meeting on Thursday afternoon, declared Friday and Saturday to be holidays, and got to work.

“Nearly every man in audience and some of the women, came forward and put their names upon a paper pledging themselves to teams or provide money for repairing the streets.”

They divided the streets up into teams and competent contractors of the day, under the direction of the Road Commissioner, donated time, materials, and money to put things back into working condition. It was said that the town “much resembled a damaged ant hill with scores of men hurrying about to repair the damages on every street.”

“Camden has again bravely met and successfully coped with a big disaster, doing it with the old Camden courage and spirit.”

It’s safe to say that I spend considerably more time reading old newspapers than the current ones, and there’s more than one reason for that. A big part of preparing for the future is understanding the past; not just what our neighbors remember from the past 30-50 years (although that’s important too) but back a little further than anyone can remember.

Even though the newspapers have never been perfect, the archives are an incredible resource and reveal a great deal about the changes and challenges the community has weathered. They also give a window into what we might expect in the future and are an important part of hazard mitigation and preparedness.

The lesson here is that rain events carry debris, and we must anticipate places that can become clogged. Camden residents at the time had no way of reasonably predicting the floods of 1915 or 1922, but the same is not true today.

What I love most about the older newspapers was the tone. Even when the news was grim and the obstacles daunting, the newspaper was a source of inspiration and guidance, setting the tone for a community that was always looking to improve and look outside of itself.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Vice-Chair of the Select Board. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.

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