March, 1936: ”The Great St. Patrick’s Day Flood”
The devastating flood of 1936 struck Pittsburgh on Tuesday, March 17. Newspapers nationwide called it “a disaster of undreamed proportions that beggared description.”
Downtown was underwater: The Triangle was swept by unprecedented flood. Debris from many upstream communities swirled past Pittsburgh in one of the most rapid river currents on record. Stores, restaurants, theaters and other public places from the Point up to Wood St. were flooded. “From the elevation, the Golden Triangle looked as if it had truly become a cradle of the deep,” The Pittsburgh Press said.
In the flooded area were Pittsburgh’s leading enterprises, including the department stores of the Gimbel brothers, McCreery, Meyer Jonassen, Joseph Horne and Rosenbaum. The Pitt National and Farmers National Banks, the Stanley, Penn and Fulton Theaters, the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co., the warehouses of the Pittsburgh plate Glass Co., and the exclusive millionaires’ Duquesne Club were also flooded. Pittsburgh merchants and industrialists were estimated to have lost from $10 million to $200 million in the flood.
Houseboats were cut off from shore. Over the hills of the North Side people stood watching the swollen rivers below.
"The Joseph Horne Co., at Penn Ave. and Stanwix St., suffered the most, perhaps, because it was closest to the surging Allegheny," The Pittsburgh Press reported. At their peak, the flood waters reached the second floor. The Press Building on the Boulevard of the Allies was badly damaged. As power went down, Pittsburgh transportation was completely paralyzed. The city was in a state of emergency. President Roosevelt called upon federal agencies to lend support to the region and appointed a special emergency relief committee.
Adding to the horror of the situation and citizens’ despair was the complete paralysis of the electric power and water facilities. Fires added to the gravity of the crisis. Citizens of Pittsburgh were requested to turn off all gas connections at the main meters where the flood water was entering basements. They were asked to make sure to disconnect heaters where gas thermostats were used to prevent fire hazards.
The disaster drew national and even international attention. Newspapers worldwide covered the great Pittsburgh flood. Don Hirsch, The Pittsburgh Press news reeler, went on the air after 4 p.m. on Wednesday, March 18, to broadcast the complete of story of the Pittsburgh flood to the country and to the world. “Newspapers all over the nation, listening in, picked up his voice and from his words gleaned enough news to bolster their fragile news stories.” That was the time, long before smartphones, Twitter and Vine, when the news associations were hampered in distributing flood news by the fact that telephones were cut off and the lack of power made distribution via teletype impossible.
In 1907, the river reached a mark of 38.7 feet at the Point, in 1783, it was 44.1 feet. The flood levels of The Great St. Patrick’s Day Flood surpassed both figures, the water levels in 1936 peaked at 46 feet. “Not within the memory of the oldest citizen, or in the records of the weather bureau has such a flood struck the Pittsburgh district,” The Pittsburgh Press wrote at the time.
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