By Wally Wachter
Retired Herald Managing Editor
SHENANGO VALLEY — EDITOR’S NOTE: Like this week, an arctic blast chilled the region 55 years ago. But it struck on top of one of the many floods of that era, encasing downtown Sharon and parts of the Shenango Valley in a sheet of ice several inches thick.
Retired Herald Managing Editor Wally Wachter recounted the great 1959 ice flood in one of his The Way We Were columns, reprinted here from February 2008. Most of these photos from The Herald’s files were taken by Gene Paulson and some by the late Chuck Porter.
The wintry blast that hit the area in the last week reminds us that the Shenango Valley has had its share of rainstorms, ice storms and snowstorms over the years.
But none can compare with the blast from a combination of the three that hit the area in 1959, eventually resulting in the construction of Shenango Dam.
The valley was basking in the same kind of winter splendor we have seen recently. The snow caused no hazards or problems. It only lent artistry in whitening up a sooty snow that had fallen earlier.
The date was Jan. 20, 1959.
During the night, a warming trend turned the snow into rain. By morning, 3 inches of rain had melted all of the snow and washed into the then-peaceful Shenango River.
The water rose at a rate of about a foot an hour.
The result was the worst flood since 1913, with damage mounting into millions of dollars.
On the morning of Jan. 21, Wheatland Burgess Tom Williams ordered an immediate evacuation of the low areas.
Mayor Michael Dunn of Sharon followed a short time later with his declaration of an emergency. Civil Defense police and Red Cross personnel were pressed into service to help evacuate nearly 900 people from their flooded and cold homes.
Downtown Sharon merchants, who had experienced floods before, began moving merchandise from basements to dry storage places on upper floors. The brunt of the flood severely hurt business in downtown Sharon.
Sharon Junior High School, now the Shenango Campus of Penn State University, and the old South Water Elementary School dismissed students early when water began backing up in toilets. Both schools had suffered extensive damage in earlier floods.
Junior high classes had to be moved to the senior high school, and the schools operated on split sessions.
But the worst was yet to come.
After floodwaters had inundated most of Wheatland and downtown Sharon, the higher temperatures gave way to a frigid wave that plummeted the mercury to the zero mark. Downtown Sharon became a solid mass of ice, several feet deep in some locations.
The ice added to the mounting damage, causing more damage than the swirling waters had. It pushed unyieldingly against walls, windows, doors and foundations. It obscured streets, sidewalks and parking lots. It poked its icy fingers into homes and stores in the low-lying areas.
It took a giant job with bulldozers to to remove large chunks of ice from the streets.
Even after the thaw, the ice that had crusted on parking meters in some of the city’s parking lots remained for awhile, giving an eerie appearace.
The social and sports life of the valley was not curtailed. The Shenango Valley Junior Woman’s Club went ahead with its scheduled “Follies” despite a few hairy moments in locating their props for the show.
Sharon and Farrell Section 3 basketball esaped without a cancellation with the Steelers making headway in the WPIAL race enroute to another state championship.
The damage estimate from the flood, the freeze and the thaw was set in excess of $6 million and probably was the biggest selling point to Congress for funds to build the Shenango Dam. The project had been pushed for years by late Sharpsville Burgess George Mahaney as a necessity to preserve the Shenango Valley.
U.S. Rep. Carroll D. Kearns, Farrell, introduced legislation in Congress for construction funds and the dam became a reality several years later.
The look into the past is nostalgic, but such events as the frozen flood and the problems it created are sometimes best forgotten.