New Castle News

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March 27, 2013

Photo Gallery, Story: 1913 flood required massive cleanup and spurred regional control measures

NEW CASTLE — One hundred years later, few who experienced the Great Flood of 1913 likely remain alive to tell the tale.

There is, however, one thing that has survived: photographs.

Pictures — many of them from the collection of the late photo historian John Hitch and now property of the Lawrence County Historical Society — depict homes awash in flood water, residents traversing downtown streets in rowboats and wreckage protruding from the swollen Shenango River.

“The water was deep and it was devastating and if you look at some of the pictures of how the houses were submerged, even the second floors were pretty deep,” noted local historian and author Anita Devivo.

“Down in Kilkenny, I saw one photo in particular that was submerged up to the second floor.”

Robert Presnar, also a local historian and program director at the Hoyt Center for the Arts, adds one thought when perusing such photos.

“Remember,” he said, “most of those pictures would have been taken after the waters had started to recede. People weren’t going to go downtown and risk their lives at the height of the flood. So it was actually even worse than what you see in the pictures.”

All of which means the city faced a major challenge in cleaning up from the March 24-26 rains that created the worst flood in New Castle’s recorded history.

THE DAYS AFTER

New Castle had been without power and water as the Shenango River rose and engulfed the generating and pumping stations. Electric service was restored by midday March 28, and water was flowing again to homes and businesses a couple of days later. Residents, though, were advised to boil the latter before using.

Gas — at least to the city’s First Ward — was on again April 1.

Those whose homes remained intact were faced with supplies of food that had become inedible, and no way to replace them because grocers had lost their own stocks as well. In addition, water and mud had ruined carpets, furniture and almost anything left behind by those who had been forced to evacuate.

The city appropriated $5,000 to assist flood victims, and charitable organizations also rushed relief to the area. According to Bill Burmester’s book “Legends of Lawrence County,” 30 county prisoners were assigned to help cleanup crews.

Meanwhile, various stores began running ads promising that they would donate a portion of their sales to assist flood victims.

Still, by April 2, the New Castle News reported, 100 homes remained underwater and the Kilkenny District was “in danger of an epidemic.”

One of the uglier developments in the aftermath of the flood was the revelation that some folks who jumped into rowboats to rescue stranded residents may not have been the knights in shining armor they first appeared to be. A New Castle News headline on April 5 proclaimed “Allegations made that some of men who helped marooned families to safety during flood exacted money tribute from half frantic victims.” The story went on to say that in some cases, as much as $25 was demanded from trapped residents before rescuers would take them into their boat.

A hearing was convened April 9, and based on witnesses’ testimony, two police officers were dismissed from the force that same day. Later in the week, an accused firemen would be suspended as well.

The Grant Street Bridge, which had been washed away at the height of the flood, was rebuilt, but the Black and Gardner Avenue spans, which had met a similar fate, never were. It would be 10 years for another bridge – the Mahoning Avenue Viaduct – would be constructed nearby to take their place.

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