By Mark Jones
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Fall 2002
“I have some old things in my home that I think belong in a library or archives, and I want to know whether you want them.” This begins many an important discovery of materials documenting life in Connecticut. As the State Archivist at the Connecticut State Library, I receive many such calls. The process of reviewing what has been modestly stored in shoeboxes or bags in closets, basements, attics or garages never fails to open new and wonderfully personal windows to our past.
I recently had the pleasure of making several visits to Elena Burr Tuthill in Glastonbury. She had retained a large collection of photographs, ephemera, a diary from 1901 – 1902, and correspondence with her mother, Ella Fairchild Burr. The material covered about 60 years of life in and around Hartford.
When Elena went off to college in the 1930s, letters between mother and daughter chronicled quotidian matters, family crises, and events that have since become a part of Connecticut history. One of those events was the Flood of 1936. Ella and her husband Louis Burr worked in an office in downtown Hartford. When the floodwaters rose, they found themselves unable to return home to Manchester for a week. In the following excerpts, Ella describes her experiences during the flood to her daughter Elena.
March 19, 1936
…You would never know us in Hartford. We cannot go home to-night because the flood is up over Front Street and we cannot get to the bridge. Soon we will go down to Lorna’s and stay for the night. We hear there are several feet of water on the main street of Winsted, but haven’t heard directly from Bob. It is the highest flood we have ever had away above that of 1929.
Think that is all for to-day…
You are an old peach
All electric power went off in this building about eleven this morning. We have no heat, light, or elevators.
March 25, 1936
This letter may as long reaching you as the other for mail conditions must be very bad. No trains had gone beyond Hartford either north or east for a week. We hope this afternoon we are going to get across the bridge. …
Even this morning we had to walk up the stair and the only light in Father’s office is a barn lantern. It is certainly lucky I had this office for a refuge. They say a main is broken on Pearl Street and that is why this building and those around it even down to the Times building are without light and power. It is astounding what it does to everyone, even those who have suffered no injury or direct loss. I told one of the girls in the bank this morning that I felt like a ghost moving among ghosts. However, it will soon be over, but people will never stop talking about it in this generation.
…yesterday morning we could only get as far as Hartford Hospital because we could not pass the lines of militia. They were posted on every avenue inot [sic] the city to keep the traffic out of the distressed area. You know how beautiful the new telephone building is facing the park. That had water all over the first floor. Hotel Bond first floor will have to be all done over and what it has done to Myron’s church in the Meadows we don’t know, but all the beautiful interior must be ruined. …
Our lights have just come on and do we feel happy. I went up to Morgan Street corner this Noon and saw cars passing over the bridge so think we shall soon be home. …
Your loving, “Mama”
You poor child:-
…You asked what I did for clothes at Lorna’s. Well I had to have a nighty, for her pajamas were far too small, so I bought one and some undies. I kept said garments and my stockings washed, but alas my collar on my dress was the saddest looking thing and of course we had nothing to iron with. On Tuesday morning the power came on and I got up when I saw the lights on and washed my collar and ironed it before I went to work. Also my hair was sad, for I did not have my curlers and no iron would heat.
Well the flood is over now, bu how things look. Spring is coming very fast and the leaves are out on the lilacs, but yesterday it was below freezing. The crocuses have blossomed and gone and the tulips are coming fast.
Your sympathizing [sic] Mother
Mark Jones was archivist for the Connecticut State Library, State of Connecticut, member of the editorial team, and frequent contributor.