Article From the Summer 2002 Issue of
The Journal of the New York Museum of Transportation
"IT IS AN ILL WIND TURNS NONE TO GOOD"
Thomas Tusser said that back in the 1500’s, but you’d be hard pressed to get any inhabitants of the Genesee and Susquehanna river basins to agree 30 years ago this summer.
In mid-June of that year, a weak tropical disturbance began to grow over the Caribbean, and by the 19th, what was now officially Hurricane Agnes moved into the Florida panhandle. Although a relatively weak hurricane, and soon downgraded to a tropical storm, Agnes was an immense 1,000 miles across. As the storm headed north, it found new life when it merged with a cyclone centered over the northeastern U.S. Stagnating over western Pennsylvania, Agnes proceeded to dump enormous amounts of rainfall, with many locations reporting totals over 15 inches, and this in turn gave rise to record flooding.
While Rochester and its immediate vicinity were spared, thanks in large part to the Genesee River dam at Mt. Morris, NY, other areas were hard hit. Wellsville, NY recorded almost 14 inches of rain, and the flooding Genesee River destroyed the Jones Memorial Hospital there. The official river flood stage gauge at Wellsville was actually washed away! The Chemung River, overflowing and choked with debris washed down from tributaries, flooded Corning and Elmira, NY. Volunteers from Rochester and many other parts of western New York spent their Fourth of July holiday weekend shoveling mud from homes that in many cases had had water up into their second stories.
The Chemung’s impact wasn’t just on New York State, however. A tributary to the Susquehanna River, it joined forces with many other tributary streams and rivers to fill the Susquehanna to well over flood stage, wreaking devastation throughout its broad, shallow, flood-prone basin. On June 23, its rampaging waters attacked and devastated the Magee Transportation Museum in Bloomsburg, PA, a privately owned collection of carriages, antique autos, and trolleys.
The trolley rail line was destroyed as flood waters undermined the track, washed away tons of roadbed, and left a tangle of rail, ties, and trolley wire. Valuable old vehicles, lovingly restored, were buried in silty water and thick, oozing mud. And in the middle of a broad field, sitting on a short section of rail as a static exhibit, Rochester & Eastern interurban car 157 saw muddy water rise up to the level of its floor. The force of the slower moving water at this location was relatively low, so the car managed to stay upright and the support underneath held. As the floodwaters receded, they left mud to dry in the motors, reverser, and control gear, but otherwise the car was blessedly undamaged.
Tropical Storm Agnes was soon determined to be the worst natural disaster ever to hit Pennsylvania, and it surely was the worst thing ever to happen to the Magee operation. Shortly after, Harry Magee died. The wealthy owner of a carpet manufacturing company had been the inspiration and support for the museum, and without him the family could only opt to sell what hadn’t been completely demolished.
R & E in better weather
At an estimated $3 billion, Agnes was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history up to that time. But out of the devastation and loss came some benefit. The good people who started the New York Museum of Transportation brought car 157 back to its home territory, and those of us who followed have protected it and contributed to its ongoing restoration. And now, thirty years after tragedy struck, we are placing 157 on standard gauge trucks donated by the Sanyo Electric Railway of Kobe, Japan, taking another step toward the day when the car can roll under its own power.
Maybe Agnes wasn’t such an ill wind after all.