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Remembering the ‘perfect storm’ that was 1974 Cambridge flood


It’s a day the City of Cambridge, and residents, will never forget.

The Grand River burst its banks on May 17, 1974 and water spilled onto several city streets.

Now, on the 50-year anniversary, longtime residents are reflecting on the flood.

Tom and Kathy Drew-Smith, the former owners of Reids Chocolate, Candy & Nut Shop, said the water completely flooded the basement of their Main Street business.

“Everything was up off the floor,” recalled Kathy. “The bathroom was in the basement and that’s where the water started to come in.”

According to the Fire Hall Museum & Education Centre, floodwaters reached the Farmers’ Market on Dickson Street and Dickson Park on the west side of the Grand River.

River levels were 18 feet above normal and, in some areas, residents had to wade through waist-high water.

Men attempt to rescue a bicyclist during the 1974 Galt flood. (Source: City of Cambridge)

The Grand River Conservation Authority said the water had saturated banks and filled the resevoirs.

“The water level was really high in the channel, so it didn’t have a lot of capacity,” explained Vahid Taleban, the GRCA’s manager of flood operations. “The combination resulted in a perfect storm.”

Floodwaters were as high as six feet on some streets and didn’t recede until 16 hours later, around 4 a.m. the next day.

A helicopter, with former Ontario Premier William G. Davis on board, attempts to land in Market Square during the 1974 Galt flood. (Source: City of Cambridge)

One iconic photo shows police officer Jack Shuttleworth standing waist-deep in water at the corner of Dickson and Ainslie Street.

“You don’t plan for something like that, do you, when you’ve never seen it,” Kathy added.

The flood also shut down travel and prompted a boil water advisory, while damages were estimated at around $5 million. That's equivalent to more than $30 million today, and didn’t include the loss to businesses or the clean-up that followed.

No deaths were reported.

Main St. Bridge during the 1974 Galt flood. (Source: City of Cambridge)

Lasting impact

In response to the flood, new measures were put in place to prevent a similar emergency. They included flood wall construction, enhanced GRCA monitoring and the introduction of a centralized data collection system that can recognize extreme events up to three hours before they happen.

“We are in a better position these days to identify those risks,” said Vahid. “We can never make the risk of flooding zero, but we can manage it.”

Those who lived through it, say they’ll never forget.

They also hope it won’t ever happen again.

“You had to see it to believe it,” Kathy said. “To really understand, you had to see it.” Top Stories

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