A picnic at the scenic Cascade falls nearly turned tragic 66 years ago.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The flicks Rachel Branch saw at the Mohawk Theater on an April afternoon more than a half-century ago have fled her memory, but she does remember what someone told her.
"I was standing in the street outside the Mohawk Theater," she recalled recently. "Somone in the street said, 'your sister fell off a cliff.' "
Her sister Judith Ann had tumbled into the 100-foot gorge at the Cascades. The difficulty of her rescue and her near-miraculous recovery filled a page in the former North Adams Transcript and showed up in papers that included The New York Times.
"She was in the hospital for a month," Branch said. "She broke her leg and broke her arm. She had a scar on her arm ... it was in a cast with a pole keeping her arm straight."
Branch comes from generations of well-known North Adams families — the Floods, Gallups and Isbells. She returned to the area nearly two decades ago to care for her ailing mother, Vera Isbell Flood, who died in 2004. Not surprisingly, the family has a wealth of history that Branch has had to sort through.
One day, she came across a yellowed envelope her mother had kept in the drawer of a side table that was filled with slightly crumbling newspaper clippings about that April afternoon in 1952.
"They were out hiking, a group of them," she said of her sister and her friends. "She didn't know what happened, she thinks she slipped."
Judith Ann, then 12, had somehow lost her footing when she and her friends Anne Haggerty, Lois Varuzzo, Barbara Crocker and Pauline Mazinski hiked up to the gorge for a picnic on a sunny April 30. They were returning home around 1 when Judith Ann and Anne decided to go up around the cliff above the gorge and look down. Judith Ann fell backward to the base of the falls and was stuck in a cleft of boulders.
According to the Transcript, Anne clambered down to her friend "in the almost inaccessible nest of rocks" and stayed with her to calm her as the other three ran off to find help.
"She scrambled down the steep cliff to the injured girl, whom she found huddled, whimpering, among the boulders, blood already flowing freely from the scalp wound," reporter Maynard Leahey wrote. "Recalling that the sight of blood sometimes causes hysteria in an injured person, she used cleaning tissues to staunch the flow and to keep Judith from seeing the crimson stream."
The other girls arrived at the home of Herbert W. Clark on Marion Avenue and the calls for help went out. Firefighters, police officers, Mohawk Ambulance personnel and neighbors arrived at the scene along with Dr. Harvey Bianco and Vera Flood.
"Bianco was afraid of heights so he sent my brother, Alan, 15, down," Branch said. "They had to build a temporary bridge to get her out."
Alan and two friends reportedly made their way down the embankment to Judith Ann and Anne Haggerty. Alan bandaged his sister's head and gave her sedatives under the shouted orders of the doctor.
The use of ropes to remove Judith Ann was dismissed because of her condition, so under the direction of Police Officer Thomas Moore, several men joined the boys at the bottom of the gorge and were able to get the young girl onto a stretcher.
"The problem then was to carry her to the top of the bank, a task that seemed hopeless in view of the slime-covered rocks and the steep wall that provides poor footholds," Leahey wrote. Instead, they were able to lift the stretcher over the boulders where Judith Ann had fallen and then make their way through a mile of woods and cross several streams over improvised bridges.
"Throughout the ordeal, both after her fall and during the arduous trip back through the woods, the injured girl remained conscious and uncomplaining, except for occasional whimpering and expressions of fear at being crippled," the article states.
It took nearly three hours to rescue Judith Ann and transport her to the former North Adams Regional Hospital. Branch and her twin, Ruth, had been inside the Mohawk watching "Ma and Pa Kettle Go To The Fair" and an odd thriller ("The Whip Hand") about "Nazi Commies" doing weird experiments on fish.
Judith Ann had turned 12 just days before the fall.
They had no idea what had happened to their sister until they exited the theater.
The information left the 10-year-old stunned: "I stood there and prayed."
Judith Ann was listed in fair condition but had a long recovery: her right leg had a compound fracture, her right shoulder and arm were thought to be fractured and she had a head injury.
Branch her sister had readily spoken about her trauma in the following years and the sisters would joke that Judith Ann had "nine lives."
"She thought she said a prayer on the way down," Branch recalled. "She stayed awake through the whole thing but passed out at the hospital when she heard them say they needed to cut it off ... she thought they were talking about her arm or leg, but I think they meant her clothes."
The sisters were close but separated for years: Branch lived in North Africa and Connecticut and Colorado. Judith Ann moved to Rochester, N.Y., then to North Carolina and finally back to Rochester, where she died last year on Sept. 2 at the age of 77.
Branch was thinking of her sister this past April — Judith Ann's birthday was on April 26, four days before her perilous fall — and again as the date of her death neared in September.
Those anniversaries had her looking through old yellowed clips and remembering how shocked and scared she was on that day 66 years. So many people had helped — more than two dozen had worked to get Judith Ann out of the woods — and gave her sister decades more to live. At least another eight lives.
"It's local history," Branch said. "It's North Adams history."
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