by Angela O’Neill-Smith
When the Spaulding Pond Dam, located in what is now Mohegan Park in Norwich, failed on March 6, 1963, allowing water, ice and mud to rush downstream toward the city, residents had to flee to safety as businesses, homes lives were tragically lost. It is a date that reminds the survivors of the event how one moment in time can change lives forever.
For one Norwich family the date also corresponds with a new beginning. Both Jim and Phyllis Moore were born and raised in Johnsonburg, Pa., a small community sustained by family farms and a local paper mill. The couple decided to leave their hometown because for Jim and many other locals the paper mill, although famed for making the paper used in printing the iconic Saturday Evening Post, was no longer designated as an ideal workplace.
The employees of the mill had been on strike for several months and, with no end in sight, Jim and Phyllis made a decision that would change their lives forever. “We moved to Connecticut because my husband wanted to take care of his family,” Phyllis said with pride as she spoke about their difficult decision to leave Pennsylvania. Phyllis also explains how Jim came to Connecticut first so he could find work. She was pregnant, expecting their third child so they decided that she and the children would join Jim in Connecticut after the baby was born and old enough to travel.
Shortly after midnight on March 6, the Moore family arrived in Norwich; it was less than 24 hours before the dam was going to unexpectedly fail.
The drive from Johnsonburg took about 18 hours. “The highways were not like they are today; we drove on mostly back roads” Phyllis said. She chuckles as she talks about the long drive with three young children and the family’s belongings in tow.
Phyllis spent her first hours in Connecticut getting settled into the family’s new home on Cliff Street. She kept busy caring for the children when Jim left to his new job; he reported to work at General Dynamics Electric Boat, in Groton. Phyllis recalls the seemingly endless, exhausting day.
The unsettled, hectic conditions left Phyllis longing for a hot bath as she unpacked, put together the family’s sleeping arrangements, and got the kids ready for bed. She said she looked forward to relaxing.
For Phyllis, the details of that night are as clear today as they were 50 years ago. As she was settling in for the first full night in their new home, enjoying her well-deserved bath the lights unexpectedly went out. Moments later the night’s silence was broken by sirens echoing through the streets. Phyllis said she knew right away the sirens were for something big. Even though she came from a small, quiet community she could sense something was different about this night.
Phyllis said she was still in the bath listening to the sirens when her husband cracked open the door. In almost a joking tone he said “Well, I guess you are in the city now.” After, Phyllis said she went to bed wondering what was in store for her and her family in a dark city with so many sirens.
The next day Jim brought Phyllis the local newspaper and together they read the stories of devastation and sadness.
In the days and weeks following one of Norwich’s most infamous dates, Jim and Phyllis spent time exploring their new community; they drove to the site of the Spaulding Pond Dam, they walked to see the areas hardest hit by the flood waters, and they watched as their new city mourned the loss of life.
Phyllis also remembers watching with pride as their new “big city” neighbors pulled together and worked in unity to heal and rebuild. Phyllis and Jim did not let the sad day in history blur their outlook.
In fact, Phyllis said although her first few days in Norwich were frightening, her 50 years since then have been more than wonderful. With a smile and a look of contentment she further affirms “I have never regretted moving to Norwich; I have had a good life here.”