Originally published on May 11, 2021
By Andrew Harris, with my uncle William “Bill” Hendrick
Not many members of the Emerald Hook and Ladder Company are still around to tell the story of perhaps the most harrowing chapter of Wellsville NY’s long history. Surviving today are William Hendrick(my uncle), John Dean, Tom Slavin, Pat O’Connor, Jim Shine, and Dick Murphy(Dick passed away April 21, 2022). These men are still all a big part of our community, heritage, and our generational knowledge.
My uncle “Bill”, has a mind like a steel trap, with memories from the 1950’s which he can talk about like was last month. When it comes to the flood of 1972, when Hurricane Agnes stalled over the northeast and caused widespread flooding, my uncle can tell you how that disaster response happened, nearly to the hour.
It started like any other day, Wellsville was waking up and going to work. At just about 6:30 am, sticks and debris were in the roads and it was still raining. By the time his truck pulled into the Worthington(Dresser Rand), ten minutes later, he was turned around because the welding shop had flooded. The creek that runs down North Hill, through the Wellsville Country Club, had overflowed its banks into the manufacturing facility.
Hendrick drove back downtown and stopped at the ARCO station, then owned by John Dean, and water had begun flooding South Main Street. The pair walked across the street to the fire hall where volunteers were assembling and emergencies were piling up. Within hours, the parking lot behind the firehall(Tullar Field), was full of vehicles about to become casualties of the flood. “The whole parking lot was under water, probably fifty vehicles were lost to those waters”, Hendrick explained.
One of the first missions that the Emeralds embarked on was Jones Memorial Hospital, which had lost power and needed the high power lights that only the hook and ladder truck featured. The maternity ward was in full crisis mode with a baby about to be born but no lights for the doctor and nurses. The Emerald’s crew hauled the lights up the stairs just in time to assist in the delivery of a healthy newborn child.
Meanwhile the flood waters were rising and village infrastructure was crumbling. Otis Eastern and Joyce Western brought the heaviest equipment they had in an attempt to keep the Pearl Street Bridge from collapsing. Hundreds of junked vehicles were thrown over the riverbank to try and mitigate the erosion. Most of those efforts were for naught, as the bridge collapsed, half of Jones Memorial Hospital disintegrated into the river, and the Lutheran Church suffered the same fate.
In one harrowing story that could have turned out to be a major tragedy, crews were directed to take all the generators from the hospital basement before they were ruined and unusable. The Emeralds that day didn’t realize how close they came to becoming casualties of the flood. “I bet that hospital collapsed into the river ten to twenty minutes after we hauled up the last generator”, Hendrick recalls.
From that Wednesday through Saturday, most of the Emeralds slept in the firehall, which also had a courtroom at the time and the judge’s chambers. Like soldiers in a war, they took turns sleeping for a few hours before returning back to the front lines. Hundreds of flooded homes needed pumping, the many grocery stores in town needed the rotting food removed and discarded. Debris was just “like a hurricane aftermath”, with everything from dead livestock to vehicles dropped on Main Street from well up-river.
When Hendrick and other volunteers arrived at Linza’s Meat Market to help clean up, the owner fired up the charbroiler. “Let’s start cooking up those steaks and other meats in the cooler! You boys eat all you want until they are gone”, Mr. Linza told the Emeralds. Hendrick remembers calling in other crews and companies for what, at that dismal time, “was a hell of a meal”.
That sort of community support was standard fare during that great flood. At the Texas Hot, who were still able to cook without electric, electrical linemen from all over Western New York had made the iconic diner home base. As a result, any volunteer who walked in a wanted a meal was put on the expense account of the utility workers.
Hendrick recalls that, “We never paid for a meal the entire time. In fact one time myself and Bob Walsh stopped to check on the Kandy Kitchen(now Better Days), like we did for every business. The owner was a guy named “Pozzi” Snow and he walked behind the bar, grabbed a bottle of good whiskey, set it on the bar, and told us to drink all we wanted. So Bob and I took a break from the hard work and had a little party!”
While the Emeralds were able to get home for Sunday dinner, the work was far from over. The clean up was months of work and took every member of the company to do their part in the aftermath. When asked what he thought one of the biggest permanent losses Wellsville suffered was, Hendrick had a unique answer:
“The Community Pool was something that never was replaced. Looking back, that was a major loss to Wellsville.”