NEW CASTLE —
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.”