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'It changed the city:' Event to recognize 50 years since historic flood

On May 4 Cambridge residents can gather to share stories of that fateful day in 1974

It was remembered as a beautiful day, until it wasn't.

May 17, 1974 marked a significant date in Cambridge's history for all the wrong reasons. A flash flood swept through the city, making it almost unrecognizable in parts of Galt.

No deaths were recorded but it did cause an estimated $6.7 million in property damage, the equivalent of $39.5 million today.

Those who were there have the images etched in their minds and those who weren't have heard the stories.

With 50 years having passed since that fateful day, the Fire Hall Museum and Education Centre along with several community partners want to make sure as time passes the destruction and subsequent advancements in the city's operations aren't forgotten.

On May 4, an event dubbed "The Great Flood of '74: Cambridge's Watershed Moment" will be taking place at the museum and city hall.

"It was a watershed moment for the city of Cambridge in that a lot of change took place as a result of the flood," Ray Martin, vice-chair of the Fire Hall Museum and Education Centre, said.

"For example, we now have the flood walls and they designed the parks as part of what is now a city wide trail system. We now have emergency planning that we didn't have before. They created an emergency preparedness plan for the entire watershed."

A guided walk is scheduled and rescue crafts and equipment displays including a watercraft air boat, EMS, fire trucks and tankers will be set up in the square. A new display with photos and information on the flood is also being erected inside the museum and at the Old Post Office Idea Exchange.

The committee working on the event is hoping to have photos in the storefronts of businesses from that day.

Dolly Rellinger lived in Galt at the time of the flood and remembers it vividly.

"My first memory of the flood was awe, sadness and an overwhelming feeling of what was going on," Rellinger said.

"I remember watching the water creep higher and higher along Main Street and in the parking lots. I was too scared to go into the water, which I remember was cold and dirty and had all sorts of debris in it."

Rellinger remembers trying to scoot across the water on a piece of wood she found in the parking lot beside the police station that was on Ainslie Street at the time.

As a child she could often be found playing along the bank of the Grand River, never expecting such a disaster was possible.

"I do remember seeing people getting across Water Street with the ropes and just standing and watching all that was going on," she said.

"I think I was sort of in shock seeing our streets fill up with the Grand River. I didn't think it could ever do so much as it did to the downtown core."

It's those types of memories the organizing committee of the event want to share.

Ingrid Talpak, who volunteers at the museum and is playing a critical part in putting on the May 4 gathering, wants to hear people's stories and see their photos to help ensure history is not forgotten.

So far, Talpak has been amazed by the response from the community and the far reaching impacts the flood has had.

"Every time I mention this event is going to happen, people say 'I have a story,' " Talpak said.

"It changed the city. We wouldn't have the downtown core or the safety we have if it wasn't for that flood."

Anyone interested in sharing their experience as part of a video archive or through photos can reach out to [email protected].

The event will run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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