New Castle News
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.
The rains that pelted New Castle and caused its rivers to overflow in March 1913 were part of a massive storm system that had spawned at least seven deadly tornadoes in the nation’s heartland. Between the twisters and flooding, more than 700 people lost their lives from the Great Plains to the Northeast.
The lessons the storm taught, though, did not go unheeded.
Trudy E. Bell, a science journalist specializing in physical sciences and engineering and a former editor of Scientific American magazine, wrote in a 2007 research synopsis that the tragedy “helped trigger revolutions in emergency radio, disaster relief, national policy on flood control … as well as inspiring the mechanism of federated philanthropy (which eventually led to the foundation of the United Way).”
Reactions were much the same in western Pennsylvania, where officials moved quickly in an attempt to pre-empt future disasters. The General Assembly authorized the state Water Supply Commission to construct a dam on the Shenango River that would turn the Pymatuning Swamp into a lake. It also approved $400,000 for the purchase of the land that would be needed for the project, but when Gov. John Tener signed the bill on July 25, 1913, he slashed the budget to $100,000, citing “insufficient state revenue.”
According to stateparks.com, it would take another 18 years for public and private organizations to raise the $3.7 million needed to build the dam. The effort went over the top on May 7, 1931, when Gov. Gifford Pinchot approved $1.5 million for the project. Work started on Oct. 6, 1931, and the dam was dedicated Aug. 17, 1934, over 23 years after the runaway Shenango had devastated New Castle.
In 1965, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a second dam on the Shenango, creating the Shenango Reservoir near Sharpsville.
“There has still been some flooding,” Presnar said of the post-dam era, “but it’s never reached the point of the 1913 flood.”
Perhaps the closest rival to the 100-year-old disaster was the downtown flood of January 1959. News reports of the day said that the water was “highest in the city since 1913,” but the Shenango crested four feet lower than it had 46 years earlier. Although schools and industries once again closed, the piling of 900 sandbags at the pumping plant kept water flowing to the city for the duration. By flood’s end, damage was estimated at $1 million ($8 million in 2013 dollars), compared to $3 million ($69.8 million converted) in 1913.
For anyone under age 60, it may be difficult to imagine New Castle’s two rivers – relatively docile entities apart from spring thaw and rains – ever rising far enough to envelop the downtown.
“People, if they haven’t experienced something in their own life time, they don’t think that it ever happened before,” Presnar noted. “We look at those rivers today, and we don’t think of them as high enough to cause that problem.
“But these disasters have hit us, and hit us hard.”