Indianapolis, Natural Disasters

Indianapolis, Indiana: The Great Flood of 1913. Part II.

Damage at Indianapolis, Indiana, March 27

Original publish date:  March 20, 2013

Last week, we left Greenfield a century ago; March 25th, 1913, underwater. The “Black Night of Terror”, the “March Flood”, the “Great Flood of 1913” had come and gone through the Hancock County seat leaving devastation in its wake. And it was headed straight for Indianapolis. On Tuesday the National Weather Bureau sent out the following warning: “Below Indianapolis the river will rise rapidly and the public should prepare for higher stages than have been experienced for many years. Every precaution should be taken by those living along the lower course of he river, as the rise will be unusually rapid and will reach a point several feet above the danger line.” Late that Tuesday morning, the first levee failed, flooding Indianapolis via the White River and Eagle Creek.
Fortunately, most Hoosiers heeded the warnings, gathered their families, belongings and pets and fled to higher ground, saving countless lives. Witnesses on the west side of Indianapolis claimed they saw a wall of water more than two stories high when the White River levee burst at Morris Street. Indianapolis’s tranquil Eagle Creek, normally sixty-foot-wide at best, spread to an angry class five rapid half a mile wide. Astonished bystanders watched as the White River tore through its levees at many points. Around noon on Tuesday, Fall Creek jumped its banks, flooding a large part of the city’s north side residential district, ending streetcar service and putting the water works and other public utilities out of commission. Many families living in homes in the danger zones packed valuables into wagons and carried furniture up to the second floors and attics of their homes.

By 3 p.m. the muddy water was beginning to trickle down the levee. Whenever a leak appeared, a brace of men rushed over to plug it using bags of sand and bales of straw jammed in place by telephone poles. Around 4 p.m., as the men were busy shoring up the levee north of the Morris Street bridge, water unexpectedly broke through the sandbags piled on the other end of the bridge at the western corner of Morris and Drover streets. The break, not a massive wall of water as some claimed, but rather a steady flow as if a massive spigot had been opened allowing thousands of gallons of water to pour through the breach while gradually enlarging the opening as each frantic moment trickled past. Now, people abandoned their wagons and tied what valuables and food they could gather into bundles, grabbed their children, and began to flee across the Morris Street Bridge. The evacuation proceeded in agonizing slow motion; the water first rising past their ankles, then up to their knees, finally settling around their waists.
Still, the White River kept rising. By 6 p.m. the river burst through the base of the levee about four hundred feet upriver of the bridge. By early evening, Indianapolis was flooded east of Harding Street, in some places the water cresting as high as 15 feet. By Wednesday, the Washington Street Bridge was destroyed, cutting the main artery between the Circle City and all points West and taking the railroad tracks with it. The recently created suburb of West Indianapolis and valley of West New York Street were the hardest hit areas; a region principally populated by railroad and stockyard workers. Created as one of the cities first suburbs, the southwest annex was roughly bounded by the White River to the east, the Pennsylvania Railroad line to the north, Eagle Creek to the west, and Raymond Street to the south. The residents never knew what hit them.

The first floor of the newly opened St. Vincents hospital at Fall Creek and Illinois flooded and Sister Mary Joseph and her staff moved their patients to the second and third floors for safety. Articles titled “$500,000 Loss at Peru,” “Over the Muncie Levee,” “Boats in Carmel Streets,” “Danville Cars Stopped,” “Bloomington is Cut Off, ” and “Shelbyville Levee Breaks” appeared on a single page of The Indianapolis News Wednesday edition. The flood crested in Indianapolis on the morning of Thursday, March 26th. As the water receded, the damage was unveiled and the residents were left to comb over the debris of the worst flood the state ever saw. A six-square mile area was destroyed displacing 4,000 Hoosier families. Because of the early warning, the loss of life was tallied at five known fatalities, however witness stories swear that total had to be much higher.
It was Easter week and Indianapolis was not alone in their soggy sorrow. Levees burst all around the state-on the Mississinewa River in Marion, on the White River in Muncie, on the Wabash River in Lafayette, and on the Ohio River in Lawrenceburg-flooding the cities they were supposed to protect. In the southern part of Kokomo, Wildcat Creek flooded over its levee to saturate city streets with eight feet of water. Thousands of telephone and telegraph poles and wires were downed by the flood making an organized relief effort nearly impossible. To obtain the necessary food, shelter, and medical supplies for the injured and suddenly homeless, Governor Sam Ralston appealed for help to cities around Indiana as well as to other states. Donations of money, blankets, food, and even coffins poured in just as quickly as the water poured out.

Indianapolis was not only the geographical center of the Midwest’s monumental winter storm system in March of 1913,with a population of 235,000, it was also the single largest city affected by the natural calamity. So what kind of storm caused the Great Flood of 1913? It began like any other normal Midwestern winter storm, but soon developed special characteristics conducive to flooding. A strong Canadian high with its accompanying windstorm stalled off Bermuda, thus halting the normal eastward travel of its trailing low bringing all the rain. Then another Canadian high moved in from the west, squeezing the low into a long, low-pressure trough between the two highs, its center stretching diagonally from southern Illinois, across southern and middle Indiana, and across northern Ohio. Up that diagonal path, at least two lows moved in fast succession, the rain of one merging together into the next. But nothing in the weather observations or theories of the day prepared the U.S. Weather Service, or any other body, for the unprecedented volume of water that fell out of the sky during those four days of March 1913.
Regardless of how the flood waters had arrived, and receded, perhaps the true horror of the Great Flood of 1913 was the aftermath. The flood waters were now stagnant pools of sick water filled with raw sewage, rotting food, dead pets and livestock, bugs, snakes, and disease carrying rodents. Day after day, Hoosiers were bombarded with newspaper headlines warning of looting and arrests, water borne disease wielding parasites, guards posted to keep away opportunistic invaders, health agencies warning of the dangers to unsuspecting children and dangerous siphons caused by clogged drains. For a time, the city was under siege. Luckily, the flood brought about changes in national weather forecasting by identifying the presence of stalled lows as the major factor in localized flooding, local government with the passage of stricter code enforcement in response to the flood’s aftermath, and the resurgence of the Red Cross as a National relief agency. Statewide, more than 90 people drowned and at least 180 bridges were destroyed when up to 11 inches of rain fell across the state in a five-day period. Could it happen again? Sure, but until that day, the Great Flood of 1913 remains our state’s worst ever.

Natural Disasters

Greenfield, Indiana: The Great Flood of 1913. Part I.

West 6th Street Greenfield
West 6th Street in Greenfield.

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.
5da12361953aa3af095f669da2d333fa--catherine-ohara-indianaOne 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.
8375267920_792941f501_bThe 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.