|Unidentified boy looking at train on flooded railroad tracks,|
east side of American Bridge Co., at the Ambridge Station
St. Patrick's Day Flood, 1936
The cause of the 1936 St. Patrick's Day flood—the biggest natural disaster in the history of the Pittsburgh region—has been blamed on weeks of abnormal weather. First a prolonged cold spell allowed an unusual amount of snow and ice to accumulate. Then, just before St. Patrick's day, a sudden rise in temperature caused a rapid melt. And if those weren't problematic enough, an hours-long downpour added to the amount of water that had already been rising out of local streams and along the banks of Pittsburgh's rivers. Previously unimaginable destruction and death followed in Pittsburgh and many other river communities.
During the overnight hours of March 17, the Ohio River began to rise in Ambridge. Although located along the river, Ambridge was relatively lucky thanks to its natural topography and to the American Bridge Company's occupation of most of the riverfront. American Bridge, though, wasn't so lucky.
The "crackerbox" tenements that had once stood on the river bank between 9th and 10th street, and flooded in 1907, were gone by 1936. Reportedly, only some of the Ambridge houses on Bank St. along Big Sewickley Creek were flooded. (But neighboring Fair Oaks, on the opposite, lower bank of the creek, wasn't as fortunate. See the photo below.) The rest of Ambridge—homes, businesses, and, with the exception of American Bridge, industries—were high enough above the flood water that they were spared.
|Flooding in Fair Oaks along Big Sewickley Creek, |
photo was taken from the upper part of Ambridge's Glenwood Dr.,
houses in the foreground are on Valley Rd.
courtesy Ambridge Borough
Importantly, no Ambridge resident was reported as drowning in the deep, swift, muddy, and debris-filled floodwater.
However, Ambridge experienced the same disruption of transportation, news, electricity, gas, phone, and telegraph service as other communities, not only along the river, but beyond.
|Duquesne Light Co. substation|
across Big Sewickley Creek from Ambridge,
Beaver St., Fair Oaks
March 1936 flood
courtesy Ambridge Borough
Roads were blocked by water, mud, or rockslides, making travel in or out of Ambridge pretty much impossible. Trucks that usually delivered food and other vital supplies could not make the trip into Ambridge. Rail service was suspended; a train was stranded on flooded tracks at the Ambridge station.
Electric service was iffy and eventually limited to Ambridge's water plant, dairies, bakeries, and the phone company. Streets were unlit; buildings were lit by candles, flashlights, lanterns, and fireplaces for several days. Burgess P. J. Caul issued a special notice on March 20:
Gas service in Ambridge from 8th St. south was shut off for several days as a safety precaution. As a result, many homes and businesses were unheated and stoves inoperable.
Ambridge schools were closed until March 23 because they had no lights and heat.
Phone service was limited to emergency calls to the police and fire departments, doctors, drug stores, industrial plants, news offices, and other places that might need to be contacted if there was an emergency.
A big worry was that the Ambridge Water Works, with its location near the river, and already surrounded by water, might flood. Users were urged to conserve water. Ambridge's industrial plants were closed in the hopes that would ensure enough water for residential use. Fortunately, the Water Works survived the flood without contamination from the Ohio.
The only plant in Ambridge that remained open in the immediate aftermath of the flood was National Electric Co., so it could make critically needed replacement electrical equipment for damaged public utilities. But the company had to rely on its own power and water supplies. Electricity wasn't available from Duquesne Light Co. or water from the borough.
Mail could not be delivered for two days. Outgoing mail couldn't leave Ambridge either.
The Ohio River finally crested in the Ambridge area at noon, March 18, measuring 44.3 feet at Lock No. 4 in Legionville in Harmony Township, more than 18 feet above flood stage. The flood water continued downstream, making its way towards other river towns in Beaver County, West Virginia, and Ohio.
The flood at American Bridge Company
|American Bridge Co.|
Ohio River flood
March 18, 1936
Men working at American Bridge the night of March 17 tried to save some of the plant's important property as the river began to push its way in, but the water came in so fast, and rose so high, the men had to abandon the plant at 3 AM. Plant electricians continued to work in the plant's powerhouse until 8 AM when they had to be rescued by boat. Power to the plant was finally shut off. The water continued to rise.
On the morning of March 18, men who reported for work were sent home. American Bridge's barge yard and main shops were reportedly covered by two feet of water, a foot higher than during the disastrous 1907 flood. As a result, the plant couldn't operate and so was shut down. The local plant manager said all they could do was wait until the water receded to assess the damage. However, the damage was expected to be more than the "thousands of dollars" incurred during the '07 flood. That expectation turned out to be true, but did not do justice to the final cost of returning American Bridge to operating condition as the water continued to rise to a record eight feet.
By March 20, water at American Bridge had receded "to the top of the lower level of the boat yard ways." Cleanup by several hundred employees began that morning. The "reclamation" and "re-conditioning" started in offices, shops, and yards where mud and debris had to be removed. Replacement of records and files destroyed by the flood began. Motors were taken to Ambridge's National Electric Co. plant to be cleaned and dried.
Once the power was turned back on, more workers would be added to complete the cleanup which would require "weeks" to finish.
Cleanup continuing through April 6, when the all departments finally reopened. However, only the barge yard and a limited number of other departments were back to full operation. Other departments still were unable to fully open because the power plant, while working again, couldn't yet provide enough power. (Daily Times, April 8, 1936)
Most people relied on local newspapers and, maybe a radio if they, or a neighbor, were lucky enough to own one during the depression years.
But without electricity, radio stations couldn't broadcast. Pittsburgh's powerhouse station KDKA could only broadcast intermittent alerts and emergency information. And without electricity, Ambridge residents couldn't hear radio news anyway. Battery operated radios weren't common then, and the batteries required electrical recharging.
The morning United Press news report usually delivered to Ambridge's train depot didn't come on March 18. UP's Pittsburgh office was flooded, so the Citizen had to get most of its stories via long distance calls from Cleveland, Ohio. When UP finally was able to contact the Citizen "by special wire," the reporter had to read the information by flashlight.
With its gas service cut off, the Citizen couldn't operate the gas-heated linotype machines used for most of its printing. But the Sewickley Herald offered the use of their linotypes, enabling the Citizen to print "a limited amount of copy." The Citizen noted the published paper's unusual appearance, since it was set with the different typefaces used by both newspapers. Beaver's Daily Times also helped by sending "five galleys of their early copy."
Yet another problem arrived two days later when the Citizen's printing plant lost electric power, stopping its ability to print. But the Citizen was able to publish a four page edition, thanks to the Beaver Falls News-Tribune, which allowed the Citizen to use its equipment.
A small motor was dismantled from a washing machine, loaned by [Ambridge business owner] C. F. Milleman, and attached to one of linotype machines.
At 2 o'clock this morning, employees practically dismantled the mangle and sewing machine of Mrs. Anna Ross, 184 Sixth Street, in order to procure the pully and gadgets found necessary for the completion of the primitive but nevertheless effective contrivance. Operators worked all night preparing for today's issue by the light provided by two kerosene lamps, a lantern and flashlights. The entire force was kept busy this morning setting much of the copy by hand. The Citizen's portable saw was moved to the plant of the National Electric Company where their power was used in order to trim all advertising cuts.
Forms and type were then transported by [automobile] to Butler, where the paper was printed on the Butler Eagle press.
Here's the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's March 21 account of the story:
Joe Gilbert, Bank street, Ambridge, was held under $2,500 bond at a hearing before Judge Ralph Smith, in Allegheny court yesterday on a charge of larceny, and he was committed to the Allegheny county jail.The March 23 Citizen did say in an article about Leetsdale's flood damage and cleanup that eight of the nine Ambridge men who had been arrested were sent home "with a warning not to be caught back in Leetsdale again" and added:
Gilbert was one of the men arrested by the Leetsdale police for looting in the flooded area. According to Gilbert's story, he had no intention of stealing, but had come across a garage lodged against a tree in the garden flats 300 yards away from any house, and that looking in, he saw a raincoat and a jack, which he thought he was entitled to, since he had found them. Judge Smith, however, thought otherwise.
Twenty-two Leetsdale residents, mostly members of the fire department, were deputized as special police by the [Leetsdale] Burgess and were armed with sawed off shot guns with orders to shoot in the legs anyone caught below the railroad tracks after dark.
The missing Ambridge boy
After three days of frantic searching for Elmer Bauder, 16-year old son of John Bauder, 554 Maplewood avenue, missing since Friday [March 20], word was received this morning that he was all-right and he had started on a trip.Friday morning, young Bauder invited Frank McGeorge to go to South Heights to his grandmother's to get a warm dinner. When told that he would be over there for two or three hours, McGeorge declined saying that he had to be home in an hour. He asked Bauder if the "gang" would see him that night and was given the assurance that they would.He went to the home of his grandmother, Mrs. Elmer Laughner, where he did have dinner. He was given $3 to buy galoshes and went to Beck's store for this purpose. They did not have the kind he wanted and he said he would wait until he returned to Ambridge. At 1:30 o'clock he walked out of the store and that was the last that was known of his whereabouts.Police were notified and searches of parties of three and four have combed Ambridge and the South Heights districts. Yesterday, the state police sent out a teletype of his description. He disappearance also had been broadcast over the radio.This morning, John Bauder, received a postal card, postmarked midnight Friday from the Oakland Branch of the Pittsburgh postoffice. It read:"Dad, don't worry. I'm alright. I'm going someplace. I'll be back home shortly. Tell Grandmother Laughner I'm away on a trip with the DeMolays" signed, "Red."The reference to the trip with the DeMolays was made because of the illness of Mrs. Laughner and he evidently did not want his grandmother to worry about him.
It is thought that the youth got a ride to Pittsburgh on a delivery truck and, having $8 in his pocket, decided to go to Johnstown to view the results of the flood. Another conjecture is that he is heading south with the intention of visiting Lawrence Shomo, who is attending Atlanta Military Academy at Port Defiance, Virginia, and then continuing to St. Petersburgh to visit his uncle, who owns a drug store there.
There had been no trouble between the boy and his relatives so it evidently had not been premeditated as he was not dressed up when he left home Friday.
The floating garage crashing against a pier of the Ambridge-Aliquippa bridge let go an automobile which quickly sank while another [automobile] was lodged safely in the remaining part of the building as it moved down steam. (Daily Citizen, March 20, 1936)
The information in this article came from reporting in Ambridge's Daily Citizen newspaper unless another source is named.