Clinging to Rooftops: The Great Flood of 1913Posted: December 4, 2016
The people of West Terre Haute could almost taste and smell the coming spring during late March 1913. There had been warmer days. 60 degrees on Thursday. It would not be long now.
Looking out the back window of her house on National Avenue, Lulu Hants was heartened by the thought that the pear trees would be budding out before she knew it. Eleven year-old Hildy, always her little helper, peeled potatoes, while the other girls scurried around the house. Easter was just two days away and she had been getting the girls Sunday dresses ready. She looked forward to the short walk to the Congregational Church for the Easter Service, hoping for nice weather.
It was raining when she rose at 5:00 on March 23rd, Easter Sunday morning. It had rained throughout Rev. Rogers’ service. Outside activities were cancelled. She, husband Will and their five girls walked home through the steady rainfall. In early afternoon the rain finally stopped. Temperatures rose all afternoon and by evening it was over 70 degrees. The heavy air seemed shroud the house. Will sat reading the Sunday paper. Many of Terre Haute’s clothing stores were toting their spring sales. Burlesque houses were offering fare like the Millard Brothers Burlesque of Bicycle Phiends in a Cyclone of Funny Stunts and Rosers Aerial Dogs. The American Theater was showing a three-reeler called Fools of Society.
Will folded the paper and peered through the windows. He told Lulu to tuck the girls in tight. Weather like this always brought on terrible storms.
By 9:00 the whole family was sleeping fitfully as thundered road above them and lightning etched sharp shadows across the rooms. As they tried to rest they were unaware that a horrible force of nature was birthing along the Wabash south of town. Rain was falling at a rate of an inch an hour. Around 9:45 a funnel cloud crossed from the west bank of the Wabash to the east, heading for the southern part of Terre Haute.
The tornado rampaged for two and a half minutes. Its swathe of destruction ranged from 200 to 500 yards wide. Later, when all the counting had been done, 300 homes were obliterated or damaged. 250 people were injured, another 21 would be buried.
Next morning the news of the catastrophe spread through West Terre Haute. Will Hants ventured along National Avenue to the Rogerson Funeral Parlor where he sometimes worked. Men gathered there and shared stories and rumor. One Terre Haute woman reported that the storm had de-feathered her chickens. Another told how her bed clothes had been sucked up her chimney and out into the storm. Toothpicks had been driven into a hardwood buffet as if they were hammer and nail.
“That could have been us” were the words on many lips all through West Terre Haute. Thank god we were spared. But their trials would soon be upon them.
It continued to rain throughout Monday. On Easter morning the Wabash water level stood at seven feet, about normal for that time of year. The rains just would not stop. By Monday evening it was at 19 feet, 3 feet above flood stage. Heavy rains upriver had swollen the Wabash at Terre Haute.
By Tuesday evening Taylorville across the river was under water. More than 300 people there slogged across the bridge to seek shelter in Terre Haute. The waters rolled west along the grade to West Terre Haute. A sister tide had inundated southern Sugar Creek Township. Toad Hop, only a mile west of the town, was soon underwater. Half of the fifty families there moved in with neighbors who lived on slightly higher ground
The waters rolled inexorably into West Terre Haute overnight and the next morning. It was clear that this was no ordinary flood. Will Hants
Tuesday afternoon saw a reverse flood of people to Terre Haute. More than a thousand people from Toad Hop and West Terre Haute crossed the flooded grade to seek shelter with relatives or friends. A call went out from West Terre Haute for anyone with a boat to come to the rescue. Taylorville had all but disappeared under a wet, murky brown blanket of water.
Will Hants had begun moving some furniture and belongings to the second floor of the house. The whole family pitched in and Lulu and Hildy tried to keep the younger girls calm. At first the rising water had seemed a bit of an adventure to the little ones, Mable, Jeanette and the twins Eva and Iva. But soon they sensed the rising fear of their parents.
Daybreak on Wednesday saw the entire town covered in water. Even Paris Avenue, which had seldom been touched by flooding, was under six inches or more of water. The two-storey Ruddell Furniture store opened its doors and allowed refugees a place to stay on the second floor.
Water soon drowned the clay plant and mine shafts, forcing closures. Over 2,500 men were without work. But that was secondary to the men who were now more concerned about protecting their families. The phone service finally succumbed to the flooding by Wednesday morning. The poles carrying its wire had actually been planted below the grade and the floodtide toppled the poles or broke the lines.
People who did not flee town found shelter wherever they felt safer. Some went to the Methodit Church, while many more flocked the larger and taller Congregational Church. As many as one hundred people or more sought their refuge where three days before the Hants family and others had celebrated Easter. Another thirty were housed at St. Leonard’s Catholic Church.
By Wednesday evening West Terre Haute was virtually an island cut off from the rest of its world. Boats were the only way in or out. All over town houses were pushed off their foundations by the tide and became unwieldy ships careening about in rough seas. Many watched in awe as the firehouse on Paris Avenue was lifted from its mooring and pushed three blocks south to National Avenue. Its new location could be seen from the Hants’ house.
Fears about immediate safety were replaced by concerns of food shortages and disease. Deadly outbreaks of Typhus in particular often followed the receding flood waters. Food could only be brought in by boat. A Terre Haute bakery had sent a wagonload of bread Tuesday but that was not enough. Among the areas most affected by the food shortage were north of town. Whitcomb Heights and Ferguson Hill were essentially cut off. Word went out that there was likely only enough food left there to last until Friday, and that was with everyone rationing and sharing what they had left in their pantries. The McIlroy family opened the doors to their grocery store to all, giving away what little was left on the shelves.
Further tragedy struck in Whitcomb Heights. The home of 17 year-old John Schwam was completely surrounded by floodwaters. He died of measles during the flood. The word was that the undertakers would not be able to reach there for days. They family was told to temporarily bury him on high ground as soon as possible. The undertakers wagon would come for him as soon as possible later.The opposite event occurred at the Congregational Church where the baby of Mr. and Mrs. William Kennedy was born during the flood.
There was not an inch of dry land in West Terre Haute by Thursday, but that afternoon the flood had crested and waters were beginning to slowly recede. There were some efforts to alleviate the flood. Some enterprising fellows, with the help of miners familiar with dynamiting attempted to create a large crater south of town on Cherry Grove road (in the area of the current Wabashniki Wetlands) to siphon off some of the floodwaters. It was akin to digging a mine shaft with a thimble, not much use, but it can still be seen as a pond on the site.
The worst was over by Friday. People began returning to their homes, or what was left of their homes, by Saturday. The Terre Haute Police department offered its patrol wagons, which had earlier carried refugees to Terre Haute, to carry people back across the bridge. People pitched in to help. A farmer named Winter Rogers slogged the five sodden miles from west of town to bring 25 bushels of turnips to the people of West Terre Haute. Other help was on its way. The Sugar Creek Trustee began raising relief funds. Thousands of Terre Hauteans responded, setting up a fund for those in Taylorville and West Terre Haute.
On Saturday morning a boat named the Eclipse, captained by an intrepid man named Joe Jeffers, finally made it to Ferguson Hill. He carried food, medicine and hope to the sodden, bedraggled folks living there.
The Sunday after Easter saw many trying to reclaim as much as their lives and homes from the flood as possible. Will Hants, like his neighbors the Scotts, Hankins and Brother south on Riggy Avenue, began shoveling the mud from his home. Lulu, Hildy and the little ones began cleaning and hanging clothes and linens to dry on the backyard clothesline.
In the aftermath of the flood some looting had been discovered. There are those always willing to take advantage of a situation for their own good. Some of them walked the streets of West Terre Haute with the neighbors who had been their victims.
The flooding left behind huge piles of debris of furniture, clothing and household goods. People went from pile to pile trying to salvage any of their belongings it could. What was left was “finders-keepers” to be claimed by the rivermen and others.
On Sunday the Hants returned to the Congregational Church (in which a family of six refugees would remain for another week or so) as they had gathered the Sunday before.
The Great Flood of 1913 was indeed a Hundred Year Flood in the Midwest and East. Over 650 people died in the flood.. It is estimated that over 300 million dollars in damage was left behind its torrents.
Photos below courtesy of the Vigo County Historical Society