August 19.

The date fell on a Friday back then.

People around here were getting pretty sick of all the wetness that summer.  Farmers couldn’t get into their fields without sinking in mud.  Cellars hadn’t dried out yet from eight inches of downfall the previous weekend.  Now it was raining again, and hard.

Bill Bader, the unofficial historian of Washington Depot, said in his book, An American Village, that even all that water, carried to town by two back-to-back hurricanes, hadn’t prepared the residents for what they woke up to that Friday morning.

Once called Factory Hollow, the village alongside the Shepaug River had seen busier days.  The last train had come through seven years earlier.  The mills, plants and creameries that justified rail service had pretty much disappeared, leaving a score of smaller wood buildings, consisting of working-class houses and shops that serviced the grand homes and private schools up on Green Hill.  Nevertheless, the depot was still the seat of town government, and a new two-lane bridge had opened up traffic on Route 47 between the depot and points south.

Like any river, the Shepaug had always acted up from time to time, inundating adjacent streets or pushing great chunks of ice over its banks.  But that was a tolerable trade-off for a dependable source of water power and natural sewer system, even though both functions had outlived their efficacy by the middle of the 20th century.  In fact, some concerned citizens on the hill had angered townspeople by telling them not to throw their trash and waste water into the river.

On Thursday night, residents were getting a little worried.  The river had swelled over its banks under a downpour that showed no sign of letting up.  As Bill and his sister Irene waded through two feet of water on Main Street, they heard the familiar voice of local volunteer fireman Cliff Couch singing “Wake the Town and Tell the People.”  But few residents of the valley were alarmed enough to evacuate their homes, and most went to bed thinking nature would play itself out as it always had.

Perhaps it would have, if an earthen dam upstream had not collapsed early the next morning under a 16-inch deluge.

“It got to Washington Depot close to seven – a great big wall of water carrying all kinds of debris, trees and rocks, cattle and buildings,” Bader wrote in his 1998 history with Pamela Redmer.  “It was ungodly.”

Particularly seared in his memory was the house knocked off its foundation by an uprooted tree that acted “like a battering ram.”  He and others watched the two-story building “gently float away,” not knowing two elderly residents were still inside.   A man and wife, they were both killed, their bodies found downstream after the water subsided.

Little was spared in the depot that day, including the Bader family market, which was too badly damaged to rebuild.  Bill later earned his living as an arborist.

Eventually, the townspeople of Washington learned that they were not the only ones to suffer.  Hundreds of buildings were destroyed and 54 people died in the Housatonic watershed alone in what came to be called the Great Flood of 1955.   Then President Dwight D. Eisenhower later flew over the area and said he had never seen such havoc wreaked outside a war zone.

Bill Bader was not here to mark the 58th anniversary of the most important event of his life.  He died Aug. 10 at the age of 85.

– GAK