Monday, July 11, 2022

Big Flats and the 1972 Flood

 by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

1972 was going to be Big Flats’ year! It was the 150th anniversary of the town’s founding and they had big plans. There were events scheduled throughout the year including a historic fashion show, town reunion, baking contest, art show, canoe race, antique show, and massive birthday party. The highlight of the whole thing was to be the Big Flats Diamond Jubilee three-day extravaganza from June 22nd through the 24th. The first night, Thursday the 22nd, would start with an evening carnival at the Community Park. The next day would feature a firematics event, plus concerts and square dancing. Saturday was to be a massive parade featuring floats from every community organization in the town. Too bad Hurricane Agnes had to come and ruin everything.

Big Flats Jubilee button, 1972

The rain from Hurricane Agnes started late in the night on June 21st and it just kept coming. By the 23rd, the entire hamlet of Big Flats, plus large swaths of the more rural portions of the town along the Chemung River were under water. Nearly 3,000 residents were forced out of their homes into shelters at schools in neighboring Horseheads. To make matters, two ruptured oil tanks in the hamlet of Big Flats spilled a half-million gallons of gasoline into the flood waters. As the waters receded, crews from Sun Oil, Arco, and Gulf attempted to remove the fuel, but it wasn’t until June 28th that the fire department declared that the threat of explosions had passed and allowed residents back in. Hundreds of homes were damaged. James A. Markell’s home on Olcott Road was entirely swept off it’s foundation. An additional five homes had to be razed by the town due to structural damage.  

Canal Street in the Hamlet of Big Flats, June 23, 1972

Big Flats farmers were hit hard. Bill Smith, a State Senator with a dairy farm on Rt. 352, lost 18 of his 75 animals, plus 200 acres of corn, 20 tons of hay, and 10 tons of cow feed. The family had managed to move most of their furniture to the second floor Thursday night and had to be rescued by boat out of a third floor window Friday morning. All told, Chemung County farmers lost $3.5 million in crops and livestock. Thanks to that oil spill, some 4,016 acres of land in Big Flats, Southport, Ashland, and Chemung all showed signs of contamination, rendering them unusable for planting for years to come. Even without the spill, the flood washed away between 6 inches and, in some places near the river, three feet of once-fertile top soil, meaning even uncontaminated farms would struggle come spring. 

Smith farm in Big Flats from the air, June 23, 1972

Big Flats from the air, June 23, 1972

 The oil also polluted people’s drinking wells. In a recent interview with Big Flats resident Gloria Dick, she recalled that her family had been lucky enough to have a well fed by a spring which came down off a hill behind their house. As one of the few homes with safe drinking water, they kept their neighbors supplied. They weren’t the only ones helping. Teens from YES (Youth Emergency Services) under the auspices of Corning Glass Works cleaned flood mud from homes throughout Big Flats. 

As for Big Flats Diamond Jubilee? It was postponed until September, but folks still had a pretty good time. The real tragedy was the town’s planned history book, 150 Years: Big Flats, New York by Mrs. Samuel Farr. The first run of 2,000 copies had finished printing at 4pm on June 22nd and was ready for sale at the Jubilee, only for the flood to destroy all but 700 copies. To make matters worse, the original manuscript, plus all the original photos, maps, and drawings used in the book were lost, meaning there could be no second edition. 

Town leaders had hoped to make 1972 a year to remember. It was. Just not the way they hoped.

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