New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Fredericton’s Great Flood of 1936

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Fredericton’s Great Flood of 1936

The Fredericton area is no stranger to spring flooding, and the flood of 1973 is often cited as the worst on record. In fact, the flood of 1973 was the worst open water event, but there was another flood that was made more damaging by an ice jam at Fredericton, and that was in March of 1936. Furthermore, the flooding of 1936 was not just a local or Saint John River event, but was caused by a weather system that ravaged all of the northeast United States, the Maritime Provinces and Quebec.

The winter of 1935-36 had been cold, and there was more than the normal amount of snow. A warm storm front then moved in during the second week of March, before the usual spring thaw, bringing warm temperatures and heavy rain over a wide area. As much as seven inches of rain fell in parts of Maine and this was in addition to the effects of snow-melt and the damming effect of the ice jams. At least one dam was heavily damaged on the Connecticut River. Much of this damage occurred between March 11 and 13.

Another warm weather storm system moved in a few days later, and some areas that had seen as much as seven inches of rain then received another ten inches. By this time, ice jams had cleared in most of Maine and southern New England and the result was flooding without the added effect of ice jams. Conditions were similar in New Brunswick and Quebec, but the ice jams had not all broken. The overall effect of these floods was greater than had been seen before, and nothing like it has been seen since.

By March 20th, 160 lives had been lost and 40 other people were missing in the United States, and President Roosevelt declared a state of emergency. The news reporting was frantic, and there were projections that as many as 1,000 people might eventually be lost. Sand bags were placed around the Washington monument, and the whole area between there and the Lincoln Memorial was threatened. A newspaper declared that “No less than 104 cities in 14 states reported themselves flooded, with essential services crippled or altogether stopped,” and “Unless it stops raining there is every danger that the great part of New England will be completely devastated.”

The damage through the Saint Lawrence River valley was severe. Many bridges were lost, including one on the main highway between Montreal and Quebec. A boy drowned in Verdun, south of Montreal, and hundreds of homes were damaged between there and the eastern townships. Displaced families numbered in the hundreds and the number of people must have been in the thousands.

An electrical plant at Drummondville was forced out of service, and dams failed at other locations. Businesses had to close for lack of power. Police patrolled the streets in rowboats in Saint-Hyacinthe.

The flooding in Fredericton was worse than had ever been experienced, and it was also the earliest date at which flooding had occurred. The flood was made all the worse by an ice jam, and on the night of March 19/20, 1936, the jam broke and tons of ice were thrown against the C.N.R. bridge. This bridge had been opened in 1888 by John A. Macdonald. The spans were old-fashioned pin-connected trusses with I-bar tension members, and the spans were therefore very light. All nine spans were easily tossed into the river and destroyed, at an estimated loss of $1,500.000. This cut off rail service from Fredericton to Newcastle and Moncton. The ice jam then re-formed between Sheffield and Burton, and 150 square miles of land was flooded.

CNR bridge FrederictonThe C.N.R. bridge at Fredericton, just prior to its collapse.

Most of the Fredericton business district was flooded, including Queen Street from St. John Street to Waterloo Row. The legislature was surrounded by water and it was expected that the Legislators would have to access the building by rowboat. The water rose at least a foot higher than in 1973, and there is a marker on the Assembly building attesting to this. Cellars were flooded and some people had to move to upper floors. Brunswick Street was under water as was an area from York to Westmorland and back to Argyle Street and the southern portion of Victoria Street.

1936 Carleton BrunswickCorner of Carleton and Brunswick Streets, March 19, 1936. N.B. Provincial Archives.

Damage around New Brunswick was extensive. There were ice jams all along the Saint John River from Long Reach upward to the Tobique and the Green River. The Oromocto River, the Nackawic Stream and other tributaries also developed ice jams, and many bridges and some dams were lost, including highway bridges at Bailey, Blissville and Hoyt. Edmundston was isolated for a while, and there was as much as fifteen feet of water over some railway tracks. Railway tracks at other locations disappeared altogether, having been washed out. Telephone lines were destroyed and many people were forced from their homes, including on the flats at Woodstock.

There were several ice jams on the Miramichi River, and two large farms were flooded out on the Little Southwest Miramichi. Bridges were damaged and dynamite was used to break ice jams. Newcastle were flooded for days. Town employees worked to keep the drainage systems clear in Campbellton. In Charlotte County, the Magaguadavic River was described as “being on the rampage at Bonny River and Second Falls.”

So, that is my description of a regional weather event, which created the highest flood waters ever observed in Fredericton, and ravaged other vast areas of North America.


Written by johnwood1946

August 12, 2015 at 2:33 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Well researched……. Wonderful read

    Claudia saint pierre

    August 15, 2015 at 2:34 AM

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