New Castle News

March 26, 2013

Photo Gallery, Story: Homes, bridges — and two lives — were lost in 1913 flood

Dan Irwin
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — New Castle looked a lot different in 1913, even before it was overwhelmed by the raging waters of the Shenango River.

That flood – the worst in the city’s recorded history – resulted in an estimated 1,000 homes being swamped from the city’s First Ward all the way to Mahoningtown, with many lifted from their foundations and washed downstream. “Scores Homeless,” the March 26 New Castle News proclaimed.

“We’re not used to a lot of people living in the downtown area; it’s more of a business district today,” noted Robert Presnar, local historian and program director at The Hoyt Center for the Arts. “If this happened today, it would cause transportation problems, you’d have to shut buildings down, things like that. But there wouldn’t be the residential evacuations you saw back in 1913.

“It got so bad at the height of it that homes were just torn from their foundations, and they looked like dollhouses that were just thrown on their sides.”



THE WATERS RISE

The disaster started 100 years ago this week when an unusually powerful and widespread storm system arrived in Lawrence County after pummeling the Midwest. On March 24, 25 and 26, The New Castle News reported, “the day and night had been marked with intermittent showers with great volumes of water pouring down from the clouds.”

The Neshannock Creek was the first to crest its banks, but it began to recede the afternoon of March 25. That’s when the Shenango River stepped up, spilling over about the same time at “a height never before attained, spreading out over the entire low-lying course of the stream throughout the city.”

Water backed up from the river to Mill Street, with The Diamond “under water four or five feet deep,” The News reported. On West Falls Street, water was “six, seven and eight feet high around some buildings,” and “the lower part of Mahoningtown was almost completely submerged.”

“The downtown,” Presnar noted, “was accessible only by rowboats, and some of those boats were borrowed from Cascade Park (where a lake existed until the 1980s). Anyone who had a rowboat was asked to bring it in, and they started to do evacuations.”

Indeed, the March 28 edition of The News noted that in the areas of Grant and Lawrence streets and Mahoning Avenue, “police, firefighters and volunteers worked night and day, rescuing families from flooded homes.”



FATALITIES

Those evacuation efforts accounted for one of the two deaths blamed on the flood: city police officer Thomas Thomas, who drowned near the area of the Shenango Tin Mill. Thomas, The News reported, had been in a rowboat “working all day long rescuing persons” when the craft overturned. Alderman J.H. Gross, with whom Thomas had been working, reportedly reached the roof of a Preston Avenue home and was able to climb inside through a second story window. Thomas’ body, though, was later found near the tin mill.

The other flood-attributed fatality is that of 5-year-old Peter Chirozzi, who was playing atop a wall along the Neshannock Creek when he fell off and was drowned. The tragedy, though, did not occur until April 10, two weeks after the flood waters were at their zenith.

Still, stranded residents weren’t the only problems New Castle faced.



DARKNESS & DESTRUCTION

The city went dark when water submerged the generators of the power plant, and New Castle’s water supply plant also had to be shut down. Neither service was restored for days. Schools, businesses and industry closed as well, and all transportation – including the railroads in and out of town – came to a halt.

Mayor Walter Tyler, Police Chief Norris Mitchell and Fire Chief Frank Connery and members of their departments remained on continuous duty from midnight Monday until late Thursday.

And still the Shenango raged.

On the morning of March 26, the historic Black Bridge, a wooden, covered span that connected the city to Union Township near the confluence of the Neshannock and Shenango waterways, was swept away.

The same day, The News said, water was “running over the Grant Street Bridge a foot high (and) the bridge was roped off yesterday and declared unsafe.” Eventually, it too would be lost, along with the Gardner Avenue Bridge and a Pennsylvania Railroad bridge that had been weighted down with “seven or eight loaded coal cars” in a futile attempt to save it.



HELPING VICTIMS

Though there wasn’t anything that could be done for the bridges, various groups and organizations sprang into action to assist those who had to flee – or be plucked from – their homes.  “Several churches were thrown open,” The News reported. “The school houses were open and the city hall, together with several moving picture theatres.

“Food was supplied at the Second United Presbyterian Church, and many of the homeless were cared for at private homes throughout the city.”

Local author and historian Anita Devivo is impressed by the way in which “foreigners,” as The News called them, were assisted at the Lawrence School at the west end of Mahoning Avenue.

“The principal of the school, she went over on the day they set it up for the ‘foreigners’ and she knew so many languages she decided she’d stay through the flood,” Devivo related. “So they had the boss there the whole time. I thought that was a nice thing for her to do. We don’t really know who the ‘foreigners’ were, but maybe they’d been in the country a short time and didn’t speak English at all.”

Ultimately, New Castle wasn’t the only Lawrence County community ravaged by floods in March 1913.

“Volant was hit pretty hard, Wampum was hit pretty hard,” Presnar said. “It affected all of our water systems, from the Mahoning to the Beaver; the Little Neshannock, the Big Neshannock and the Connoquenessing, too.”

The March 26 News reported that Clyde Elder of Ellwood City experienced a close call when he “fell into the rushing waters of the Connoquenessing and was swept away.” Elder, though, was able to grab a tree root and pull himself to safety

Even residents of New Castle’s West Side, unaffected by the flood waters per se, “were suffering for lack of gas, and food” because their section of town had been cut off from the rest of the city.

Finally, on Friday morning, the town awoke to sunny skies and the initial receding of flood waters. However, the nightmare still wasn’t over.

“Then there was the awesome job of rebuilding and just cleaning up,” Presnar noted. “It would be a pretty stinky town.”

(Tomorrow: Aftermath and reaction.)