St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936 Flood Spurred Legislation

Valley News Dispatch
13 March 2011
By Rossilynne Skena

Seventy-five years ago this week, the Allegheny River spilled over its banks, inundating every town along it through the Alle-Kiski Valley and Pittsburgh.

The St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936 was the worst flood ever to hit the region.

Within the Ohio Valley, 153 people died, 69 of them within the Pittsburgh region, 45 of them within the city.

Muddy waters crested at 46 feet at the city's Point, flooding steel mills and putting 60,000 workers out of work for a week.

The water did $250 million worth of damage. In today's dollars, that's more than $3 billion.

After the river receded and the Valley got back on its feet, Congress passed a law to begin flood-control projects, a piece of legislation that had been stuck in the Senate for two years.

"It was the St. Patrick's Day flood that actually passed the law," said Werner Loehlein, chief of the Water Management Branch for the Army Corps of Engineers' Pittsburgh District. "Congress made a decision that they were going to try to manage floods by building a system of reservoirs."

Since then, the Army Corps of Engineers has built 16 dams and lakes in the Pittsburgh District, which includes the Alle-Kiski Valley, to control the water.

The projects cost about $500 million.

The Army Corps estimates that those projects have prevented about $10 billion in flood damages in the region since the first lake was built in 1938.

That's a return of more than $17 for every dollar spent.

Add in 42 local flood-prevention projects, and the savings increase nearly $2.4 billion.

That system of dams and lakes has reduced the water that flows during a flood, helping to make sure there's not a repeat of the March 1936 flood.

Snow nearly double normal

It all started with a brutal winter.

By March 1, 1936, 53 inches of snow had fallen. The normal amount by that date is 27.7 inches, according to the National Weather Service.

Then on March 16, the temperature rose to 45 degrees and it rained almost an inch.

The rain continued the next day before turning to snow, National Weather Service meteorologist Brad Rehak said. In all, 1.78 inches of precipitation was recorded.

Just before St. Patrick's Day melting snow filled the river to its banks, according to the Corps' Loehlein.

"The river reacted much more quickly than it does now because you don't have the system of locks and dams in the river," Rehak said. "Back then, it probably reacted more like a large creek than it did a river."

Water crested at 46 feet in the heart of Pittsburgh. It's normally at a stage of 16 feet; flood stage at today's Point State Park is 25.

The New Kensington Daily Dispatch, a predecessor of the Valley News Dispatch, on Thursday, March 19, 1936 warned readers to boil all drinking water for 20 minutes. That day's front page reported that a third of Freeport was flooded, nine houses were swept away and that more than 200 families were left homeless.

It called the flood a "major catastrophe in the history of Allegheny Valley" and reported the following from Tarentum:

"Ooze and desolation.

This, tersely, is an accurate description of the flood-ravaged Tarentum community.

Weary and heart-sick -- but not heart-broken.

That is the spirit of the people."

The Valley Daily News, in Tarentum, printed its March 18, 1936 edition at the Butler Eagle's pressroom because its facility -- which now houses the Valley News Dispatch -- was flooded.

To this day, the Fourth Avenue news office bears a high water marker on its side.

In the city of Pittsburgh during the 1936 flood, the only way to travel on Grant Street was by boat. There was no electricity for nearly a week, and there was a shortage of drinking water.

Not one local community escaped the flood.

"Both the Allegheny and the Monongahela crested almost at the same time," Loehlein said, "so Pittsburgh got hammered."

Before the flood, Pittsburgh regularly flooded, covering the banks of the Allegheny and the Monongahela River. Point State Park was flooded an average of twice a year, Loehlein said.

About 100 years ago, the Pittsburgh Flood Commission, under the city's chamber of commerce and run by H.J. Heinz, released a report begging the federal government to build nine flood control projects.

For three decades, the group campaigned for it, finally resulting in a passed House bill in 1934.

That bill got stuck in the Senate for two years -- until the St. Patrick's Day flood brought it forward.

The legislation passed and resulted in multipurpose flood control reservoirs.

"It's really the single most significant disaster in our region because not only did it lead to an event system of 16 reservoirs," Loehlein said, "it also eventually led to 40, not directly, but 40 local protection projects."

Among those local projects are channel improvements in Millvale and Etna. Those smaller scale projects, usually on tributaries, help protect communities that suffer flash floods.

The region has seen its share of floods since 1936, including the flood triggered by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. The river crested at 35.5 feet during the June flood, but without reservoirs, Loehlein said, it would have crested at 48 feet. That would have been even worse than the 1936 flood.

In January 1996, the river crested at 34.5 feet. That would have been 44.5 feet without reservoirs, he said.

Flooding within the past few weeks would have been 4 to 6 feet worse without the dams and lakes, Loehlein said.

It's impossible to tack a specific number on how much the dams and lakes save overall because it depends on where rain falls in relation to the reservoirs.

That's not to say a flood like 1936's -- or worse -- will never happen again, Loehlein said.

But it would have to be a combination of the "perfect storm" -- and Murphy's Law.

The "perfect storm" would mean a storm that pours more than 28 inches of rain in three days, he said.

The dams and lakes not only control the water that runs through the region, they provide a place for recreation and ensure that public water supply and sanitary sewers will function correctly.

Two area reservoirs, Conemaugh River Lake and Loyalhanna Lake, control about 90 percent of the watershed in the Kiski River, Loehlein said, meaning that Vandergrift is well protected from floods.

The St. Patrick's Day flood was the impetus for making a system of dams and lakes a reality.

"What makes the St. Patrick's Day flood so significant," Loehlein said, "besides the size of it, is how it actually tripped the action."

Remembering a disaster

Whiskey barrels that had broken free from the Schenley Distillery in Armstrong County rushed down the Allegheny River through Oakmont, along with houses, sheds and boats.

Jim Eaton, 94, of Oakmont, remembers watching the wreckage float past during the St. Patrick's Day flood in 1936. He was 19.

The water was almost to the top of the stone piers by the Hulton Bridge, Eaton remembers.

Just up the river in the Creighton section of East Deer, 16-year-old Steve Jager's neighbors stacked their furniture on his family's porch, which was spared from the floodwaters.

The Jagers were lucky -- their house was about 100 yards away from the Allegheny's overflow.

Jager's family lived in a company house in the lower end of Creighton near PPG, where his father worked. The home was situated near Bailies Run Road, on the far side of the railroad tracks from the river.

But houses on the other side of the railroad tracks, Jager said, were flooded up to half their height. Jager, who is now 91 and lives in Arnold, estimates 100 or more homes were inundated. So were businesses and Freeport Road, then Route 28.

"It was a very bad thing, and what we tried to do is help the people who lived on that side of the tracks," Jager said. "Those were very, very hectic times."

Eaton had been living in West Virginia in 1936 but happened to be visiting Oakmont on that Tuesday. Since 1937, he's lived in Oakmont.

Everyone knew the water was going to rise, but they didn't expect a deluge.

Proving things never change when severe weather is expected, Eaton remembers residents stocking up on milk, bread and eggs before the flood. Afterward, people were forced to cook on fires because the utility companies had shut down the gas.

Water never reached Allegheny River Boulevard in most of Oakmont, but it did in the Plum Creek section of the borough, near Verona.

Eaton called the flooding "a mess," but said the water "went down pretty quickly after it started."

Both men pitched in to help their neighbors.

Jager remembers cleaning out basements and that it took days to clean everything up.

"I was young (and) energetic," Jager said, "so wherever I could help out, I helped."

The worst floods in Pittsburgh's history

Numbers are recorded in downtown Pittsburgh at the Fort Pitt Bridge. Flood stage is 25 feet.

• March 18, 1936 -- 46 feet
• March 9, 1763 -- 40.9 feet
• Jan. 9, 1762 -- 39 feet
• March 15, 1907 -- 38.5 feet
• 1784 (no month listed) -- 38 feet
• February 1832 -- 38 feet
• April 1806 -- 36.9
• February 1884 -- 36.3 feet
• Dec. 31, 1942 -- 36.6 feet

Source: The Army Corps of Engineers, Pittsburgh

When it floods

When the river's crest meets certain levels, you can expect flooding at the following Pittsburgh landmarks:
18 feet -- Mon Wharf
19 feet -- North Shore River Walk
22 feet -- Tenth Street Bypass
25 feet -- "Bathtub" area between the Grant Street and the Fort Pitt Bridge
29 feet -- River Avenue on the North Side
30 feet -- Point State Park floods to the Portal Bridge
31 feet -- Railroad tracks at Station Square
36 feet -- Port Authority Subway System is affected
Source: National Weather Service data