Original publish date: March 13, 2013
Oh, how it rained. For 48 straight hours, it rained. Martha Duncan stood on the porch of her house, located on the north side of Fourth Street between State and Pennsylvania, wondering if it was ever going to stop. It was Monday March 24th, 1913 in Greenfield, Indiana, nearly 60 degrees outside and the normally shallow waters of nearby Potts Ditch were creeping closer-and-closer by the minute. By eleven o’clock that night, she was moving furniture and rolling up carpet. By one o’clock the water was within a few inches of the floor. She managed to save everything but her piano before the Fourth Street bridge over Potts Ditch was swept off its moorings and floated downstream.
On State Street, the large front yard of the John Ward Walker home, known as “Walker’s Hill”, was now a lake. Walker was a prominent local merchant and one of the founders of the Greenfield Banking Company in 1871. The Vawter and Selman homes, properties adjoining Potts Ditch, had to be evacuated and were quickly overtaken by flood waters. The Selman barn looked like an island in the newly created waterway.
One hundred years ago this week, the great flood of 1913, or “March Flood” to locals, became the worst flood in Indiana history. In Greenfield, James Whitcomb Riley’s storied Brandywine Creek flowed over the National Road like a raging river; it’s branches, like Potts Ditch, spread water through town ripping away all but one bridge, the East South Street bridge, the town’s newest created just the year before.
In March of 1913, Greenfield was a small agricultural community located at the headwaters of the White River’s East Fork. The news of the year was the purchase of a 156-acre tract of land one mile west of Greenfield by the Eli Lilly Biological Laboratories. In time, Spanish-style structures would start popping up all over the property. When completed, the snow-white, red-tile roofed buildings awaited the arrival of test animals to be quartered within them in preparation for the manufacture of antitoxins and vaccines. In the original buildings, there would be space for 30 horses, 18 calves, 3,000 guinea pigs, 500 rabbits and many other small animals. Eventually, the site would grow until it had 70 buildings on 800 acres. Soon, by late 1913, immunization of horses and calves would begin.
But on March 24, 1913, the flood was the big news in Hancock County. Greenfield residents stayed up all that Monday night to watch as the river steadily breached it’s banks. In 1913 farmers pastured their cattle in many places along the town’s waterways and undoubtedly many were lost in the rushing torrents. With every passing hour, the Brandywine rose higher and higher as the rain mercilessly poured down. A little past eleven o’clock on that “Black Night of Terror”, a train passed over the Brandywine via the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge. A short time after the caboose crossed safely over, a lone watchman held his red lantern over the chasm now formed in the dark void where the bridge had stood just moments earlier. The bridge had been carried away by the raging flood waters.
The rain did not stop until 5:30 a.m.. Tuesday, March 25th, but the Brandywine continued to rise perilously minute by minute until it crested at 6:30 a.m.. The arch bridge at Fifth Street was now underwater and the flood poured over it, flooding barns and chicken houses between Fifth and State streets. The employees of the four-story Columbia Hotel, built in 1885 at 118 East Main Street and considered the town’s most luxurious, were now furiously bailing water out of the basement while pacifying nervous guests. The newly built Greenfield Hotel and nearby Hinchman wagon store were dealing similarly. Soon, Bert Orr’s grocery, the Monger garage, the Clayton & Davis cement works and the South Street Methodist Church (now the Trinity Park Methodist Church) were soaking in muddy water.
Although the new East South street bridge survived the floods, it was for a time under more than a foot of water. According to the April 3, 1913 “Greenfield Republican” newspaper, 25-year town resident John Mulvihill said that he’d never seen the water so high. Mulvihill pointed to a corn crib in the Henry Fry barn on East Main Street that had been built above all previous high water marks that was now underwater. Another local farmer, J.P. Knight, whose farm was on the banks of the Brandywine south of the National Road, said he lost all of the grain stored in his barn and a pile of gravel worth an estimated $ 300 when both were washed away downstream.
The railcars on the Terre Haute, Indianapolis and Evansville railroad, known popularly as the “Interurban line”, now lay stranded at different points along the road between Greenfield and Richmond. In addition, the traction line bridges were washed out at many points. Travel, phone service and mail delivery ceased and for awhile, Greenfield was cut off from the outside world. To make matters worse, just hours after the rain stopped, the temperature dropped by over 20 degrees and it began to snow. By the 27th, two days after the devastating flood waters ceased, there was 1.5 inches of snow on the ground in Greenfield.
An estimated 5 to 8 inches of rain fell in a 48 hour period. It was late March in Indiana. The winter of 1913 had been particularly harsh in the Hoosier state. The Spring thaw was slow in coming and the water that rained down on Greenfield that weekend fell on frozen earth with no place to go. No place to go but downstream; to Indianapolis.
NEXT WEEK- PART II