Urban White Water
Paddling season came early to Auburn back in 1936.
Every year Mainers yearn for spring and the waterborne joys it brings with it, but no one in Auburn expected to drag out their canoes quite so early back in 1936. Yet paddles proved far more useful than the submerged Chevies parked just left of center when the Androscoggin River began rising quickly on March 19.
Seventeen snowstorms without a single thaw were followed by a soaking rain that released several ice jams, inundating the Twin Cities. Boats of every size and shape, including the canoe steered by the two unidentified gents shown in this dramatic photograph, were launched as residents of the Shoe City attempted to rescue people trapped in their homes and salvage whatever businesses items they could. "I could hear the swelling waters of the Androscoggin River, which was on a rampage such as I had never seen," recalls John Robinson in an account published in the Lewiston Journal. "I was allowed to help in the removing of supplies from Anderson and Briggs drug store. Most of us were a high school crowd, and even in all the excitement we stopped to mix some carbonated drinks. A few minutes later we fervently wished we had not because someone thoughtfully informed us that the carbonator was under the river water." Indeed, residents of both cities were urged to boil water to prevent typhoid.
In this scene a crowd has formed, at upper left, where police have cordoned off Main Street near the round-roofed Puritan Chevrolet Company's showroom and the Maine Hotel, yet three distinguished local men have been allowed into the flood zone to survey the damage. The Hitchcock-looking fellow standing amid the fallen branches and ice cakes at right is Horace E. Munroe, whose family had built a small fortune in the local shoe industry. Joining him in front of the Mechanics Savings Bank building are John Merrill and John Cartwright, two prominent Auburn residents. Merrill and Cartwright seem pleased to mug for the camera, but Munroe's gaze is focused squarely on the North Bridge to see if it, like the South Bridge, would fall to the raging Androscoggin and thus sever the city's connection to Lewiston. Though planks were ripped from the bridge's deck and its underpinnings damaged, the fifty-year-old structure survived a whopping 212,000 cubic feet per second of water until the river receded to its normal level of 30,000 cfs.
Remarkably, despite causing $150,000 in damage and leaving two thousand families temporarily homeless, the flood of 1936 claimed no lives in Auburn. For some people living along the Androscoggin, though, the flood was especially demoralizing as many had only just finished rebuilding the homes and businesses lost during a blaze three years earlier that practically leveled New Auburn. Still, if the smiles on these paddlers' faces are any indication, Auburn residents were already well on their way to overcoming whatever adversity a Maine spring could throw at them.
- By: Joshua F. Moore