Blame it on John Carlysle Stewart.
Stewart, a civil engineer, traveled to western Pennsylvania in 1798 to resurvey “donation lands” that had been reserved for veterans of the Revolutionary War. In doing so, he discovered that the original survey had overlooked approximately 50 acres at the confluence of the Shenango River and Neshannock Creek. Stewart claimed this land for himself and on it, he laid out the town of New Castle.
At times over the next couple of centuries, some may have wondered if there had been a reason that no one had considered those 50 acres worthwhile – particularly in late March 1913, when the city Stewart founded experienced what remains the worst flood in its recorded history.
“New Castle is a bowl, and years ago, it was decided that that would be the business district, and people started to live in that area, then branched out from there,” explained Robert Presnar, a local historian and program director at the Hoyt Center for the Arts. “But being that it’s a bowl, and that is has two river systems that converge in that bowl, it is really a recipe for disaster.
“1913 was the worst flood that we’ve had in recorded history, but certainly not the only flood. Before the (Pymatuning) reservoir was established and the dam system and the watershed, it was very common for the downtown to flood.”
One of those times arrived in 1893. On May 17 of that year, the New Castle News reported that “2.1 inches of rain fell between 3 o’clock Monday and 8 a.m. Wednesday … this is as much water as usually falls in a month.” The paper also reported that “the lowland between New Castle and Mahoningtown was several feet under water.”
Twenty years later, though, veterans of the 1893 diluvial disaster would realize that perhaps they hadn’t seen anything yet. Three straight days of rain, from March 24 to 26, 1913, sent first the Neshannock, and later the Shenango, on unprecedented rampages that would bury downtown streets under at least 4 to 5 feet of water; inundate “probably a thousand homes,” according to the March 28 New Castle News; wash away four bridges; be blamed for two deaths; and cause an estimated $3 million damage — $69.8 million by today’s standards.
“I call it the perfect storm, because it really was,” Presnar said. “Between the weather and New Castle’s geography, all the conditions were just right for something devastating like the Flood of 1913 to happen.”
THE COMING STORM
Easter Sunday 1913 was a tragic one for many in the nation’s heartland. According to tornadoproject.com, twisters that day killed nearly 200 people in Alabama, Indiana, Iowa and Nebraska. The latter got hit the hardest, as a tornado that swept through downtown Omaha just before 6 p.m. left 101 dead and 2,000 homeless. It remains the single deadliest tornado ever to strike that state.
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 “all the tornadoes in this outbreak … were a part of a mammoth and unusually powerful winter storm system that caused the United States’ most widespread natural disaster. It followed what is now known to be a typical Midwestern winter storm track …”
“Beginning on Easter Sunday, rains of tropical force but frigid temperatures deluged the Midwest – in Ohio and Indiana, dropping three months of rain in four days … At its peak, flooding spread across the lowland regions of nearly a dozen states from Pittsburgh to St. Louis, completely severing all communications between New York City and Chicago for a day and a half … The storm’s death toll of more than 700 exceeded that of the 1871 Chicago fire.”
It was “well recognized,” Bell added, that the Omaha tornado was part of the same storm system that would cause record flooding 800 miles to the east.
This was the monster that was bearing down on New Castle, pausing only to devastate Dayton, Ohio, along the way. Presnar described that city as having a similar geography to New Castle, and reported that it would see 123 fatalities and 20 feet of water in its downtown in the storm’s aftermath.
“Areas that didn’t have any defense mechanisms, like a reservoir or a dam, were going to get hit the hardest,” he said. “People probably should have known this, because areas like New Castle had hundreds of years’ history of flooding.”
Good Friday, 1913.
The New Castle News dampened women’s holiday spirits by reporting that their Easter Sunday likely would include some precipitation.
“The weather man’s Easter message for the ladies of New Castle and vicinity is anything but assuring,” the paper reported on Page 1. “East hats MAY be worn without fear of being destroyed by the elements, but according to the official forecast from Washington, fragile Easter adornments would fare better if left in their band-box over the day.”
How many Easter outfits survived the day is unknown. However, there’s no mistaking the fact that on Monday, rain began falling in earnest in Lawrence County, and it wouldn’t stop for days.
The first alarm was raised Monday night, when the Neshannock Creek hit flood stage, creeping up and over Neshannock Avenue, East Street and South Mill Street. It surrounded the city building and headed down Washington Street, although the levels there were “not enough to cover the curb in many places,” The News reported.
The creek began to recede about 2 p.m. the next day, but any initial relief quickly turned to trepidation as city residents and officials now looked to the Shenango River, which kept on rising as the rain continued falling.
“Slowly but surely,” the March 28 edition of The News recounted, “it rose and rose … until by Wednesday morning, it was on the wildest rampage of its history, and the work of destruction had been started.”
The worst definitely was yet to come.
(Tomorrow: The downtown goes under)