1889 Johnstown PA Flood - H.W. Storey

On May 31, 1889 one of the worst natural disasters in United States history occurred in Cambria County Pennsylvania when a week of Springtime torrential rains followed by the collapse of an earthen dam high above the city of Johnstown unleased death and destruction on its unsuspecting populace. The lake impounded behind the dam drained within minutes sending a 30’ high wall of water roaring down a mountain creek bed for some nine miles scouring everything in its path. The water and its mountain of uprooted debris struck the city with thunderous force. The debris pile soon backed up against the Pennsylvania’s Railroad’s stone arch bridge in center city forcing the flood waters to spread out. Fires burning in the wreckage roared out of control for days and completed the holocaust. In the flood’s aftermath 2209 residents were confirmed dead including all members of almost 100 families. Of the 2209 fatalities well over 700 were never able to be identified and were subsequently buried in a special section for unknown flood victims at Grandview Cemetery high up on a hillside overlooking the stricken city. Excluding man-made disasters such as 9-11 in New York, Arlington and Swenksville only the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906 and two hurricanes in 1900 and 1928 left more dead in their wake than did the Johnstown Flood.

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1915 Erie, PA Flood

One of the worst days in Erie’s history occurred on August 3, 1915 when severe flooding cut a swath through the heart of the city causing an estimated $3,000,000 in damages. Thunderstorms dumped over five inches of rain in a six hour period causing Mill Creek to flood its banks. Normally a meandering quiet stream draining the downtown area enroute to Lake Erie, the stream quickly jumped its banks sweeping away buildings, vegetation and general debris. Soon clogged at the 26th Street culvert, the debris caused an artificial lake to form. Day long efforts to unplug the debris dam failed until Mother Nature took things into her own hands. In the early evening hours, the mounting pressure finally caused the culvert to collapse releasing the debris pile and allowing all of the backed up water to now race forward scouring everything in its path. The resulting path of destruction measured three blocks wide and over three miles long. Over 500 private homes and commercial businesses were either severely damaged or completely destroyed and 36 residents lost their lives.

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1936 Spring Floods

The Winter of 1936 was exceptionally harsh in the northeastern quadrant of the country. Blizzards and unusually large accumulations of ice promised Spring flooding if followed by a quick thaw. By mid-March temperatures warmed dramatically and the Spring run-off of melting snow and ice caused the feared massive flooding. Particularly hard hit were the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers in Virginia and Maryland, the upper Ohio near Pittsburgh, the Allegheny and Susquehanna Rivers in Pennsylvania and the Connecticut, Merrimac and Kennebec Rivers in New England as well as scores of lesser rivers and streams. To this day the March 1936 recorded water flow on the Potomac and Connecticut Rivers stands as an all-time record.

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The Great New England Hurricane of 1938

Back in 1938 when hurricanes were unnamed and forecasting of storm tracks was primitive at best, one hurricane stands out for the speed and intensity of the storm and the far northern track that it took. Now called The Great New England Hurricane of 1938, it struck the southern coast of New England on the afternoon of September 21st. The day had dawned sunny and bright, by all accounts a beautiful Indian summer day. By mid-afternoon the storm roared ashore off new Long Island Sound ravaging everything in its path. By 4:00 the storm had moved inland leaving in its wake beaches scoured of all standing structures, a death toll in the hundreds and untold havoc to the life and commerce of the region. The loss of life, mostly by drowning, was tragic enough in itself, but I was also personally moved by the fact that the very face of New England was changed forever with the loss of thousands of stately elm trees that had long dominated residential streets and village greens.

The storm was not well covered by the national news outlets of the day. The International News Service did publish postcards detailing the damage and destruction. The postcards are black and white views printed by the Tichnor Corporation in Boston whose printing plant had survived the storm. There were three sets printed.

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Disaster at the Canadian Soo,
June 9, 1909

For almost two centuries ship movement between Lake Superior and Lake Huron was impossible due to the swift rapids of the St. Mary’s River connecting the two lakes. A drop of 21 feet required that ships tie up and land transfer cargo to waiting ships on the other side of the rapids. That fact allowed the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie (Michigan and Ontario) to grow and prosper with warehousing and freight handling facilities. However, it added considerably to the cost of moving freight and remained a hindrance to the movement of large bulk cargos such as grain and iron ore.

In 1855, the problem was remedied with the construction and opening of a canal lock bypassing the rapids. This original lock called the State Lock was constructed by the State of Michigan on the American side of the border. As traffic grew the need for a second lock was recognized but Michigan lacked the resources to build it. Turning to the federal government, control and operation of the canal was surrendered to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A second lock was then constructed in 1881 and named the Weitzel Lock after its designer, Maj-Gen. Godfrey Weitzel. This new lock provided immediate improvement for transit of both upbound and downbound ships but soon proved insufficient due to increased traffic volume. Thus, in the mid-1890s both the U.S. and Canadian governments undertook construction of two additional locks to be located on both sides of the border. The Canadian Lock completed first in 1895 was followed by the Poe Lock on the Michigan side in 1896. Both were soon favored by the major shipping companies during heavy traffic periods due to their increased length and depth compared to their predecessors. There things stood for more than a decade until June 9, 1909.

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