Pittsburgh, a city remarkable for its three converging rivers — the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio, has a storied history of monumental floods. The topography and the weather in Pittsburgh have always been a prime, nature-powered setup for floods. Over the years, these floods have left an indelible mark on the city and its people, shaping its history and influencing its growth. These are just a few of the more remarkable Pittsburgh floods.
The 1996 Flood: A Tale of Rain, Snowmelt, and Ice Jams
The early months of 1996 witnessed one of the most severe floods in the history of Pittsburgh. I was living in Bloomfield at the time and remember waking up to news reports and video of this one. The flood, which occurred from January 19-21, was triggered by widespread rains and the rapid melting of mountain snow in the Allegheny Plateau.
The flood affected the entire Upper Ohio River Basin, with river flooding witnessed in the Allegheny, Clarion, Conemaugh, Monongahela, Cheat, Youghiogheny, and the Upper Ohio River. The movement and jamming of ice on these rivers only served to exacerbate the flood’s intensity.
The Allegheny River was particularly hit hard by the flood, with the breaking of an ice jam near Parker, PA, causing a wave of water that worsened the situation. Additionally, the Clarion River, a tributary of the Allegheny, witnessed near-record flooding due to ice jamming.
On the Monongahela River in southwest Pennsylvania, major flooding occurred as the Cheat and Youghiogheny Rivers, two of its tributaries, rose rapidly due to the quick melting of 15 to 25 inches of snow in the West Virginia and Maryland Mountains.
The Ohio River, which forms at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, also experienced a significant rise in water levels. The simultaneous cresting of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers amplified the flooding in Pittsburgh, the nation’s largest inland port.
Despite the flood’s intensity, there were no reported deaths. However, the property damage was considerable, with damages to houses, businesses, public facilities, roads, and bridges estimated at about $31 million in western Pennsylvania alone.
Pittsburgh Floods of Yesteryear: A Historical Perspective
Pittsburgh’s history of floods extends far beyond the 1996 flood. Over the years, the city has had to grapple with several floods, each leaving its unique mark on the city’s landscape and collective memory.
Dating as far back as 1883, the city has had to bear the brunt of numerous floods, with some of the most notable ones occurring in 1907, 1936, and 1964. As a testament to the city’s resilience, each flood, no matter how devastating, has been met with a remarkable spirit of recovery and rebuilding.
The Detre Library & Archives collection houses numerous photographs that depict the city’s battles with floods over the years. These photographs serve as poignant reminders of our environment’s fragility and the resilience and compassion of everyday citizens.
The Pittsburgh Flood of 1907: A Historic Catastrophe
In the annals of Pittsburgh’s history, there’s a significant event that has left an indelible mark – the Pittsburgh Flood of 1907. This disaster, which centered on the city’s three rivers – Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela, caused extensive damage and loss. The rivers swelled to
Among the residents of Pittsburgh during this calamitous period were the Bauer ancestors. They had their abode on Fayette Street, known today as W North Ave, in Allegheny. The Bauers were property owners with six estates situated on Fayette Street and Faulkner Alley (presently Faulsey Way). These properties were in close proximity to the Ohio River, making them susceptible to the flood’s wrath.
The official flood line, as indicated in the flood commission’s report, seemed to halt before reaching the Bauer’s properties. However, there were extensions beyond this line that crossed into the Bauer’s land, raising questions about the extent of damage they might have suffered.
The Onset of the Disaster
While there are no specific mentions or photos of the Bauer’s properties, various sources provide a detailed account of the unfolding disaster. For instance, the Library of Congress maintains several photographs illustrating the scale of the flood, while the Pittsburgh Press, available on Google Newspaper Archives, gives a day-to-day account of the events.
Interestingly, on March 12th, the Pittsburgh Press forecast indicated rain, with a subtle hint of the impending disaster stating, “The rivers will rise”. The next day, a shocking headline, “Train Swept Off Bridge, 3 Dead”, brought the severity of the situation to the forefront, marking the beginning of the flood’s devastating impact.
The Impact and Aftermath
The damage escalated quickly. By March 14th, the streets on the north side of Allegheny were flooded, drawing comparisons to Venice. Residents were caught off guard by the rapidly rising waters, which within a span of five hours, inundated hundreds of homes up to the second floor.
The human cost was significant as well. Reported casualties were rising daily, with the Pittsburgh Press listing several names. The total count of fatalities, however, remains disputed, with various sources citing different figures.
The Recovery and Reflection
The floodwaters receded within 24 hours, but the city bore the scars of the disaster. Pittsburgh, particularly Allegheny, was in a pitiful state, with damages estimated to be around $20 million (though final calculations put the cost at around $5 million).
Despite the damage, the city began its recovery process. Businesses resumed, streets were cleaned, and the city slowly returned to normalcy. However, the flood of 1907 remains a grim reminder of nature’s fury, its impact etched in Pittsburgh’s history.
The St. Patrick’s Day Flood: Pittsburgh’s Worst Flood
The worst flood in Pittsburgh history occurred on St. Patrick’s Day in 1936. The flood, which affected Pittsburgh and 12 other states, was the result of a harsh winter followed by a sudden spring thaw, leading to the rapid melting of nearly 63 inches of snow.
On the morning of March 17, the city’s rivers crested the 25-foot flood stage, a common occurrence in Pittsburgh. However, when the waters surged to 46 feet the next day, thousands of buildings were devastated, marking the beginning of what came to be known as the Great St. Patrick’s Day flood.
During the flood, businesses and homes in the city’s Strip District, Golden Triangle, and North Side had about a day to move their possessions to higher ground. As the water levels rose, rescue efforts were launched across the city, with boats being utilized to evacuate people and move products from flooded buildings.
The Aftermath of the 1936 Flood in Pittsburgh
The aftermath of the 1936 flood was nothing short of devastating. The flood caused an estimated $250 million in damage, affecting houses and businesses and disrupting work schedules.
In the wake of the flood, the city witnessed a power outage that lasted for eight days. The absence of electricity left residents unable to operate their radios, leaving them in the dark about the unfolding situation.
The contamination of the water supply led to fears of a typhoid epidemic, prompting authorities to advise residents to boil their water. Although this fear was never realized, the flood claimed at least 69 lives in western Pennsylvania, with 45 deaths occurring in the city.
The flood also led to a disruption in train service as railroad tracks running along the three rivers were either blocked or washed away by the floodwaters. Roads around the rivers were washed away or buckled, leading to a gasoline shortage as there was no electricity to operate the pumps.
Despite the devastation, the city’s relief workers, consisting of police, firemen, and the National Guard, worked tirelessly to secure the city and protect public safety. The Red Cross provided food, clothing, and medical supplies, while the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps rescued people from flooded houses and assisted in the cleanup after the waters receded.
The Flood Control Debate
The 1936 flood reignited the debate on flood control. Civic organizations in the city had been lobbying the federal government for help with flood control for nearly thirty years. These efforts, however, had been met with political processes that often resulted in the city and its residents sustaining devastating damage.
In August 1935, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill for the construction of nine flood control reservoirs above Pittsburgh. However, while the Senate debated this bill, the 1936 flood occurred. It was not until the 1937 flood, which threatened but spared the city, that Congress appropriated funds for the project.
The Causes of the 1936 Flood
The 1936 flood was caused by warmer-than-normal temperatures and heavy rainfall following a cold and snowy winter. This weather pattern led to the rapid melting of snow and ice on the upper Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers.
On March 16, these rivers and their tributaries were already over their banks and threatening the city. By March 17, the waters reached the flood stage of 25 feet. Overnight, heavy rains caused the waters to rise quickly, peaking at about 46 feet on March 18, 21 feet above the flood stage. Four days later, the waters finally receded to 24 feet.
The Effects of the Flood
The effects of the 1936 flood were far-reaching, with total property damage estimated between $150 – $250 million. Steel mills around the three rivers suffered extensive damage, leaving 60,000 steel workers within a 30-mile radius out of work.
Sixty-five percent of the downtown business district was under water, from the Point all the way up to Grant Street. Electric power failed on March 17, and full power was not restored until eight days later. The contamination of the water supply led to fears of a typhoid epidemic, prompting authorities to advise residents to boil their water.
At least 69 deaths occurred in western Pennsylvania, with 45 in the city. Train service was disrupted as railroad tracks running along the three rivers were either blocked or washed away by the floodwaters. Roads around the rivers were washed away or buckled, leading to a gasoline shortage as there was no electricity to operate the pumps.
The Flood’s Legacy
The 1936 flood left a lasting impact on Pittsburgh and its residents. Many buildings in the city, particularly in or near downtown, have markers indicating the height reached by floodwaters. These markers serve as a reminder of the city’s history of floods and the resilience of its people.
The flood also led to calls for the construction of a dam upstream on the Allegheny to prevent future floods of such magnitude. Laws providing for the construction of the dam were passed in 1936 and 1938, but it took nearly three decades before the Kinzua Dam was finally completed in 1965. Despite the delay, the dam was completed in time to protect Pittsburgh from serious damage when Hurricane Agnes hit in 1972.
The Impact of Floods in Other Areas
The 1936 flood was not limited to Pittsburgh; it also affected other areas of the Mid-Atlantic on both sides of the Eastern Continental Divide. The Potomac and James Rivers also experienced severe flooding during mid-March 1936.
On the Northeast side, waters raged from New York and Connecticut to New Hampshire and Maine. In Connecticut alone, 28 people died as Hartford was paralyzed by the rising water. Significant flooding also occurred in New Hampshire, pushing the storm’s total costs to over $520 million.
Situated at the confluence of The Allegheny, The Monongahela and the Ohio rivers, Pittsburgh has always been subject to high water and flooding throughout it’s history.
The Great Pittsburgh Flood of 1964
The city of Pittsburgh experienced an unprecedented deluge on March 11, 1964. The Great Pittsburgh Flood of 1964 was a result of record-breaking rainfall that led to widespread flooding not only in Western Pennsylvania but also across the Ohio River basin. The Allegheny River’s waters reached a staggering 31’6″ in the Pittsburgh region, a height only surpassed by the devastating Hurricane Hazel in 1954 which saw the rivers peak at 32’4″. The Ohio River wasn’t spared either, with its waters cresting at an alarming 47 feet.
Impact on the City Landscape
The inundation had a profound impact on various parts of the city. Notable among the areas severely affected were Point State Park and the lower North Side, stretching from River Avenue to Federal Street. In the face of rising water levels, several businesses were compelled to relocate their merchandise to safer, higher grounds. The famous Heinz factory had to suspend operations for three days due to the water menace.
The human toll of the flood was significant. Approximately 300 people across the state were forced to abandon their homes due to the rising water. Several boats docked down the river from the West End Bridge also fell victim to the flood, ending up capsized.
The severity of the situation attracted national attention. President Lyndon Johnson conducted an aerial survey of the damaged areas from his private jet. Governor William Scranton declared a state of emergency and designated Pittsburgh a disaster area.
Flood Control Measures
The annual threat of floods remained a reality for Pittsburgh until the completion of the Kinzua flood control reservoirs on the upper Allegheny River in 1965.
The Great Pittsburgh Flood of 1964 was undoubtedly a catastrophic event that left a lasting impact on the city’s landscape and its people. It stands as a stark reminder of the power of nature and the need for effective disaster management and flood control measures.