This is the fifth and final in a series of retrospective articles on the 50th anniversary of the Town of Hay River, which was incorporated in 1963.
Imagine waking up in your bed, stretching vigorously and going downstairs for breakfast. With a warm bowl of porridge in hand, you look out the window to see what the weather is like. The last thing you might expect to see are houses being swept away by water. Yet, that’s exactly what Vale Island residents witnessed 50 years ago this week, during the worst flood in Hay River’s history.
The local newspaper at the time, Tapwe, reported the events despite having its offices flooded as a result of the Hay River breakup.
“The Hay River angrily tore this island community adrift Wednesday in an unprecedented flood from which the town has not yet recovered,” the newspaper stated on the front page of its May 3 issue.
According to the paper, a force of water built up behind a 12-mile-long ice jam just above the town. When the ice jam burst, the flood hit the island at approximately 7:40 a.m. on May 1.
The damage was extensive and beyond most people’s comprehension. Houses were upside down, boats floated aimlessly in the streets and telephone poles were down.
The CBC Mackenzie network went off the air as did the telegraph, telephone and microwave communication. The airstrip was under water and the causeway link to the Mackenzie Highway had been washed out in two places.
Hay River was on its own and badly in need of assistance.
“Fort Smith and Yellowknife were slow in realizing the seriousness of the situation in Hay River, but by Wednesday morning were rallying to provide food, blankets, clothing, cigarettes and other supplies to the stricken town,” Tapwe reported.
About 120 people were evacuated to Yellowknife within a week and more than 400 went to Fort Smith.
More than 700 Vale Island residents gathered into the Federal Day School, which had not flooded. Jim DeLancey was one of them, as he and his family lived near the school.
He remembers the flood well, since he was 15 years old at the time.
“Every year breakup was such a big deal,” he said. “They used to have this contest where they’d put this clock on a pedestal out on the ice and you could buy tickets to guess the exact moment when the breakup would take place.”
To help mitigate the damage caused by the annual breakup, town officials would also use snowmobiles to go out on the ice, drill holes and place dynamite in them. That ice would get pushed into Great Slave Lake.
In 1963, however, the ice formed a dam across the mouth of the river, and the water kept coming.
DeLancey said he can remember looking out his window and seeing houses rolling across the nearby baseball diamond.
There were fears of a typhoid outbreak in the community, so a supply of anti-typhoid vaccine was flown in by helicopter.
In its May 10 issue, Tapwe reported a survey of 100 households revealed that 97 of them favoured moving the town to the mainland.
Mayor Red McBryan wired the assistant deputy minister of Northern Affairs the results. Meanwhile, the Salvation Army had set up a co-ordination centre in a warehouse near the RCMP building and returning families could obtain food and clothing there.
A few weeks later, Tapwe asked L. Norman Smith, the editor of The Ottawa Journal, for his thoughts on the damage.
“Fifteen days after the flood, huts, offices and houses stood drunkenly hung over, perhaps two blocks from their proper moorings,” said Smith.
Flood damage was assessed at $615,000, according to the Commissioner of the Northwest Territories at the time, Gordon Robertson.
“It was a horrendous thing that happened, but the thing that sticks out to me is how people came together to help each other out,” said DeLancey. “It was a major emergency operation and people were travelling all over the island in their boats, helping others. Everyone pulled together and there was such a sense of community.”