Book recalls impact of Connecticut River Valley Flood of 1936


  • Damage caused by the Flood of 1936 in Sunderland. SWAMPFIELD HISTORICAL SOCIETYS

  • Downtown Northampton during 1936 flood. PHOTO FROM FORBES LIBRARY

  • A crowd gathers on a street corner in Athol to assess damage from the floodwaters on Canal Street. FLOOD VIEWS OF FRANKLIN COUNTY

  • The Millers River overtops its banks and inundates downtown Athol during the 1936 flood. FLOOD VIEWS OF FRANKLIN COUNTY

  • A photo from the Greenfield Recorder-Gazette of March 20, 1936, shows the impact of the flood in Deerfield. GREENFIELD RECORDER-GAZETTE


  • The wooden marker on the side of Exhibition Hall at the Three County Fairgrounds in Northampton indicates the high-water mark reached by the Flood of 1936 on March 20, 1936. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer
Thursday, November 11, 2021

The Three County Fair in Northampton has all you might expect from an agricultural society in a picturesque pocket of New England. Recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the oldest ongoing fair in continuous operation in the United States, it boasts 204 years of tradition that includes live performances, demolition derbies, livestock demonstrations and, until 2005, Thoroughbred horse racing. But history, reliably, comes with its ups and downs.

Nestled among the plethora of food options, the property’s Exhibition Hall is open to the public, but carries with it a discreet scar. A wooden marker shows the high-water mark reached by the Flood of 1936 on March 20, 1936, when a combination of heavy rain and melting snow wreaked havoc on the mid-Atlantic region and New England, specifically in the Connecticut River Valley.

This is the topic of Joshua Shanley’s book, “Connecticut River Valley Flood of 1936,” which chronicles the damage left from St. Johnsbury, Vt., to the Park River in Hartford, Conn. The Massachusetts towns of Northfield, Athol, Orange, Erving, Greenfield, Montague, Deerfield and Sunderland are included, as are the Deerfield River, Northampton, Holyoke, South Hadley, Chicopee Falls, Springfield and West Springfield.

“I look forward through a lens of history, if that makes sense,” Shanley said, adding that he researched his book for about two years. “Everything was done pre-COVID and it sat on the shelf for a good six months ... while the publisher was trying to figure what to do.”

Arcadia Publishing and The History Press released the book in April.

“(The Flood of) ’36 was such a huge event … around New England and, really, up and down the East Coast,” Shanley said. “The scope of ’36 was just amazing.”

At least 100 people died as a result of the flood and tens of thousands were left homeless, unemployed and without power for weeks. Recovery efforts were impeded by typhoid and other public health issues. Damage estimates exceeded $9 billion in 2021 dollars, and the disaster helped launch President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Flood Control Act of 1936.

Shanley, 54, has a considerable interest in emergency services, having worked in the field since 1989, during which time he has had the opportunity to support several special operations teams as a tactical medic and rescue technician. He served as a canine handler with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force and took part in the response to both notorious World Trade Center attacks — the 1993 truck bomb attack that killed six and the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001.

Shanley completed a master’s degree in emergency management in 2005 and he eventually chaired various committees with a focus on public health and health care preparedness and emergency management. He ran a consulting practice for five years, working with hospitals around the United States on various scenarios, including flu pandemic and full-building evacuation planning. He earned a master’s in entrepreneurial thinking and innovative practices in 2008 and just recently completed a master’s in education.

A New York native who lives in East Windsor, Conn., he has been a firefighter/paramedic with Northampton Fire Rescue since 2009 and the media project lead for the Massachusetts Fire Academy, where he builds online classes and shoots photos and video of the Massachusetts State Police Bomb Squad, Hazardous Materials Response Unit and Technical Rescue Teams.

Shanley said Hurricane Henri in August was, for about 24 hours, on the same path as the storm that resulted in the 1936 flood. He said he wrote his book, in part, to help ensure the lessons learned are not forgotten.

“I really feel like we’re at an interesting tipping point, and I don’t know which way it’s going to go,” he said. “Very quickly, it snowballs. And it takes a long time and a lot of money to recover.”

Shanley said floods often cause other disasters. In fact, according to the Northeast States Emergency Consortium, nearly nine of 10 presidential disaster declarations include flooding as a component. And Shanley said the people most affected and most often “left behind” are the already disenfranchised.

“Connecticut River Valley Flood of 1936” can be purchased online at bit.ly/2YAqfFg, amzn.to/2YI8nbm or bit.ly/3oNtYKK.

Reach Domenic Poli at dpoli@recorder.com or
413-772-0261, ext. 262.