Remembering the 1936 St. Patrick's Day flood

March 16, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • A marker on the corner of the G.A. Miller lumber yard indicates the high water mark of the 1936 flood in Williamsport.
By Kevin G. Gilbert

WILLIAMSPORT — But, 75 years ago, Mother Nature turned water into a malicious mad dog.

In Williamsport, it ripped away buildings, destroyed bridges and sent people scrambling to the second floors of their homes.

With no electricity, no telephone service and washed-out roads, many communities in the Tri-state area became isolated islands.

When the rain ended after three days, what was left was life that follows weather — cleanup and resolve.

It was the 1936 St. Patrick's Day Flood, one of the region's worst natural disasters.

There have been other floods, other devastating events, but this is one of the most memorable, say the people who lived through it.

"When you're dealing with 49 1/2 feet of cresting water, it's something you tend not to forget," said Maurice Snyder, 97, of Williamsport.

It had been a cold winter, Snyder recalled, and a warm spell had moved into the area, offering a welcomed respite from the freezing temperatures.

According to newspaper accounts, there had been general rainfall throughout the Potomac River Basin during the first two weeks of March, and much of the rainfall, combined with thawing snow, found its way into streams and creeks.

Around March 15, a storm originating in Texas began moving toward the mid-Atlantic states and the Upper Ohio River Valley.

By March 17, it was raining heavily.

"Cumberland had a lot of snow on the ground," Snyder said. "And when it melted, it filled the Potomac River."

As the downpours continued, the river, as well as streams and creeks began to rage.

Along a 100-mile stretch from Cumberland to Point of Rocks, the flood waters rolled, leaving destruction in their wake.

Cumberland was battered by a 10- to 14-foot wall of water, and hundreds of people were left homeless.

At Hancock, water from the Potomac River filled the town, buildings were smashed to splinters and roads were impassable.

Several houses and a store building on the West Virginia side of the river at Hancock were swept from their bases and floated downstream.

And the flood was making its way to Williamsport.

Snyder said he was 22 years old at the time and was working at the Williamsport tannery.

"We got a call from Cumberland telling us what was coming," he said.

What was coming was "water, water, water. That's all we saw the next few days."

Once it hit, "we stood as an island 'the tannery, the brickyard, that whole area," Snyder said.

"My recollection, the river was rising a foot per hour," he said.

Jack Myers was 13 years old and living on Fenton Avenue when the floodwaters roared into Williamsport.

"Our house was at the edge of Cushwa Brickyard," he said. "The water came up to our door sill, so we started moving furniture to the second floor."

Myers, 87, said he can still hear the sound of water hitting the kilns in the nearby brickyard, "a sound that's hard to describe. But the steam, it was amazing."

He also remembers that the G.A. Miller lumber yard and the polo field were flooded, as was Conomac Park, a popular gathering place for residents.

The Western Maryland Railroad tracks also were flooded.

A lot of the houses in the lower part of Williamsport were under water, said Snyder.

"Water was up to the second floor, some to the third floor," he said.

"People on the canal lost their homes. The river bottom, the hollow, were hit the hardest," Myers said.

Piano in a boat

Charles South, 92, said he was in junior high school at the time, but has vivid memories of the flood — one in particular.

"I remember someone moving a piano from their house" and into a boat, he said.

He recalled that with water almost up to the turbine room floor, the Potomac Edison power plant at Williamsport suspended operations.

Sue Bowers Hoch, 80, was 5 years old in 1936 and living on West Potomac Street.

Hoch said her father had boats, and she remembers him tying one up at the back of their house.

"Water was half way up the hill," she said.

The town proper, however, was spared devastation, said John Frye of the Western Maryland Room at the Washington County Free Library.

"It was pretty much away from the water, going uphill," he said.

Frye said the water peaked on March 18 at about 49 1/2 feet, and the rain ended on March 19.

Startling aftermath

When it did, the town attracted hundreds of people from across the area who came to view the damage.

The aftermath was startling.

Standing on Doubleday Hill after the storm, Snyder said he looked down at the river and an incredible sight.

"It was loaded with trash," he said. "But I also saw chickens on top of straw stacks."

Bob May, 80, said he didn't live in Williamsport at the time, "but Dad brought us to see the damage."

"I remember seeing several buildings going down the river. To me, as a kid, water was scary. And that amount of water, the height, it's something I'll never forget," he said.

"There was a constant stream of cars from all over the county coming into to town ... to see how the town had survived," Snyder said.

In addition, to the curious, The Salvation Army and American Red Cross appeared on the scene, providing food and clothing, as well as temporary housing.

The Washington County Health Department arrived, too, offering immunization against typhoid fever, Snyder said.

Dr. W. Ross Cameron, county health officer at the time, announced that wells in the flood areas would be chlorinated as rapidly as possible.

And at Williamsport schools, faculty and students joined with members of the Parent-Teachers Association in providing boxes of food and clothing for flood victims.

The most amazing thing was that there was no loss of life in Williamsport, Snyder said.

Massive cleanup

With the end of the flood, came the cleanup.

"There was mud all over everything," Myers said. "Think about it. You just started shoveling it out. And you know what water does to wood. There were a lot of repairs."

"But people living in that time of the Great Depression were used to tough times," he said. "They buckled down and did it."

"You scrubbed and helped each other out," Snyder said.

It took many residences and businesses weeks, even months, to get back on their feet, they all said.

Morale could have been low after such a disaster, but everybody pulled together, Snyder said.

"They called us the Williamsport Wildcats. We certainly were wildcats back then," he noted.

Williamsport Councilwoman Joan Knode said photographs and information about the St. Patrick's Day Flood can be found at the Town Museum on Springfield Lane.

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