The Devastating Floods of 1996

On January 19, 1996, the Ausable Chasm sustained devastating damages from record high flood waters and massive ice dams.  It was believed at the time to have been a “one-hundred year event.”

Temperatures rose that day from a crisp 20ºF to 75ºF in just 12 hours.   This shockwave of heat rapidly melted several feet of accumulated snow in the mountains and 18 inches of local ground snow.  Rain began to fall in record amounts, contributing to the massive runoff.

These thundering flood waters and mammoth ice blocks tore through the chasm, destroying much of its infrastructure. Trees as tall as 60 feet were uprooted and swept downstream.  Trailers at a campground a few miles upstream were broken up like toys and swept along by the mighty torrent of waters rushing through the Chasm.

Steel bridges as long as 70 feet were torn from their foundations and sent crashing into the cliffs of the chasm, coming to rest on the bottom of the river beneath tons of debris.  Steel hand rails were ripped out of the stone walkways, many parts of which no trace has yet been found. President Clinton declared that the Chasm was a Federal Disaster Site.

In the space of a few hours, Ausable Chasm was devastated, but Chasm management rallied.  Restoration began in the spring and the new bridges and rails were completed by May, just one day before the Chasm’s scheduled season opening.  Return visitors that spring were struck by the sight of new steel bridges constructed of 30-inch steel beams, nearly twice as thick as those destroyed by the flood.  The floods were considered a once in a lifetime freak of nature, so the new bridges, railings and other constructions were built stronger, built to last for another century.

Mother Nature had other plans.

On November 9, 1996, not quite ten months after January’s record setting flood, the tri-county area was once again hit with heavy rains which, coupled with an already saturated ground, brought unprecedented flooding to the chasm region.  Road beds, bridges, and countless homes were destroyed, causing President Clinton to declare the area a Federal Disaster Site once again.   Ausable Chasm was once again at the mercy of nature, and no mercy was shown.

The volume of water which tore through the walls of the Chasm was greater than anything recorded in modern times.  The Chasm’s three new bridges fared no better than two others which had barely survived the previous flood – five of our ten bridges were washed away as though constructed of twigs instead of steel, thus making the Chasm inaccessible.  Downed trees, lost bridges, fencing, and safety rails resulted in mass damage costing about 500,000 dollars.

“It took out everything that had been repaired and rebuilt and more, including a cinder-block building that was to house new restroom facilities,” said Chasm General Manager Patricia Stone (manager 1990 – July, 2002).

Despite the devastating destruction experienced twice in one year, the Chasm was again rebuilt.

Today, new trails, new vistas, and newly constructed bridges enhance the beauty of the Chasm.  Guests enjoy views never before possible from the safety of the new bridge atop the Grand Flume (possibly the same location as “High Bridge,” made of Norway pine stringers that was built in 1793 and remained in use until 1810 or 1812.

Instead of merely replacing existing bridges and safety rails, an entirely new walking trail system was carved out on higher ground. Besides being safer, the new route offers enhanced views of Elephant’s Head Rock and Rainbow Falls, two of the tour’s classic postcard scenes.

A more adventurous river rafting ride has replaced the earlier boat rides, which had depended on optimum water levels to successfully channel the 32-foot long boats down the waterway, returning upriver by an antiquated cable system.  The new raft ride, in contrast, operates virtually every day, barring a severe thunderstorm.

Evidence of the destructive force of the floods can still be seen.  Many areas 70 to 100-feet above the river were stripped clean of their soil covering, leaving behind bare rock ledges where, earlier, vegetation had grown from topsoil accumulated over thousands of years.  Certain areas susceptible to flooding are no longer accessible on the walk, but can be viewed from the top of the Chasm at various vistas.

The new trail system has become so popular that new trails are expected in the near future to extend the Ausable Chasm “Rim Walk.”  

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