And the Heavens Opened: The Flood of 1943Posted: December 4, 2014
The people of West Terre Haute were used to floods and rumors of floods. In 1913 they had suffered through a “hundred year flood’ that arrived hard upon the heels of a devastating series of tornados and threatened to wash away the town.
So, many people were prone to keeping an eye on the weather and peeking apprehensively over their shoulder for dark clouds. Among them was Charles H. Ray. The scion of an influential family, which counted an early Indiana Governor in its lineage, Ray was a mine owner and president of the State bank of West Terre Haute. His family lived part of their year in Terre Haute, part of it on the family’s farm along the Darwin Road southwest of West Terre Haute. He had many interests, served many causes, but he was also a man in love with his land.
It is obvious from reading his diaries (which his family has kindly loaned me for my research) that his farm, long held by his family, was a loved center of his life. Like all farmers he was constantly aware of the weather. In his case it was particularly true because the farm was bordered on the east by the Wabash River. Packed between the pages of the diaries are the monthly meteorological reports issued by the weather bureau. Seldom did a day or two pass without a notation about the weather. This was especially true in the Spring of 1943.
On May 6th, the day after he had finished plowing part of his bottom lands below the levee, he headed his entry “Showers.” The rains continued, and on May 8th came the alliterative notation “River rising rapidly.” Rain and more rain came and Ray thought it the heaviest downpour he had ever seen. That deluge caused the cellar under the century old log cabin he cherished to cave in.
And it rained and rained. By the 15th the river was at 19 feet. By this time it was not just the farmers peering at the rain gauges. Those over 35 who had lived through the great flood were beginning to take notice. By Monday, May 17th people in the markets or at the Dick Davis Diner were asking each other if they had heard that over 3 ½ inches had fallen overnight upriver at Covington. “The river is already at 21.3! If this keeps up anything could happen.”
By Tuesday morning rumors were torrenting through the town.
“The levee around WTH is expected to break.”
“People ordered out of the south end of town. Say it will be as bad as 1913.”
At 10:30 that Tuesday the state reported that the river would rise to 27 or 28 feet. The levee was built to handle a maximum of 25 feet. Already 24.6 feet of water was thrashing against its dirt walls. The inevitable happened at 7:15 that evening as the strained levee was breached. More than half of West Terre Haute was flooded by morning as the water raged through neighborhoods on the south and west sides. Buildings collapsed, good carried away on muddy tides. On south 9th & 10th streets only the roofs of some houses could be seen above the roiling waters. Those with boats became heroes to their neighbors as they loaded the stranded from roofs or second storey windows. Toad Hop was a lake.
The Governor called out the National Guard. Military vehicles hauled in food and water and hauled people out. The Central School became home, hospital and dining room to many from the south side, as the military furnished cots, medicine and food to those without shelter. The New York Times featured a photo of guardsmen caring for the children.
Waters seeped further into the town on Wednesday. Even Johnson Avenue on the north side was covered from curb to curb. West Terre Haute became an island cut off from the west and south. The railroad and the grade were the only avenues of escape. Those who could took their money, silver and valuables to the bank on Paris Avenue, where Ray and Mrs. Branham, an employee, gave receipts and opened the vault. Another teller, Mrs. Long made it to the bank to help them in the afternoon. She came on the back of an army truck. Ray slept on a cot in the back room of the bank on Wednesday night.
Over 6,000 people in West Terre Haute and southwest Sugar Creek Township suddenly had no home,
Inevitably, some took advantage of the situation, looting the homes and businesses of their neighbors. West Terre Haute was essentially under martial law after Indiana Governor Schricker visited the area.
Thursday, Paris Avenue was relatively dry and those who could made their way there. The soda fountain at Berry’s Drugstore was crowded, every seat taken. The town was without water to drink. The river crested at over 30 feet on Thursday. The long-hoped for sun returned on Friday. Slowly the waters ebbed from the town. By Saturday the water was off the Toad Hop road. The National Road was open to automobile traffic.
With the roads opened, many of those who had fled to Terre Haute or the north to stay with relatives returned to their sodden homes and mudded streets as newspapers across the nation posited that West Terre Haute had the dubious honor of being the most flood-damaged town in the floods.
West Terre Haute had survived again.
Charles Ray gratefully returned to his farm.
(Images courtesy of the Vigo County Historical Society)