Foster Street, May 1954; police officer is Peter Katsarakes

On May 16, 1954, around 6:30pm, the 60-foot rock and dirt dam at Eastman Gelatine Corp. (now Rousselot) burst. It sent a flash flood down Foster Street; eventually the water reached parts of Peabody Square and Central Street.

At its peak, the water was 6 feet deep, as the water converged with brooks downtown, like the Goldthwaite Brook. A heavy rainy period two weeks before the dam break made matters worse. In the end, 38,000,000 gallons of water were dumped into downtown.

Foster Street in the immediate aftermath of the flood, 1954

Rescuers, May 1954, Lowell Street, see Klemm’s Bakery in background

In order to rescue those in the flood waters, many took to the streets in small boats and canoes. The Coast Guard also assisted with their amphibious (“duck”) vehicles. 150 people were evacuated from the downtown area, some of whom were also rescued via helicopter.

May 1954, Lowell Street, see Lalime’s Garage in background

Peabody schools were closed until May 19th. 50 local leather factories were closed temporarily due to damage, leaving many uncertain about their jobs. For days after, all water needed to be boiled before it could be consumed.

Children played in the waters, initially unaware that the waters had industrial waste in it, as well as water from sewer overflow. The district’s health officer, Dr. Walter Pennell, was genuinely concerned for a dysentery outbreak, which luckily did not come to pass.

Photograph by Ray Wallman, Central Street, 1954

The Federal Government offered small business and personal loans up to $10,000 for those who had lost property and building damage in the affected areas. The Commonwealth provided the City of Peabody $70,000 to shore-up existing dams and clear 4,000 feet of local waterways. Both the City of Peabody and Eastman Gelatine were sued by local businesses, who had lost so much in the flood. Ultimately, Eastman Gelatine settled with the claimants for $350,000 on February 8, 1957, after years of litigation.

Aerial Photograph by Howard Stier, May 1954, showing scope of flood damage

This postcard was inspired by a recent donation of a large scrapbook on the 1954 flood from Robert Langley.

References – Peabody Flood Coverage:

The Salem Evening News, May 17-29, 1954, June 10, 1954, July 22, 1954, August 21, 1954, December 10, 1954, September 6, 1956

The Salem Sunday Express, May 23, 1954

The Peabody Times, May 20, 1954, July 22, 1954, February 7, 1957

The Boston Herald, May 17-22, 1954

The Boston Daily Record, May 17-20, 1954

The Boston Globe, March 6, 1957