Devastation along the Susquehanna


State was victim of flood disasters in 1936 and 1972

Back Story

Taking Note of History

April 09, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Rivers are roads that move. - Blaise Pascal (1670)

Recent heavy downpours have created serious flooding in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, sending thousands fleeing to escape rising waters. Besides the disruption of daily lives, the floods have left behind millions of dollars in damages.

So far, Maryland has been spared. Despite the same recent rains that have moved through the state and heavy snow melt upriver, the Susquehanna has remained relatively calm.

Control of the river, which crested Monday and remained high for 16 hours, was exacted by operators of the Conowingo Dam, who opened 23 of its 50 gates.

That led to minor flooding in Port Deposit, the historic riverfront community several miles downriver from the dam and hydroelectric plant, whose spinning turbines have generated electricity since 1928.

The mighty Susquehanna, which rises from a spring near Cooperstown, N.Y., and takes water from 30,000 miles of feeder streams, flows nearly 500 miles through three states before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay.

The river basin is one of the "nation's most flood-prone areas," and its "main stem is more prone to ice jams and subsequent flooding than any other river east of the Rocky Mountains," the Susquehanna River Commission reports.

A combination of weather, topography and geology has produced 12 devastating floods since 1810, when such records were first kept.

Earlier, Native Americans living along the shores of the river relayed tales of great floods. The river commission says "the main stem of the Susquehanna River has flooded on average once every 20 years."

The worst flood came after Tropical Storm Agnes, which dumped more than 7 inches of rain as it made its way along the Eastern seaboard in June 1972.

At the June 24 peak of the flood, which saw the river crest at 40.91 feet, all 50 of Conowingo's gates were opened as an estimated 1,130,000 cubic feet of soil-laced water flowed past the dam every second.

"Every hour for 24 hours the water carried enough earth to cover a 40-acre farm a foot deep," said The Evening Sun.

It was only the second time since the St. Patrick's Day Flood of March 1936 that all 50 gates were opened.

In 1936, it was once again the combination of heavy rains and snow melt that sent not only the Susquehanna on a rampage but also the Potomac River, which roared into Brunswick, Cumberland, Point of Rocks and Harpers Ferry, W.Va., with devastating results.

The National Guard put Cumberland under martial law to prevent looting as racing waters inundated the city by a depth of 12 feet. Hundreds of homes were damaged or swept away.

It was a double whammy as state officials attempted to come to grips with two floods.

With the Susquehanna cresting at 33 feet, twice the normal flow of water roared through the dam, flooding nearby roads as homeowners raced to move valuables to the second floor of their homes.

"Residents said the flood conditions probably will be worse than 1889. However, community life tonight went on as usual," reported The Sun. "A banquet held by the Eastern Star in the fire hall was not disturbed by the rush of waters almost under the rear windows."

Upriver, conditions were deteriorating. More than 30 people, some drowned or injured by debris, were taken to hospitals in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

"The official word was that the swollen Susquehanna, nearing all-time highs as it sped destruction through the hard-coal fields toward Harrisburg, was saving its worst threats for the hours between midnight and dawn," the newspaper reported.

"The threat of disease followed hard on the heels of death and desolation in Eastern and Central Pennsylvania early today as surging streams warned of spreading destruction," reported The Sun.

Floodwaters crested at 21 feet at Harrisburg, leaving 23 dead. At Port Deposit, rail workers piled up stones, cinders and blocks in a futile attempt to protect the Pennsylvania Railroad's tracks, and residents cruised Main Street in boats rather than autos.

In the wake of the watery disaster caused by flooding from the East's "Big Four" rivers - the Susquehanna, Potomac, Ohio and Connecticut - 136 perished in the East. Damages were reported in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

At a Red Cross fund-raiser, Baltimore Mayor Howard W. Jackson called the floods the "greatest disaster since the Baltimore Fire of 1904."

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