The Hilltown Slide - 1936

Recalling the great killer slide of March 1936

Slide killed watchmaker Eugene Hill 73 years ago this month


Tom Eastman - March 28, 2009

BARTLETT — Spring floods are nothing new, but the one that hit the North Country in March 1936 wreaked more havoc than usual  and ended up killing West Side Road resident Eugene Hill in the area of Bartlett known as Hilltown.

Local historian Dan Noel, who has been battling cancer, recently forwarded The Conway Daily Sun a telling of the tragic tale by an eyewitness who traveled to the devastated site after the slide that caused Hill's death the morning of March 12, 1936. He believes the eyewitness account may have been written by the late Buster Parker, of Bartlett.

Other information was gleaned by looking at microfilm of the March 12 and March 19 editions of the now defunct Reporter newspaper of North Conway in the Henney History Room of the Conway Public Library, as well as interviewing Brian Hill of Lower Bartlett, nephew of Eugene Hill, a watchmaker who lived alone when the fatal disaster struck.

On a gloriously sunny first day of spring on Friday afternoon, March 20, West Side Road resident and town father Chet Lucy took time out from his maple sugaring operation to show a reporter exactly where the slide happened farther north up the road 73 years ago in the Hilltown enclave of Hill family members.

“My father [Arthur O. Lucy], was involved in the story, as he was part of the rescue effort,” said the still winter-bearded Lucy, a former Conway selectman whose family Conway roots go back some 250 years. “I was born in 1926, so I was 9 years old at the time, and it was quite a thing.”

We drove north past the Lady Blanche House, around a bend in the road, and down to the flat area below Pitman's Arch to a section across from the Saco River and the home of Chuck Kalil  the heart of the former Hilltown area. To our left on the west side of the road were two houses, a barn and a trellis at the base of a cliff.

“Just like the Willey Slide that you know about [in Crawford Notch in August 1826], the slide came down over there and divided, leaving the Colson house standing where that white house is now,” said Lucy, who, like Noel, is a lover and keeper of local history.

The river flooded the road but it was the slide that came into Eugene Hill's house and killed him, according to accounts from that era.

“The road used to be lower than it is now. The state built it higher,” said Lucy, wearing his wool green and black plaid spring-chores jacket.

The following account of the slide was reported in the Thursday, March 19, 1936 issue of The Reporter, a week after the March 12 disaster:

“Though flood damage in northern Carroll County has been light compared with that in other parts of New England, this locality was mentioned in headlines and broadcasts through the tragic death of Eugene Hill and the dramatic rescue of several survivors of the slides at Hilltown, on the West Side Road from North Conway to Bartlett.

"Last Thursday morning at about 8 o'clock, slides of snow and ice crashed against the northwest corner of the home of Eugene Hill, ripping out the corner of the house and burying its owner, who lived there alone, under several feet of ice and debris. A similar slide tore out a part of the lower floor of the second house to the north, belonging to Nathan Hill, carrying Mrs. Sarah Seavey, 83, Mr. Hill's housekeeper, across the road and burying her up to the armpits in snow, ice and wreckage.”

The Reporter account verified Chet Lucy's recollection that the slide divided around one of the homes, just as the August 1826 slide in Crawford Notch had divided around the Willey homesite in that famous White Mountain disaster:

“As freakish as most disasters,” noted the Reporter, “the house between the two, occupied by Webster Colson, was undamaged. Mr. Colson, together with his wife, son and daughter, at once started for Bartlett for help, and reached there after considerable difficulty, due to parts of the road that were submerged. Rescue parties finally started for the scene of the disaster. the first truck was from Main Street Garage, North Conway, and included Henry Thompson, Myron Hanson, Dr. McDonald, a selectman from Bartlett, and others. James Waldron, forestry superintendent of the Saco River CCC Camp at Glen, was in Bartlett at the time, and followed close behind with two trucks and his crew of about 20 boys. The North Conway truck was unable to reach Hilltown, but the two higher CCC trucks, after considerable difficulty, were able to reach the scene of the disaster where they found Mrs. Walker, daughter of Mrs. Seavey, trying to extricate her with a small coal shovel.

Seavey was removed from the wreckage and, after receiving temporary treatment from Dr. G. Harold Shedd (of ski bone doctor fame when skiing took hold in the region), and two nurses from Memorial Hospital (Gladys Carter and Doris Haley), she was taken by stretcher and boat to the home of Arthur Lucy, along with Nathan Hill and Mrs. Walker, who were uninjured.”

The following day, Sarah Seavey was taken to Memorial Hospital as a precaution. Nathan Hill, meanwhile, 94, was returned to the Lucy's home for two weeks until the waters subsided.

Dan Noel, who first brought the tale of the disaster to the Sun's attention, provided a copy of a letter written by an unidentified first-hand witness and participant of the rescue effort.

“I came across the letter the other day. I don't recall how I came across it to begin with, but I thought it made for an interesting story that you might want to use,” said Noel, a lifelong collector of White Mountain history and professional photographer whose clients in the past included Yield House and Cranmore Mountain.

Arriving at the scene on foot after much difficulty driving on West Side Road in the flood waters, the witness gave the following account:

“We immediately went to the residence of Gene Hill where we found the house completely filled with ice clear to the rafters. We all started digging in the ice and we first found the arm of Gene which held the stove poker, evidently had just filled the stove when it happened. We dug the body out of the ice.”

The eyewitness went on to say that Hill was a jeweler, and that they found watches strewn across the area.

“As each one was tagged,” he wrote, “they were put in a pail and taken to Fred Hanscom, town clerk of Bartlett.”

The Reporter added a paragraph or two, adding to the mystery of whatever happened to Eugene Hill's belongings:

“Mr. Hill, a watchmaker by trade, had been partially crippled for the past 20 years, and had lived alone since the death of his mother a few years ago. Soon after the disaster, several watches and other articles of jewelry, were recovered from the ruins. Relatives, however, voiced their suspicions that he also had a box containing money and this was finally found on Saturday after considerable search by Harold Hill of Kearsarge and turned over to Bartlett officials for safekeeping.”

On their departure, the party encountered Dr. Shedd, Ms. Carter and Ms. Haley.

“Both nurses [were] carried across the brook by Walter Lock of Glen, and Dr. Shedd was in the process of being carried across on Walter's back. Walter accidentally stubbed his toe and, both got a ‘Yankee Dunking.' When we arrived back to the Rocky Branch Bridge and crossed it, the bridge dropped into the stream at once [behind the rescuers, Dr. Shedd and nurses Carter and Haley]. The following day the road was [plowed] out by the Bartlett town tractor.”

Meanwhile, according to Henry Hatch, who was another rescuer, “Arthur Lucy took Ellsworth Russell and Cedric Colbath with him from Conway Supply Co. R.F. Harmon was also in the party who went to Hill Town [sic] and I believe were the ones or part of the crew that dug Mr. Hill out of the debris. I believe they took Eugene Hill out by canoe to the road at Lady Blanche House and then by various means, got to Conway and back by East Side Road to Furber Funeral Home.”

The funeral home was operated by Arthur Furber, and was located behind what most recently was D.J.'s Bedding and Outlet and which for a number of years served as Brothers II, across from the Up Country .

Chester Lucy remembers that part of the tale.

He said his father, Arthur O. Lucy, co-founder in 1933 of Conway Supply, and others transported the body by rowboat and then truck to Smith-Allard Farm on the West Side. There, they met Furber, who transported the body across the river on the bridge and to the funeral home.

“My father told my mother Irene to call Arthur  he didn't have to say his last name [Furber]; she knew who he was talking about  and let him know that they were coming by canoe. Arthur didn't catch on exactly what she was talking about at first, so my father said, ‘Just tell him we're coming and to meet us at the railroad bridge!’ Eventually she got Arthur to understand that my father was bringing some cargo ... a body!” said Lucy this week.

Nathan Hill, meanwhile, couldn't go back to his home during the high waters, so he spent two weeks with the Lucy family in their home, a house that was lost to fire in 1942.

“In Conway Village,” wrote Janet Hounsell in her book, “Conway, New Hampshire 1785-1997,” “The main damage was loss of water. Friday and Saturday [after the Thursday flood] there was no mail in or out, and residents of Oak Street left home for higher ground. Thursday night, houses near the Saco River Bridge were evacuated. Cellars were flooded and Thursday the water pipes where they cross the Swift River ruptured, so the village was without water except for rainwater.”

Hounsell added further information on Arthur Lucy's role.

“When Arthur Lucy, of the Conway Supply Co., learned there'd been an avalanche at Humphrey's Ledge, he took three millworkers and started off to help with the rescue work. By auto, boat and snowshoes the crew reached the spot. They worked until the body of the victim was located. Lucy brought the remains by boat and toboggan to Conway.”

The Reporter's March 19, 1936 account said that due to the high rains, "The East Branch Bridge in Intervale (today's Route 16A in the days before what is today's Route 16 was built) was menaced by high water, the West Side Road was impassable and the flood caused a washout in a fill near the Lady Blanche House and in spite of temporary repairs, it subsequently washed out completely.

"The Lady Blanche house is isolated. There is now no means of getting to Bartlett. The village of Conway is now practically surrounded by water, and various low spots are flooded, including the athletic field and the ground in front of the B&M station."

Another flood hit the following week  just as The Reporter was going to press on March 19, 1936 proving that spring and floods are constant companions in the valley of the Saco.



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These Photos had a hand written description on the back side of each photo. 



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This Photo was the destruction of the bridge on West Side Road in the floods of 1937.  You might recognize this spot in the vicinity of today's Schatner Strawberry Farm
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Intervale

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West Side Rd
UPDATE, DECEMBER 2017: WHITNEY BOWLEY SENT US THESE PHOTOS WITH A NOTE: 

 On the back of each photo, written by my grandmother, the late Josephine Smith of West Side Rd in Conway is "Snow slide in 'Hill Town' 1936". I tried to find Hill Town, NH and came up empty. I spoke to my Aunt and she said it was a row of houses close to Humphrey's Ledge. I posted the photos on Facebook and my cousin found this map of Bartlett from sometime around 1890's. My grandparents lived next door to Smith-Allard (mentioned in the article) and my grandfather may have been one of the "boys" in the rescue effort.

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Hilltown Slide Bartlett NH  Hilltown slide 1936


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