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A Giant landslide

Residents of Keene Valley, St. Huberts recall 1963 landslides that changed the face of Giant Mountain

July 30, 2011
By CHRIS KNIGHT - Senior Staff Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

ST. HUBERTS - Peggy Varney will never forget the day her sister Ann got married. It's also a day that many residents of St. Huberts and Keene Valley remember well.

But not because of the wedding.

June 29, 1963 is remembered more for what happened after Ann Russ and Dick Lee exchanged vows at the Keene Valley Congregational Church, when a sudden and intense deluge of rain triggered a series of massive landslides down the slopes of Giant Mountain.

Article Photos

Nancy and Day Lee stand on the porch steps of the summer home in St. Huberts where they sheltered campers and motorists who were stranded after a series of massive landslides came off Giant Mountain on June 29, 1963. The pewter mug sitting on the post was given to the Lees by members of the Alpine Club of Canada’s Toronto Section, “In Memory of the Great Flood.”
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

Unlike the slow and destructive slide that's been moving for the past two months down the side of Little Porter Mountain in nearby Keene Valley, this dramatic and powerful series of landslides took place in a matter of minutes.

When it was over, a slurry of mud, trees and rocks several feet deep coated a 400-yard section of state Route 73; cars and tents at a popular camping area were buried in mud; at least 40 motorists were stranded on the road between two of the landslides; and a 15-foot-deep gash opened up in the highway the following morning. The violent slides also rerouted a scenic waterfall and changed the look of Giant Mountain's upper reaches for decades to come.


'Incredible noise'

Varney, who was 20 at the time, said she and other members of the wedding party were driving back to her family's home on the AuSable Club Road in St. Huberts late that Saturday afternoon. They were returning from the wedding reception, and her sister and new brother-in-law were planning to leave town that night for their honeymoon.

That's when "the heavens opened up," Varney said.

"It poured. It rained so hard that we were creeping along at about two or three miles per hour and just couldn't see," she said. "We finally all got back to the house here, but we couldn't get out of the car because it was just pouring so hard. Then, this noise, this incredible noise, this banging, crashing and grinding noise started to occur, and the ground started to shake."

Not wanting to ruin their satin dresses, the ladies undressed in the car, ran inside in their underwear and bare feet, put on shorts, T-shirts and shoes, and ran back outside. Varney said they wanted to find out what was happening and "tore off" through the woods headed for Beede (Putnam) Brook.

"The ground was still shaking, and we could see why because there were boulders, dirt and trees coming down the brook and banging into things," Varney said.

Further up the road, cars had pulled over because the highway was flooded with a blanket of debris. The trailhead parking area by Roaring Brook Falls and a nearby meadow where people had been camping was also filling up with mud. Campers had fled for higher ground.

"Roaring Brook was roaring," Varney said. "The bridge there had become a dam with all the tree trunks hitting it, and it flooded all of that parking area. The cars were up to their windows in mud. Further into the campsites, all the tents, the pots and the pans - everything was under mud."

Varney said they told some of the campers and people who were stranded on the road to come up to their house until things calmed down.

"My sister and her husband, during all of this, they kept saying, 'We're going, we're going (on their honeymoon),'" Varney said. "But nobody was paying any attention."


'Smelled like a sawmill'

While Peggy Varney and the rest of the wedding party were sitting in their cars, waiting for the rain to stop, Nancy Lee, her husband Day and their two children were relaxing inside their home in St. Huberts, located just down a dirt road from the trailhead parking area. They had also attended the wedding that day.

"We had changed our clothes, sat down and were having a gin and tonic when suddenly the whole house began to shake," Nancy Lee said. "The ice in the glasses was rattling. We went out on the porch and there was this great whooshing noise. That's when this mud just came oozing up our driveway and onto our front lawn."

Day Lee went back into the house and put on his fishing waders. The couple knew there were people camping in the meadow, so Day ran through the mud to tell them they could come to their house for shelter.

"Anybody who had a car in there had no car," Nancy said. "One car was completely swept away into the road and totally demolished. The rest, the mud was up over their hubcaps. The place smelled like a sawmill, from all the trees that were broken off and the limbs that came down."

A 10-foot-wide section of Route 73 collapsed around 6 a.m. the following morning, Nancy recalled.

"I was up and I saw it go," she said. "There was a horrendous noise and this whole 15-foot deep gash of road just disappeared."


'It was running brown'

Tony Goodwin was coming back from dinner with his parents in Keene that night when they noticed the AuSable River was choked with debris.

"It was running brown," he said. "When you see that kind of muddy water, you know a slide has come down somewhere."

But it wasn't until the next morning, when the Goodwins stepped out onto the porch of their Keene Valley cottage and gazed up at Giant Mountain, that they realized the extent of what had happened.

"The first person who got up walked to the front of the house, and all of a sudden there was this, 'Holy cow! You better come take a look at this!'" said Goodwin, who was 13 at the time. "Pretty soon we were all standing on the front porch marveling at all this new, exposed rock. I think it's safe to say that every slide you see on Giant now came down on that one night."

Six new major slides had been exposed on the west side of the mountain, all a half-mile in length and between 50 and 1,000 feet wide, Goodwin later wrote in a 1982 Adirondack Life article. New slides were also carved on the east, southeast, northeast and northwest faces of Giant.

Goodwin said he and his father, Jim Goodwin, got a closer look later that day at the damage the Roaring Brook landslide wrought.

"It totally blocked Route 73 with several feet of silt, gravel and trees that all came down," he said. "There were trees piled up in that Roaring Brook parking lot and up to the base of Roaring Brook Falls. There were vehicles that were pushed off the road and buried up to their roofs."

Amazingly, no one was killed or seriously injured.


Violent storm

While only a quarter inch of rain fell on Keene Valley that day, a report filed later with the U.S. Weather Bureau by Richard Lawrence Jr. of Elizabethtown estimated that at least six inches had drenched Giant due to a highly localized thunderstorm. All that water saturated the thin soil of the mountain and provided the lubrication needed to set the landslides in motion.

During a 90-minute period when the rain was falling the hardest, some 2,500 cubic feet of water per second was flowing out of the cirque on Giant's western face, a flow that Goodwin, in his Adirondack Life article, said was equal to 1/100th of that of the St. Lawrence River.

At one point, the slides that reached the head of Roaring Brook formed temporary dams, which, when they broke, "further increased the violence of the flood which swept down the valley, over the falls and across the road," Goodwin wrote, citing Lawrence's report.

Newspaper articles from the time say seven cars were damaged, some half-buried or swamped by water and others caved in by boulders or trees. Another 40 cars, many filled with summer tourists, were stranded for about five hours between two landslides that hit Route 73 - the Roaring Brook slide and another that came down near Chapel Pond.


A party atmosphere

Nancy Lee said they ended up hosting 28 people that night at their home and her mother-in-law's house next door. Many of the campers were members of the Toronto section of the Canadian Alpine Club. One was a former railroad engineer named Harold Rehm, who was camping with his grandson.

"He lost all of his possessions - even his glasses had come off when he was running out of the meadow," Lee said. "He was very frustrated. My husband gave him a beer and said 'Sit by the fire and enjoy your beer, things will be OK.' But it didn't help a whole lot."

Some of the campers drove back to Toronto the next day in a car that somehow escaped damage. Others stayed to dig out their pup tents, camping gear and cars.

"They hung around, slept on the porch in their sleeping bags and I fed them," Lee said. "The Canadians were just such good sports about it. There was almost a party atmosphere about this whole event."

Even Harold Rehm lightened up, Lee said, after her son found his glasses hanging on a tree branch. They also found Rehm's ice chest, which was filled with beer.

"Harold clanged the cow bell and everybody came running," Lee said. "He passed around his beer for everybody."

It was several days before the collapsed section of the highway at Roaring Brook was repaired and Route 73 was reopened to traffic. Nancy Lee said people in Keene Valley pressed to get the work done before the July 4 holiday weekend.

"The state had it opened on July 3, which was pretty amazing," she said.

About a week later, Goodwin said he and his father hiked up to Roaring Brook Falls and noticed that the landslide had forced the brook to jump its course into the Putnam Brook valley.

"He called up the Conservation Department and told Bill Petty, the director at the time, what had happened," Goodwin said. "Bill Petty said, 'That's a famous landmark, we can't allow that to dry up.' Within a week there was a crew of rangers from all over the Park that were called in and they built a log crib that put Roaring Brook back into the valley of Roaring Brook. That cribbing is still there."


A gift

"It was definitely a wedding to remember," Varney said with a laugh. "There are so many weddings that you go to, but this one was unique."

Varney said her sister and brother-in-law eventually left for their honeymoon a day late. Ann Russ and Dick Lee, who have since passed away, eventually settled in Michigan and were together "for many, many years," Varney said.

Nancy Lee, no relation to Dick Lee, said she and her husband have stayed in contact with some of the people they sheltered after the landslides. They also have something else to remember it by.

"When we came back up the following June, there was a box on the back porch," she said. "We opened up the box and inside was a pewter mug, and engraved on the mug, it said 'Canadian Alpine Club, Toronto Section, in Memory of the Great Flood.' We still have it. It's right on our mantle piece where everybody can see it."



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