The historic St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936: two eyewitness accounts

The Triangle was engulfed to near Grant Street

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Mabel Sage remembered watching garages and other small buildings floating by under the West End Bridge on the morning of the St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936.

Viola Stanny recalled that police stopped her near Smithfield Street and Fifth Avenue. Streets in the Golden Triangle were filling with water. Officers told her she would have no classes that day at Pittsburgh Academy, the business school she attended on Wood Street.

Both women had seen high water in Pittsburgh before. Neither realized they were getting firsthand looks at the worst flood in the city's history.

A combination of rapidly melting snow and heavy rains combined to send the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers high above their banks on March 17 and 18, 1936. The resulting flood, which began 75 years ago today, submerged Downtown streets and the lower floors of buildings from the Point to near Grant Street. The raging rivers killed more than 150 people throughout the Ohio Valley, including 45 in the city.

Flood controls installed since 1936 have sharply lessened the impact of future floods, including the impact of rainy weather the past few weeks.

In an era without instant communications, most people were not immediately aware of how serious the situation was. That morning's edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had nothing on the front page warning about potential flooding.

"Nobody seemed too worried about it," Mrs. Stanny, 93, said. She now lives in Baldwin Borough.

Mrs. Sage, 97, agreed. She now lives in Stowe, Ohio, near Akron. "We didn't have a radio, and the young boys weren't selling special editions [of newspapers], so I really didn't know anything about a flood."

When she left for work that morning from her home in Pittsburgh's Elliott neighborhood, she saw that parts of West Carson Street were under water. To her that just meant she couldn't hop a streetcar. Instead, she hoofed it across the West End Bridge to the North Side.

When police forbade her from crossing the Allegheny River on any of the "Three Sisters" bridges at Sixth, Seventh and Ninth streets, she realized conditions were worse than she had thought. Undeterred, she finally managed to get across the river at 16th Street.

Mrs. Sage, then Miss Kim, 21, worked as a bookkeeper, stenographer and sales clerk at a firm called Electrical Equipment Co. on Smithfield Street. It was a few doors away from what was then Gimbels department store, now Burlington Coat Factory.

When she arrived at work, she and other employees spent the rest of the morning moving inventory, records and office equipment to the second floor of the building. By that time, floodwaters had filled cellars on Smithfield Street and were approaching the first-floor door sills.

With electric power out and the threat of gas explosions from ruptured utility lines growing greater, police told her and her co-workers to leave. Realizing she could not get home, she called her aunt who lived in Morewood Gardens, an upscale apartment complex in Oakland, and made arrangements to stay with her. The apartments are now part of a Carnegie Mellon University dormitory area.

With the trolley system closed down, Mrs. Sage hiked out Forbes Avenue to Oakland.

As she walked to her aunt's apartment, she realized that she hadn't eaten all day. She stopped at a Gammon's Restaurant -- she recalled there being several eateries with that name around Pittsburgh -- before finishing her trek.

Some phones were working, and she was able to get a message to her mother telling her she was all right. To the best of her recollection, it was a full week before she could get back Downtown to where she worked.

Mrs. Stanny, then Miss Simkunas, was 18 in 1936, and she lived with her family on Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh's Soho neighborhood. For her, the flood was mostly a few days of adventure combined with some mostly minor inconveniences. With the trolley system out of operation, she had to walk everywhere. "And I think there was a shortage of milk and bread at first," she recalled.

Her family, however, didn't escape unscathed from the disaster's after-effects. Her brother Albert suffered a serious eye injury from an explosion. That accident happened while he was working with a crew restoring electrical service to a Jones and Laughlin Steel Co. plant, now demolished, on Second Avenue.

Flooding had been a periodic problem at the Point -- where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers meet to form the Ohio -- since the first white soldiers and settlers arrived in the 1750s.

In March 1763, Capt. Simeon Ecuyer, the commander of Fort Pitt, wrote a letter in which he described high water that turned the military post into an island and came within inches of requiring its abandonment.

Spring snow melt and rains almost guaranteed that portions of the Point would be under water twice a year during most of Pittsburgh's history, Werner Loehlein said. A city native, he has been chief of the water management branch of the Army Corps of Engineers for the Pittsburgh District for 20 years.

In April 1912, the Pittsburgh Flood Commission, chaired by H.J. Heinz, issued a 1,000-page report. The study recommended construction of a series of dams and reservoirs upstream to reduce annual flooding.

It wasn't until 1934 that the U.S. House approved flood-control measures for the Ohio Valley. The bill, however, stalled in the Senate.

The St. Patrick's Day flood was the result of a near-perfect storm of meteorological events, Mr. Loehlein said. Snowfall had measured 63 inches that winter, well above the average of 40 to 45 inches. After it quickly melted, it left the Mon and the Allegheny rivers running full. Then the upstream watershed was hit with as much as 2 inches of rain, causing both rivers to flood at the same time.

In 1936, 16 feet was the normal level for the rivers at the Point. By March 18, the water crested at 46 feet.

Largely in reaction to the Pittsburgh disaster, the Senate finally acted to approve the Flood Control Act of 1936, Mr. Loehlein said. Congress delayed funding for another year, but downstream floods on the Ohio in January and March 1937 reinforced the need for the project.

The federal government ultimately financed construction of 16 reservoirs to help control water in the upper Ohio valley.

Those dams and reservoirs have proved their worth on multiple occasions, Mr. Loehlein said. Floodwaters that flowed over the Point in June 1972, the result of Hurricane Agnes, measured about 351/2 feet. "Without the reservoirs the water level would have gone up to 48 feet -- 2 feet higher than in the '36 flood," he said.

Mr. Loehlein, who grew up on the North Side and in Ross, has worked for the Army Corps of Engineers since 1972, starting at the agency just before Agnes hit the region.

Will the city ever experience another disaster like the St. Patrick's Day flood?

The probability is very low, he said. Recent events in Japan, however, have demonstrated that the most unlikely of scenarios can happen.

"But there is no doubt that the reservoirs have reduced the frequency of flooding and reduced the height of flood crests," Mr. Loehlein said.

He estimates the flood-control measures can reduce water flow by as much as 4 feet and that there likely would have been substantial problems in recent weeks without the controls.

In 1936, Joseph Dury was 14 and a student at Sewickley Academy. At some point that morning on March 17, classroom clocks stopped and the lights went out, he recalled in a story he often told his wife, the former Peggy Watson. Mr. Dury died at 87 in 2009.

As Mrs. Dury remembers it, her husband's mother had warned him about crossing the busy Pennsylvania Railroad tracks that separated Sewickley and Edgeworth from the Ohio River.

So she was surprised to hear her son say that he and his classmates had been down to see the river on St. Patrick's Day.

But there had been no need to cross the train tracks that day, Mrs. Dury said. The Ohio River was advancing up Hazel Lane, and her future husband and his friends could view the once-in-a-lifetime event from the edge of their campus.

Correction/Clarification: (Published April 2, 2011) A photograph showing a houseboat sitting on a North Side street after the St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936 is from the Pittsburgh City Photographer collection at the University of Pittsburgh. The image appeared without a photo credit accompanying a March 17 story about the 75th anniversary of the flood.

Len Barcousky's " Eyewitness " column on Sunday will take a look at the next-day coverage in Pittsburgh's newspapers of the St. Patrick's Day flood. Len Barcousky: or 412-263-1159.


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