The following film clips preserve flickers of a disaster that is fading from memory.
Few of today’s Pittsburghers and Johnstowners were around in 1936 when much of the Mid Atlantic region flooded like never before or since.
It was March, after a particularly cold and snowy winter.
Heavy rain combined with melting snow and ice to make what became known as the St. Patrick’s Day Flood. It actually occurred over two or three days.
The flood was in the midst of the Great Depression. Petitions for projects to control and slow the amount of water flowing toward Pittsburgh went unheeded by a cash-strapped Congress for years — until after the disaster.
Actually, it wasn’t until after it happened again to a lesser extent in 1937.
Even then, floodgates of money didn’t open wide. Enough funding trickled through in the 1940s and 1950s to build dams, locks and other projects on tributaries to the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers.
Several small upriver towns disappeared from the map after they were sacrificed for Pittsburgh. High water is stored where they once stood.
Extensive river flooding has not occurred since, making these flood films all the more stark to modern Pittsburgh eyes.
A few notes:
- The first 1936 newsreel estimates damage at $25 million in Pittsburgh. It was actually $250 million, or the equivalent of $4.3 billion today. It is said 100,000 structures were destroyed.
- The danger of typhoid was real, but no cases developed. A boil-water advisory may have prevented an outbreak.
- The final death figure was estimated at 69 in Pittsburgh. More than 500 were injured.
- Electricity was out for eight days. It was quite cold, but most homes were heated by coal furnaces that did not use electric blowers, so houses had heat — if they weren’t flooded.