The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

March 24, 2013

1913: The flood of the century; 100 years ago this week, the rains came and the waters rose

By John Zavinski
Herald Director of Graphics and Technology

SHENANGO VALLEY — A century ago in 1913, Sharon was a thriving industrial town with a growing population of about 17,000 people.

Another 10,000 lived in adjacent Farrell, the new name for what had been South Sharon.

The valley’s steel mills were going strong. Industrialist Frank Buhl was semi-retired and was beginning work to build a park for the community that would be called Buhl Farm.

Early March was uneventful, although a low of 1 degree above zero on the seventh was followed a week later by a high of 73 on March 13. But that’s how March often goes around here.

And then the rains came.

A storm stalled over the Ohio Valley for days, starting on Easter Sunday, March 23. It was preceded by wind and tornado damage in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

In Sharon, 6.19 inches of rain fell in four days, including 2.92 inches on March 25 and about 1.25 inches on both the day before and after.

It was unprecedented.

The U.S. Weather Bureau’s Monthly Weather Review for March 1913 reported:

“The period of excessive rains in the northern half of the lower Ohio watershed was 72 hours, a record which for duration and intensity has been equaled only on the Pacific coast. When the extent of territory involved and the sequence of the storms is considered, no previous record exists which is in any way comparable with that of March 23-27, 1913.”

The ground was wet from recent light rain, so runoff was inevitable. And flooding.

It was particularly bad throughout the Ohio River Valley, in places such as Dayton, Zanesville and Youngstown in Ohio, and Warren, Franklin, Beaver and Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

Along the Shenango River, Greenville flooded. Downstream, Sharon and New Castle had it far worse.

At State Street in Sharon, the river was ankle deep to several feet deep for about a third of a mile from the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie railroad tracks at Main Street on the west side of town to the Pennsylvania Railroad on Railroad Avenue on the east.

Railroad traffic and communications were cut off for a couple days at the height of the flood. Thousands of millworkers couldn’t work.

The story was chronicled by the newspapers, though The Herald missed four issues after its entire building was swept into the river at the foot of Pitt Street.

Two local journalists, C.B. Lartz and Z.O. Hazen, later published a small book on the flood, “The Official Souvenir History of the Shenango Valley Flood.”

“From Monday on,” the book recounts, “the surface of the Shenango was one mass of swiftly floating debris. Houses, barns, pieces of roofs, dead animals and trees were being carried by in sight of the thousands of watchers on both sides of the water.”

At 11 p.m. Tuesday, a fire started in the four-story brick warehouse of A. Wishart & Sons Co. on Silver Street. The fire department saved the building with its pumper truck, which had arrived two weeks earlier – so recently that the manufacturer’s training instructor was still in town. The truck had been reports moved out of the flooded fire station on Chestnut Street to higher ground at the 18the dry garage at Frank Buhl mansion on the East Hill.

The next day a new terror spread throughout town with the echoing crashes of the falling Herald building and the collapse of Sharon’s landmark “V” bridge at Silver Street nearby.

The river in downtown Sharon crested Wednesday at 18.6 feet, 9.6 feet above the 9-foot flood stage. Days earlier it had only been about 4 feet deep.

Property damage in the Sharon area was estimated – at $2 million, roughly $40 million in today’s dollars.

Though initial were far higher, only one person died in Sharon, 18-year-old Mrs. Logan Wilding of Vine Street, who drowned.

Much of the business district was affected, but the water was even higher for block after block of houses the low-lying flats of the South Ward – today’s Sharon City Center. Photographs show high-water marks as high as 6 feet on the side of houses.

There had been floods before, and building a dam on the upper Shenango River was first explored in 1911.

It wasn’t until 1931 when Pennsylvania Gov. Gifford Pinchot approved $1.5 million to complete the Pymatuning Dam. It was dedicated on Aug. 17, 1934.

But it didn’t completely solve the problem. Sharon suffered noteworthy floods in in 1936, 1937, 1942, 1946, 1950, 1952, 1954, 1958 and 1959. The Shenango reached

17.8 feet in 1959, but that still didn’t match the 1913 record of 18.6 feet.

The Shenango Dam north of Sharpsville, first authorized in 1938, was completed in 1965. And the valley hasn’t had a serious flood since.