by Patricia Otis
When I was a fourth grader at Coldbrook Park, I got up for school one morning in May of 1946. It seemed to be a normal day of getting up and ready for school. But then our mother said to listen very carefully to the radio as we may not have school today. Sure enough, school was closed. Our mother explained that the waters of the Chemung River were at flood stage. There was no whooping and hollering at the prospect of no school! Instead there were questions about the river and the rising water. Since our home was located near Dunn Field, we were very near the river. I was worried and watching out the front window. So far, so good. I don't know what my mother and brother were doing; I was wrapped up in water concerns. Suddenly, the radio announced the dam at Brand Park had broken. Brand Park had a Swimming Pool. I tried to figure the connection between the Swimming Pool and the dam and could not see what they were talking about. Within minutes, the indented garden of the neighbor across the street was filled with the brown Chemung River and rushing across to us! That was what I witnessed from my watching point out the front window. Spurred into action, I grabbed my Dad's boots which came up to my knees or better and felt I had some protection! Seconds later, we were being told rescue was on the way. I put our cats up in the attic along with food and water. I felt the highest level was probably the best for them in case water came into the house. My brother and I were carried out piggy back. I worried the whole time that I would lose Dad's boots in the transport high up in the air, and I think I hung on to my rescuer for dear life! Probably nearly choked him!! My mother was brought out in a boat. We went over to my grandmother's and grandfather's home which was located on Pennsylvania Avenue and far enough away from the flood area. They had no electricity that evening as we sat around telling stories by candle light.
My father was trying to get home at some point during the flood and every bridge he started to cross was closed. He did make it home eventually, but I never did find out how he crossed the river! There was one death of the flood. That was a little girl of three who fell out of the rescue boat right by our house.
After the flood when we were allowed to return to our home, we found we were very fortunate as the flood waters came to within an inch of the first floor. We opened the cellar door and were greeted by WATER!! One of the houses further down the street and closer to Dunn Field and the river had water up to their second story roof. It was a smaller home, but seeing the water mark up to the eaves made an impression on me! The further up the street, the lesser amount of water. We were located mid-way and had been lucky.
Another amazing thing was that everyone's cesspool was under their driveway
and the flood had collapsed all the driveways but one (or two) on the street.
Huge holes were where the driveways were suppose to be. People would go
up and down the street gawking and would turn around in the only driveway
available. Also the neighbors of the street would sometimes use the one
driveway if they had to. Consequently the homeowner put up sawhorses, so
no one could use their driveway! The street was a mess with parking on
both sides of the road, and it was not a wide area. And flood damage was
The neighborhood was buzzing. First they chatted about the sawhorses the neighbor put up. Then they talked about the builders placing the cesspool under the driveways. "You would think," they would begin...angry in their choice of words that idiots had done such a thing.
One Saturday as I was sleeping, I heard the neighbor's voices outside
in our yard. We found they had a wheelbarrow and were loading dirt from
our yard and empting it in their yard. Upon investigating, my parents found
out that they had decided the dirt in out yard was their dirt misplaced
by the flood!!!
"Imagine stealing dirt!" my mother and father would say when relating the story to others.
Then one day my bother was out looking for my father's milk bottle collection which had been carried out the cellar windows by the rushing waters. It was easy enough to do. One just followed the path the river took southeast. It left its massive destruction for all to see. There were no houses in the area where he was looking, just river residue. Before long he returned saying he found a body... My mother and he headed out and sure enough there was a body. The authorities were called and identification was made of the little three year old who had fallen out of the boat by our house.
I've written Parts 1 & 2 of one day during my fourth grade experience at Coldbrook Park. I'm sending them on as perhaps you can use the history that is involved on your site.
Your article, "A Day in Fourth Grade in 1946" brought back my earliest memory to me as I was there, but I had just turned three in April. We lived in Sheridan Court off Lower Maple Avenue and my father, Ted, had gone to watch the river from the dike in the vicinity of Brand Park. In fact he saw the water go over the dike and knew that the pool was right in it's path so he ran over there even though he didn't think there would be anybody in the pool under the circimstances, but there were a few and he told them they'd better leave quickly and they did, just in the knick of time.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to my dad, the water was approaching the east side of Maple Avenue just across the road from our house. My mother, Leola was fit to be tied because he wasn't home. The older kids, Ruthie (15), Jack (14), Mary (13) and Sally (11) had moved most of the furnishings upstairs except for one chair in the middle of the living room in which my mother sat with her arms folded, declaring she wasn't going to budge until their father got home! Eventually he arrived and he and some neighbors carried us through knee deep water to their home, about a block away, that was slightly higher.
The water just came into the ground floor there, so we (two families including 7 or 8 kids) moved upstairs. That brings me to my only truly substantiated memory of the flood. They covered the floor in the largest of three bedrooms with bare mattresses and that was where we kids lived for the next several days. I remember the wall to wall black and white ticking of those mattresses and that people were always looking out of the windows, but I was too short to see what it was that drew their attention. My other "memories" are probably second hand from hearing the retelling of flood stories over and over again, but no one had mentioned that the mattresses were bare until I asked about it and they confirmed it. So that's how I know it was my earliest memory.
I really enjoyed your article as that flood is one of the things that brings all of us Elmirans together. I knew the story of the little girl (same age as I) who was dropped while removing her to a boat, but wasn't aware of where the tragedy occurred and now I do.
We all attended Coldbrook Park School and you may have known my sister, Sally, although I think she might have been a year ahead of you.
Enclosed is Norma's letter regarding her Cousin that fell out of the
boat during the 1946 Flood. I have asked for permission to
post her letter, and
she has granted it. It's a good follow-up to my story about the flood on your site.
Trust you're doing ok!
Coldbrook Park Pat Otis
Dear Joyce and Pat,
I've always been intrigued with the Elmira flood of 1946, as my cousin, Donna Faye Gardner, was the 3 year old who died in it. I wasn't born until 1947 but my two older sisters have a few memories of her as they were just a little bit older than she. She was adorable, blond and brown eyed and always had a twinkle in her eye said my grandfather. It wasn't talked very much in my family as the subject was just too painful for my parents and other relatives; however, as I grew older I would talk to my mother about it.
Today I thought I'd see what I could find on Google and found your site, Joyce. Then I read your letter, Pat, and discovered it was your brother who found Donna Faye! I'd like to hear from both of you as well as your brother, Pat (just give him my email address). Earlier in the week I did contact Chemung Historical Society and am buying a book that was done, I believe in 2002. However, Donna's name wasn't in there from what the woman told me, just that it was a 3 year old girl and that she was the only fatality ( I had learned that fact from my mom). I'm interested in newspaper accounts, too, if either of you have run across them, please let me know.
Am looking forward to hearing from you both. Joyce, I don't know if you want to have any information for your site or not, but let me know if you do. I probably would want to contact my cousin first (who was an infant and in the same boat as Donna Faye,as he was her brother) and see what he feels about it. Hope you both find this as interesting as I did.
Sincerely, Norma Gardner
After reading some of the flood accounts on your slte, I recalled some things that my father had told me about that flood.
Richard Raitt, my father, owned the Gorton Coy, a ladies' clothing store on the corner of Main Street and Water Street in downtown Elmira. It was a feature of downtown until the 1970s, when it was taken over by Lane Bryant. I'm not sure who or what occupies that space now. One year I had a summer job cleaning and sometimes replacing the cooling sprinklers on the roof of the building.
In anticipation of the flood, my father had had sandbags stacked up at the doors and along the display windows facing Main Street and Water Street. The floodwaters were apparently relatively shallow there, only about two or three feet. The basement of the building was very solidly built. There were several leaks where water was squirting in, but they were minor and several employees kept watch on them, and I think they collected the water in buckets. Other buildings downtown had their basements flooded, but the Gorton building held firm. My father managed to call the company that had constructed the building and ask if it was likely to cave in. They told him, "It'll float first!" It was significant that it held, because the basement was an active sale area, and the elevator machinery was down there. So it saved a lot of merchandise and avoided some extensive repairs.
This is second person stuff, just a story my father told; so I don't know if it's of any use to you, but there it is, for what it's worth.