Monday, June 22, 2020

Tales from a Flooded Hotel

by Erin Doane, Curator

On Wednesday, June 21, 1972, the rains from Hurricane Agnes began to fall on the Twin Tiers. By the next day, the Chemung River was at 15 feet in Elmira, local creeks were overflowing, and people all throughout the region had begun evacuating their homes. On June 23, the river overtopped the dikes in Elmira and surged through the city’s streets, submerging businesses and homes under feet of turbulent, muddy water. Local first responders and the National Guard rushed to evacuate hospitals and rescue as many people as possible from the raging flood waters. Through it all, the Mark Twain Hotel in downtown Elmira became a refuge, but not everyone got out alive.

Aerial view of Elmira, June 1972
The Mark Twain Hotel turned into an island as flood waters rose and was cut off from the outside world. Reports in the Star-Gazette estimated that there were 1,500 to 1,700 people who had fled to the hotel, but no one seemed to know who sent them there as it was not a designated evacuation site. The truth was that there were only 194 people at the hotel during the flooding including employees, registered guests, and people who sought shelter at the hotel as flooding intensified.

Roseanne M. Whitted and Nancy Rios were both working at the Mark Twain Hotel during the Flood of 1972. Our archive has an oral history recording of them telling about that time. Roseanne remembered working in the Connecticut Yankee Lounge in the hotel and repeatedly checking to see if the flood waters were rising. “We were basically going to the Grey Street entrance not thinking of the North Main Street entrance where the water would come in first.  Then when that appeared it was like ‘Oh, my G-d!’” When the water started coming inside, patrons helped her start moving things out of the lounge and upstairs to protect them from the rising flood.

Both Roseanne and Nancy lived at the hotel as part of their compensation for working there and so they became stranded with the rest of the guests when downtown went under water. Nancy recalled that they did not get evacuated because it wasn’t considered necessary. “We felt safe the whole time that we were there,” she said. Since the power was out, all the food in the big refrigerators and freezers in the hotel had to be cooked. Fortunately, there were gas burners in the kitchen so that could be done, and it gave guests and staff fresh food to eat on top of the supply of C-rations that were delivered to the hotel by boat. They spent a lot of time playing cards, hanging out in the lobby, and conversing with the guests because there was nothing else to do.

View down Gray Street toward the Mark Twain Hotel as the flood raged
Among the guests stranded at the Mark Twain Hotel was an Eastern League baseball team, Three Rivers, that had been schedules to play against the Elmira Pioneers on Saturday, June 23. (An amusing side-note: the game appeared with other Easter League scores in the newspaper as “Three Rivers at Elmira, rain.” Dunn Field was actually under water.) When the flood waters washed through Bern Furniture, which was across Main Street from the Hotel, the players and umpires grabbed furniture as it floated by and pulled it into the hotel to save it. One table still had a plastic floral arrangement on it as it rode the current across the street. After the waters receded, the team had to wait for a tow truck to come and pull their bus out of the three feet of mud into which it had sunk while parked beside the hotel.

Others, who weren’t already guests at the hotel, went to it to take refuge from the rising waters. 25-year-old Richard Wein of Williamsport, Pennsylvania checked into the hotel with his wife and two young children after a harrowing experience. While fleeing from their home, their car got caught in flood waters. Richard was able to get his family onto higher ground but had to abandon their car. They hitchhiked to Elmira where they found shelter at the Mark Twain Hotel.

Edward M. McNulty and his wife Edna check into the hotel at 3:30am on June 23 to escape the impending flood.  Just two and a half hours later, Edward suffered a heart attack and died in their room. Edward was a well-respected man in the community and served as executive director of the Chemung County Council of Alcoholism. He was 62 years old. At 8:00am that same morning, the dikes overtopped, and the hotel was surrounded by raging waters. Everyone became trapped inside, including Edna and her dearly departed husband. It was not until the next day when the flood waters receded that they were able to leave.  

All those who had been holed up at the Mark Twain Hotel during the flood were sent on their way as soon as possible. Even those who had been living and working there like Roseanne and Nancy were forced to leave as the devastated city went into lockdown and a curfew was put in place. Cleaning and repairs to the hotel began almost immediately as the building was to continue serving as a refuge for those affected by the flood. The Federal Housing and Urban Development Agency (HUD) leased the second and third floors of the hotel to be used as homes for displaced flood victims over the age of 60. The senior housing officially opened just one month after the flood on July 24, 1972.

Mark Twain Hotel, 1974

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