A Quiet Reflection
Reflecting on tragedy is never easy. Especially when so many lives are adversely impacted by the event.
Yet, few other moments in history have so profoundly affected the place and the people of the Southern Finger Lakes as the natural disaster known to locals as “The Flood” which occurred fifty years ago, yet ripples still through the fabric of time. Lives, hopes, dreams forever altered.
The catastrophe also revealed an undeniable resilience and deep sense of community that allowed much of the area to gradually rebuild and, for some towns, to become even more than they had been.
The intention of this reflection is one of reverence. And heart-felt remembrance.
June of 1972 started like most summers in the Finger Lakes, full of birdsong and sunshine and sky-filled echoes of jubilation as children anticipated the approaching freedom of summer.
In most instances, natural disasters happening in other parts of the world seem like surreal stories unfolding on the television and this was no different, as news flashed across screens in most upstate New York living rooms about a hurricane approaching Florida.
Agnes, as she was called, was only briefly classified as a hurricane and was downgraded to a Tropical Storm, but the rains took an unusual inland journey, covering parts of the country in torrents until those thick gray clouds stalled over northern Pennsylvania and Southern New York where they remained for four days pummeling the region with an incessant onslaught of water.
Lives were lost. A tragedy beyond words. Businesses were ruined. Homes were taken from their foundations, while others were submerged, some to the second floor. To this day you will find around town markers indicating how high the waters got as rivers transformed into seas of rooftops.
What followed was the mud. The shoveling of basements, of downtown shops. Museums, churches, schools couldn’t escape the damage. What followed was the loss. An inescapable sense of what was missing. For nothing would ever be the same.
Revitalization and Resilience
Not every small town or rural community has a Fortune 500 company headquartered there. And not every Fortune 500 company has such an unbreakable connection and devotion to its home. Corning was blessed with both and over the years since ’72, the company has quietly helped revive the town from which it takes its name, so much so that the Historic District has become a model of downtown revitalization for other communities throughout the country.
Historic facades, brick sidewalks and old time street lamps, a thriving hive of shops and restaurants and galleries all exuding life and a palpable energy. People come just to feel it.
Revitalization is about much more than money, of course. It’s also about the people. Neighbors who lent a hand. In some instances offering shelter, in others literally remaking homes and shops. But let’s not forget the hope some shared with others. The inspiration many of those who lost the most provided, as they got up and continued on.
A few towns haven’t quite gotten over what was taken away, what was washed away, as factories closed and Main Street shops that were boarded up never reopened. But one thing about living in such a remarkable place, those communities and those people offer so much to others that they don’t often see themselves. Farms producing quality food, artisans sharing their unique views of the world, humble folk who smile and extend generosity to those who pass through.
And maybe it is, in part, because of what they’ve been through that they do so. For they know deep down the moment at hand is such a precious thing. And the most important gift they can offer is that smile, that friendly reminder to enjoy. Listen to birdsong and the joy of children calling out. Feel the warmth of the sun. Savor the majestic landscape and time in the great outdoors.
During your encounters here in Corning, consider yourself lucky if you happen to cross paths with a young historian in training (and possible future weather forecaster), seventh-grader Alex Nichols, who at age 13 has extensively researched Hurricane Agnes and "The Flood" which happened decades before he was born. It seems his grandmother shared some old newspaper clippings of the event and Alex was hooked.
"The thing I find most interesting (more like unbelievable)," says Alex, "is that our rivers could fill up and overflow the way they did. It's so hard to imagine looking at our rivers right now, that that ever really happened." He adds that the biggest difference from back then to today is "the dam that was put in after the flood. This has made it so that our area has never had to go through another devastating flood like in 1972. On June 23, 1972, the river crested at 25.2 feet and had a streamflow of 235,000 cubic feet per seconds (cfs). The dam has made it so this has never happened again. The highest it has ever gotten since 1972 is on January 20, 1996 when the river crested at 18.51 feet with a streamflow of 71,000 (cfs). This was after some really warm temperatures following the blizzard of 1996."
The impact of The Flood on locals was both immediate and long-lasting, visible and invisible, devastating yet met with hope, determination, and an indomitable spirit that has helped the community thrive.
You can learn more about the flood and see more of the visible and tangible effects in the book The 1972 Flood in New York's Southern Tier by local historian Kirk House for sale with other local history books at Heritage Village, as well as through several online retailers. There's also a PBS documentary Agnes: The Flood of '72.
Folks like Kirk and Alex keep the memory of what this area was like before Hurricane Agnes stormed through the region and they pay homage to the tragic events, to the lives that were lost and those that were forever changed. But it's important, too, to recognize the concerted efforts that were made by people from all stations of life: from the unemployed to CEOs, from local residents to folks from neighboring towns to complete strangers from far and wide.
When you visit Corning today, you'll find a tranquil river peacefully flowing through the heart of town which, in some ways belies its historical significance both in establishing the town and in nearly washing it away. But the river is also a symbol of the very essence of the people you'll find there, always moving forward, finding their way, regardless of the obstacles in their path.
Commemorative Events in Corning 50 Years Later
(the events below are taking place in Corning and elsewhere June 2022)
Guided Memorial River Paddle
June 4th - 5th
Chemung River Friends
Saturday, June 4th
Meet at Bottcher’s Landing Boat Launch (leave cars)
Bus to Conhocton Street Boat Launch
Paddle Conhocton Street to Bottcher’s Landing (7-mile Float)
(Maximum 50 paddlers)
* the day will end with a box lunch and “informal environmental education panel discussion for adults, and fun environmental program for kids at Bottcher’s Landing Boat Launch.”
Sunday, June 5th
Meet at Grove Street Boat Launch (leave cars)
Bus to Bottcher’s Landing Boat Launch
Paddle Bottcher’s Landing to Grove Street (9-mile Float)
Post Paddle Celebration (food vendors)
(Maximum 50 paddlers)
* the day will end with a “concert from the Cantata Singers, an art performance by Link Movement, and Los Panchos Food Truck at Grove Street Boat Launch.”
Please Note: You MUST Register/get Tickets for the day(s) you wish to paddle. Click the TICKET link to register for your paddling day(s) and purchase your ticket(s). Tickets: chemungriverfriends.org/wp/event/agnes-flood-memorial-paddle
Reused Restored Rethought: Glass After the 1972 Chemung River Flood
June 18th, 2022-May 2023
Gather Gallery (at The Corning Museum of Glass)
During Museum Hours
In the early hours of June 23, 1972, heavy rain from Tropical Storm Agnes caused the Chemung River to overflow its banks and break through its dams, flooding the city of Corning in nine feet of water.
In this exhibition, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the flood, the Junior Curators consider how glass survived the disaster, revealing not only the fragility of the objects, the community, and the Museum, but also their surprising resilience.
This is a special exhibit created by the museum’s Junior Curators.
Learn more here.
50th Anniversary Agnes Flood Commemoration
June 23rd, 2022
Heritage Village of the Southern Finger Lakes
The event will feature a 70’s theme with live music and food vendors along with the opening of a special exhibition (see below), featured artists, and a lantern ceremony on the river at the end of the event. Local historian Kirk House will be on hand with his book, The 1972 Flood in New York's Southern Tier.
Special Exhibition: The exhibition at Heritage Village will include artifacts, stories, and a commemoration of the events of the flood, with a focus on ways the Corning community came together to build back better. Space will also be available for visitors to share their own stories of the Agnes flood and other memories of overcoming devastating events, and artworks made by local artists which were inspired by the events of the Agnes flood. The exhibition is expected to be on view from June 23rd to September 5th (Labor Day).
The event is intended to honor the lives lost and to acknowledge the resilience of the community in the face of such a profound tragedy.