In the 1950s, many Americans spent a lot of time worrying about the A-bomb. But in August 1955, it was the D-bomb that had the Lehigh Valley in its sights. The D was for Diane, a fearful tropical hurricane whose path of destruction zigzagged its way up the Atlantic coast from its birthplace off Puerto Rico. In the end, it killed 400 along the East Coast, 91 in eastern Pennsylvania and 70 in Monroe County. Property damage was in the millions, which was a lot of money for the time.
At first it seemed to people that drought and not rain was to be the big story of the summer of 1955. By mid-July, campers were being warned by state forest rangers to keep their campfires limited for fear of brush fires. But the following month, the floodgates were open. First it was Hurricane Connie, a wet blanket of a storm that on August 13th dumped from 10 to 12 inches of rain on the Lehigh Valley and regions to the north. In the absence of that modern meteorological crystal ball, aka the weather satellite, weathermen of the 1950s could only guess at Diane’s course.
The practice of naming hurricanes after women began officially in 1953. It grew out of the usage in a popular novel “Storm” published in 1941 and later filmed by Walt Disney. It was adopted informally by Army and Navy forecasters plotting the course of storms during World War II and apparently attributed to the general (male) belief that the path of a storm was fickle like female’s moods. Which may explain why on August 17, 1955, the Morning Call’s weather forecast noted that “it seems Diane is even more of a featherhead than Connie.” Diane’s approach might result in just “occasional rain…which might also lead to downpours.” Then again, “if Diane flies off the handle there is no telling where she will end up.”
That evening before signing off for the day, the U.S. Weather Bureau was forecasting that Diane would rain itself out over western Virginia. “This will be the final bulletin on this storm,” it concluded. But as the region slept, a small, low-pressure system was forming over the foothills of eastern Pennsylvania and southern New England that pulled Diane, drawing her like a magnet to the Lehigh Valley. Early risers who picked up the first editions of the August 18th paper could read the report by the Weather Bureau that noted, “Diane will continue to gradually lose force…during the next 24 hours.” At the top of the front page the forecast read, “windy with occasional rain.”
Meanwhile Diane was doing its best to make mincemeat out of that forecast by pouring rain on towns to the north and west of the Lehigh Valley. As streams overflowed the water had no place to go but into the already flood-swollen Delaware, Schuylkill, and Lehigh rivers. Tamaqua was among the first to feel Diane’s power. “The turbulent Schuylkill River, fed by waters rushing down the mountain on the north side of the community, broke the stone retaining walls,” the newspaper wrote. “Men and women screamed warnings to neighbors and raced to higher ground. Men raced to their cars, trying to drive them to safety. Some were successful, but others watched helplessly as their cars slowly disappeared down the street… One man, 42-year-old Henry Allen, was swept down from the front of his home and forced under a parked car. When they pulled his body out two hours later, he was dead.”
But an even larger tragedy was taking place at Camp Davis on the Broadhead Creek near the village of Analomink, about 5 miles north of East Stroudsburg. A religious camp, it was hosting 46 people - mothers and children- on a five week stay from the hot streets of Jersey City, New Jersey. The minister Rev. Leon Davis and his wife had gone into the nearby town to get provisions. But they discovered trying to get back that all the roads were blocked.
About 6:30 p.m. on August 18, Jennie Johnson and her three children were watching the creek flowing majestically. “We watched the stream rushing past and remarked how pretty it looked. There wasn’t anything to worry about, at least we didn’t think so then,” she later recalled. It was only a short half hour later when the bungalow they were in began to shake. The house was being torn apart by the rising flood waters. Quickly they were joined by the rest of the campers as they ran toward the big, solid, three-story Davis home. But there was no sanctuary.
Like a scene out of a horror movie, the water rose, flooding the first floor, then the second. Finally, with water still rising, they were trapped in the attic, 40 women and children screaming. Then, with a shake and a roar, the building collapsed. “It just tumbled apart like a sand-castle being hit by the ocean with the 40 of us tumbling into a jumble of water boards and other debris” said Johnson. Unconscious, Johnson bobbed to the top until she awoke in a stream full of boards. Forced onto a debris pile, she sat until 7 a.m. with a camper before being rescued. She and her 19-year-old daughter survived, but her 14-year-old son Roy and 10-year-old son David were among the dead. Weeping as she talked to a reporter, she kept repeating “if only I could have saved my boys!’’ Only nine of the 40 survived.
Other campers on Shawnee Island thought they were doomed when the rain suddenly stopped. The Delaware turned as flat as glass and then the river started to roll backward.
It seems that at the spot where the Broadhead and the Binnekill creek flowed into the Delaware, just below Shawnee Island, a remarkable thing happened: the amount of water from both creeks was so large it created a water barrier that held back, causing the Delaware to reverse itself. The campers quickly fled the island before the water roared back and flooded it.
There was no special protection for the larger communities along the Delaware. Stroudsburg and East Stroudsburg lost the two bridges linking them. The towns were full of slime and mud. Broken water mains added to the chaos. Morning Call reporter Dick Cowen was present at Clearview School in Stroud Township as bodies were placed in a refrigerated truck. One woman told him, “I can’t find my children. I just know that they are dead.” A tall, young man identified his mother’s body by her wedding ring. All along the river, towns were pulling bodies from the water.
A non-human victim at Portland, Northampton County was the 86-year-old covered bridge, the last of its kind over the Delaware. It joined the huge pile of debris headed for Easton. As an old river town, Easton was no stranger to floods. But this one was like no other up to that time. At 11:00 p.m. on August 18th, the Delaware crested at 42 feet above flood stage, 4 feet above the record flood of 1903. The next day, Easton declared a state of emergency and ordered everyone to leave. Most people did not have to be asked twice, but by 2:00 p.m. Friday it was too late, the Morning Call noted:
“White collar workers and professional men who lived in South Easton had to abandon their cars in the business district and walk over the Jersey Central Railroad trestle to the Lehigh Valley Station on the south side of the Lehigh River to get home. The alternative was a 25 mile detour through Bethlehem and south of Hellertown.”
All the debris was headed now for the Northampton Street Bridge. The flood waters surged three feet over the bridge, snapping two of the bridge’s cables. Telephone service was cut off for 1,900 people. It was the smashing of the Portland covered bridge, said the Morning Call, that tore a hole into the Northampton Street bridge’s mid-section. It was as if a giant’s pair of scissors had cut it in two. It would be two years before the bridge was finally totally repaired.
Although Allentown and Bethlehem were spared the full punch of Diane’s fury, they were not totally immune to it. Bethlehem Steel’s plant along the Lehigh river was forced to close as were the industries along the Little Lehigh Creek. Those who lived near the Hamilton Street Bridge had to be evacuated. It would be many months before the Lehigh Valley returned to anything like normal.
The Army Corps of Engineers wanted to dam the Delaware. As part of its justification for building it, the Corps used slides of the dead from Camp Davis. But after years of struggle against it by residents, including a visit to the region by U.S. Supreme Court Justice and noted conservationist William O. Douglas, this Tocks Island Dam was never built.
But other actions tied to Hurricane Diane led to significant changes to the Pocono region. The building of interstate highways opened up the region to real estate and tourism, changing it forever from the relatively rustic rural place it was in 1955.