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Milburn Kelly Remembers Hurricane Hazel, 1954

February 13, 2023

Freda and Milburn Kelly

In October 1954, Hurricane Hazel, devastated the Caribbean, then worked its way up the east coast of the United States, before tracking into Ontario. It was one of the few tropical storms that was a still a hurricane by the time it reached this province. In Toronto, it caused severe flooding and forced the military to intervene. Milburn Kelly grew up in Fenelon Falls, and for many years operated the plumbing, heating and tinsmithing business founded by his father, Foster Kelly.

Hazel was a fickle lady and I made her acquaintance early in the morning of October 15th. As if knowing what she had in store for us, she started to shed copious tears early in the morning, well in advance of the havoc she yet would mete out on us.

I pulled out for Toronto at 2:30 PM and the dirt roads were soft and slippery even then. The ground was saturated and the fields became ponds. The further along I got the heavier it seemed to rain. The windshield wipers had all they could do to cope with the situation.

As I drove down Dufferin Street, the air field was a shimmering lake and water was easing over the road. Traffic became very heavy with people rushing for home and along with the torrents of rain all movement was brought to a walk. Knowing I could not make my pickup, on Junction Rd., by five o’clock, I stopped to phone and got a promise that someone would be waiting for me.

Arrived at destination by 5:30, got my load on and waited twenty minutes before I was able to get across the traffic. Arrived at St. Clair and Dufferin by 6:30 and decided to stop for dinner. Could not get out of car on driver side because of two or three inches of water on the road. By the time I finished a hasty lunch, water was flowing over the curb and no let-up in the buckets of rain that was coming down.

Men could be seen tinkering with stranded cars all along the street and the water was running from curb to curb almost every place. Even down the hills. By the time I reached Dufferin airfield the shimmering lake had become a flowing river as water gushed across the road for half a mile. By keeping on the move and wending my way around stalled cars I managed to get through. Every little culvert was filled to capacity and flowing over the road. Places where cuts had been made through hills were softening up on the sides and the clay banks were moving down onto the road.

Reaching higher ground on #7, I swung east and found clear going until I came to a mile-long line of cars near Thornhill. Our line was at a stand, but the traffic was still coming through from the east. As this east traffic thinned out three cars, with mine in the centre, followed a truck along the left side of the road. When we reached the front of the line we were told we could not get through, but the truck kept going and we followed. The water was simply gushing across the road, swaying the car as we crawled along. Stalled cars on the right and left of me, but we managed to get through, at least the truck and car ahead of me did, but as I pulled out of the water, I realized the car behind me stopped right in the worst part of the flow and I am sure traffic was tied up right then.

Stopped in Thornhill to gas up and the attendant said I was foolish to try going north but luck was still with me and I kept going. Not far from the village the highway was washed out on the west side but the traffic was still getting through the east side of the road. Water over the road in every depression and brakes becoming harder to apply. Cars all over the road and many of them stayed there until next morning.

Turned east at Lansing and found another line up of cars as I neared the Don Mills Road. Trucks appeared to be still going through so I followed behind an oil truck and a Ford car. In the centre of the deepest part of the water a policeman was frantically trying to get a stalled car off the centre of the road. Truck managed to go around but cop stopped car ahead of me and made him push the stalled car off to the side of the road. As we stopped I drew my left foot back on the floor board and felt water rush up my pant leg. Reached down and felt moving water on the floor boards. Reached in back seat and found cans floating around in five or six inches of water. Could feel car move as water dashed against the side but engine kept going and soon I was through another bad spot. Stopped to open back doors and let the water out.

Found the next line up of cars at Unionville and once again I followed some by-passing trucks but on reaching the front of the line a cop waved me to the side and said it would be foolish to try going through even though the trucks were still navigating the flood. One car did get past but we saw he was stuck shortly after his tail lights disappeared under the water. More trucks tried to go through but they did not make it.

People started to walk back out from the stranded cars and trucks. The last man to come out was wet to his waist. He said water was over the top of an Austin and flowing through the windows of other stranded cars.

It was about this time that word came through the police car, that a child had been swept into the river on the opposite side. Cars now started to turn back, seeking other ways out, I found the water had risen until it was well behind my car and the guard posts alongside the road were disappearing. By this time the traffic had cleared behind and I backed out of the water.

About nine o’clock, the rain stopped and the wind started to come in gusts. Broken branches as large as your arm would slap the car with a resounding crack. A tree crashed in the woods nearby. Hydro wires started to sag and soon sparks were flying. I decided it was time to back away and look for wide open spaces.

All open space along the highway was filled with cars. Tried to go north to Unionville, but found trees blocking the road and hydro wires crackling everywhere. Had noticed the CNR Station yard looked free of trees and wires so turned back and found two cars ahead of me.

Had no more than stopped when my door was opened and two fellow travelers wanted to know if anything new had developed. They had left me earlier at the flooded area and tried to get out but found all roads blocked tight. Over a thousand cars and trucks were stranded near the Unionville corner. It was only a short way up the track, towards Markham, that a train was partially derailed. One of the chaps had a radio in his car so we piled into that and listened to the news cast.

It had started to rain again and the wind was whipping around at a good clip. Hurricane Hazel was not due to be with us for another two hours. At eleven we drove back to see if flood had abated but nothing was moving. Went back to our more sheltered place and waited for Hazel to vent whatever fury she had left in her. Twelve o’clock came and went with heavier gusts and then an easing off. Hazel passed on.

Still raining but not so vehement. By one it started to clear up and once again we drove back to find the water as high as ever. We now tried to settle down for a little shut eye but the air became colder and we were soon cramped and chilled. By three I was chilled to the bone and decided to go back onto the highway and wait for the traffic to move.

Realized the cars were already on the move as there were fewer cars parked along the road. When we got down to the bad spot the Hydro truck had already moved aside some stranded cars to let one line of traffic through and they were busy straightening up a pole.

The rest of the trip home was more or less clear sailing. Trees were down all along the east-west roads but always able to get around the ends of them. Arrived home at four thirty and was glad to crawl into bed.

I do not wish to spend another night with a vixen like Hazel.

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