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The Great TMR Hurricane of 1955 (Karl Bernstein)
Toward the end of the 4th period (last 2 weeks of the 8 week season) of 1955, the Delaware valley area was visited by Diane. No, she was not somebody’s mom, sister or girlfriend but a fierce Atlantic hurricane.
The weather, during the 4th period, had not been especially great but no one was prepared for what was to come. The heavy rains came and persisted for more than 2 days. In order to better understand what came to pass, you have to better understand the geography of the then Brooklyn Camps.
Mahl’s pond which you may know as that murky body of water on your right as you approach the Kunatah area from HQ, holds it’s water level due to an earthen dam and spillway at it’s end. In the early days of TMR, there was a dock for swimming and boating on the pond.
Mahl’s pond drained over this spillway and into a stream that steeply meanders down through the woods, behind the Rock Lake cabins and then under the road now known as Cochecton Turnpike. A small bridge and metal culverts for this stream are there today. The stream then meandered over the Tahlequah lawn, now no longer a lawn but a large grove of White Pine trees planted during Shu-Shu-Gah Lodge ordeals during the 1956 season to prevent a future reoccurrence, and down into Rock Lake not too far from the Kunatah waterfront.
The heavy rains quickly overwhelmed the entire system and Mahl’s pond began to overflow discharging large amounts of water into the narrow outlet. The force of the water carried large amount of debris that rapidly clogged the culverts under the road and as a result, the waters spread out over the road and the entire Tahlequah lawn until it looked like a raging sheet of muddy water and debris pouring into Rock Lake.
In 1955, there were four waterfront docks on Rock Lake and unlike today’s TMR docks, these were permanent structures anchored into the lake bottom and held fast. BUT…. associated with each of these docks there were landing docks to which row boats were tied. These wooden docks merely rested on stone piles. As Rock Lake quickly rose, these docks were lifted into the rising waters and together with their attached wooden rowboats, floated out into the lake.
I was the Waterfront Director of Kotohke Division 1 that summer. The four of us on the waterfront staff lived in two tents on raised platforms no more than 5 or 6 feet from the edge of Rock Lake. That evening, as the rains continued unabated, the lake began to rise up under our tent platforms and we knew that we were in trouble. Kotohke was the only one of all of the Ten Mile River waterfronts that was unreachable by motor vehicle and our army field phone was inoperable. Then out of the woods came a figure draped in a poncho carrying a dim kerosene lamp looking like Diogenes searching for an honest man (that’s all that we had for light in camp in those years) telling us that we had to evacuate up the hill to the camp itself. We quickly gathered our sleeping bags, abandoned our waterfront and clambered up the steep trail to the higher ground of the camp itself.
When we got up to the camp office, Frank Swiatokos, our camp director told the “unattached staff”, those of us who didn’t have direct responsibility for the Scouts in provisional units, that we were to report to the dam at the end of Rock Lake to try and save it. We made our way down to the dam where we were joined by staff members from Chappegat, Kunatah and Ihpetonga. The scene could have been one from “Dante’s Inferno”. Although the rain was pouring down, it was oppressively hot and we worked filling sand bags in bathing suits or our underwear but to no avail. The lake had risen up so high that it began to spill over the earthen dam on both sides of the spillway that still exists there today. The earthen dam soon crumbled leaving the concrete spillway standing alone. Remember those loose boat docks? They had floated down to the dam area of the lake with their rowboats still attached to them. As we evacuated, they began to crash over the spillway into the steep ravine through which the lake outlet flowed and still trickles today. Several hundred feet down Cochecton Turnpike existed a wooden bridge. As the torrent approached, the boats and docks quickly wedged under this bridge creating a dam of splintered wood and debris. Much of the flood was diverted onto the road which was completely washed out. As the waters raged down hill, a large swath of Route 97 was completely torn away and waters raged across the road into Ten Mile River. The dirt road along side the river was submerged and water surged over the top of the stone bridge.
The next day dawned bright and sunny and the damage had to be surveyed. The Brooklyn camps were almost cut off. The only road passable was the one that goes to HQ. A New York State Police helicopter landed on the Kunatah ball field to make sure that all were OK. Rock Lake had a muddy brown color and it took several days for the mud to settle. Of course the 4 camps no longer had rowboats. In the summer of 1956, new metal rowboats greeted us. I hiked down to Cochecton Turnpike, which was not much more than a gully, and route 97 with my dad’s old wind up 8mm movie camera and recorded some pictures of the damage to the roads and the old stone bridge. I have donated this movie footage to the Ten Mile River Scout Museum where it may be viewed upon request. From the Indian Cliffs, the Delaware was also brown and completely covered the Erie RR tracks on the Pennsylvania side.
We managed to limp through the final days of the 4th period and the damage was repaired for the opening of the 1956 season.