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Concordia Residents Recall St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936

March 29, 2016

This year marked the 80th anniversary of the St. Patrick’s Day Flood, an event that left an impression on MANY people in the greater Pittsburgh area – especially those directly affected by the deadly waters that spring. Heavy rain and melting snow caused major flooding in the Pittsburgh region and other areas. With water levels as high as 46 feet, the death toll climbed to over 150 throughout the Ohio Valley.

Five Concordia at Cabot retirement living residents talked about the flood and what they experienced during this trying time. And since all of them were only children in 1936, they remember the tragedy from a child’s perspective – a time of great loss, but also of great perseverance. Take a look at their stories, and if you or someone you know experienced the flood, feel free to share your memories in the comments below!

Martha flood pic 1Martha Kerr

Martha Kerr was just 11 years old when the flood struck. She lived in Tarentum with her family on Second Avenue, just a block away from the river. Both her house and her father’s grocery store on Fourth Avenue were flooded.

“My father, Voss Sober, walked to our house through high water to let us know that some firemen were coming to rescue us,” Martha said. The family went through an upstairs window and waited on the roof of the back porch until they were rescued in the firemen’s boat.

“It was really quite an experience,” Martha said.

A photo of Martha and her sister Helen being rescued was taken and appeared in the local paper (Martha is holding a reprint in the picture here). The two were sent to stay with friends in Springdale for two weeks during the clean up process. The family’s first floor piano was ruined during the flood and later used for firewood by the Salvation Army.

“I remember it mostly from the pictures in the newspaper because we didn’t have a television then,” said Martha. “It was just a lot of mud and mess to clean up.”

Shirley King

Shirley King was in seventh grade in 1936, and she went to school that St. Patrick’s Day – but only for a short while.

“We received a note at the door that day that said we were all supposed to go home,” she said. “I ran home, and I remember my mother giving me 50 cents to buy candles down at the 5 & 10 cent store. We knew our power was going to go out later.”

Shirley’s family’s house on Ridge Avenue in New Kensington didn’t get flooded, but her family was affected like all the others in the area. Mariah Bakewell, the grandmother of Shirley’s future husband, lived in Parnassus at the time of the flood, and was rescued from the second floor of her house in a rowboat. Shirley still remembers what it was like after the water receded.

“We knew it would be bad, but not quite how bad,” she said. “The aftermath was devastating, truly mind boggling. People lost so much, and we didn’t have money to replace things quickly back in those days. It was a dreary time to go through, but everyone helped each other out.”

Al Knappenberger

Al and his family lived on Indian Hill Road in Allegheny Twp and had no telephone. He had just turned 10, the youngest of the Knappenberger children. He and his two older brothers were living in the garage at the time as his sister had contracted scarlet fever. His father worked six-hour shifts at the Apollo sheet mills. With new ownership at the mill, the shifts were reduced so there was enough work for everyone in the community. His father pulled in to the garage at 8 and called for the boys to “Come with me. I want to show you something you may never see again in your lifetime.”

So off they went, 10 miles down to the highway on the West Apollo side. The water was almost floor level, but the boys weren’t that impressed. Once they got to the Vandergrift side of the bridge, Al said he can still remember standing on the bank watching North Vandergrift being washed away. Houses would be whole until they reached the big eddy whirlpool at the end. Once they hit the bridge there the houses were pulverized. There remains a marking on the bridge from the flood of ’36.

“On the upper end of Vandergrift there was one fellow by the name of Earle and he wasn’t about to leave his house,” Al said. He had gone to the attic, but the house was floating toward the bridge where the local firemen were stationed with ropes. They threw one to him and he grabbed hold of it, or he would have been caught up in the swirling waters. One of those firemen, Al found out much later, was the father of his wife Jean. He knew one family who moved all their belongings to the second floor. He remembers a dining room chair ended up hanging from the chandelier.

“Still to this day, if you pulled the locks off the doors in those homes, you will find sand and dirt,” Al said.

Betty Jane Lehman

Betty Jane Lehman, then Betty Jane Wylie, was 11 years old and living with her family in Apollo when the flood waters rose. Her street, Armstrong Avenue, was parallel with the Kiski River, and was only two blocks up from the river. One of the strongest impressions that Betty had of that day was the overall view of the flood.

“Everything was gray that day,” she said. “The sky, the water – we would look out our back window and see vast gray water just everywhere. Everything was floating down, anything you could imagine – houses, buildings, animals, furniture. It was all so gray, except every once in a while I would see tiny dots of bright orange go by – they were oranges from a flooded grocery store or someone’s kitchen. They glowed.”

Betty’s cousin, Wylie Hoff, saw one of Apollo’s two bridges appear to rise up and collapse during the flood. Her father John, who worked at the Apollo Steel Company, was told to stay at his post until he was advised to leave, and after staying for a while he realized that they had forgotten about him. He made it back home after climbing over a railroad freight car.

Betty’s family was fortunate in that the flood waters got close but didn’t reach their house. Her two brothers helped with the clean up, and she remembers that they all thought the whole ordeal was a bit of a lark because they were so young at the time.

“It was an unusual event – it was really so dreadful,” she said. “For a little riverside town, we certainly had our day in the rain.”

Homer Otterman

Homer was a sophomore at Freeport High School. He lived five miles north of Freeport on a farm. So when they were excused early in the morning from school, he did what any other teenage boy would do – he hung around to see the action.

“It was more exciting to stay in town,” he said.  

“A pair of steps behind the high school took you down to the athletic field,” Homer recalled. Of the 25 steps, the water covered all but five of them.

The high school was on high ground, and from there he had a perfect view of the lower end of Freeport. “Everything there was under water; all you could see was water,” he said.

In his head, he said he can still see a barn with a chicken coop and a rooster sitting on top coming from the Kiski River to the Allegheny River. “He was riding his home down the river,” laughed Homer.  

There was a whiskey distillery in town, and he remembers the Schenley barrels of whiskey floating down the river. He and his friends roamed the high ground, got up on railroad tracks and looked at the homes along the river – a sight he will never forget.

While it was a terrible tragedy, the St. Patrick’s Day Flood did have one positive lasting effect: it caused major flood controls to be put in place so that other serious floods could be prevented in the future. We can always learn from the history that comes before us, and especially from the people who share it with us. We thank all of our flood survivors for sharing their memories!

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For more information about Concordia Lutheran Ministries and any of our senior living communities or in-home care options, call 724-352-1571, visit our website or message us through the Contact form on our website.

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