Erie, Pa., has had some tragic days, but Aug. 3, 1915, ranks at the top.
At 8:45 p.m. that Tuesday, a wall of water tore through the city at 25 mph, lifting houses from their foundations, ripping pavement from streets and knocking trains and streetcars off their tracks.
The Mill Creek flood destroyed about 250 houses, damaged about 300 other buildings and left several hundred families homeless.
A final death toll was never settled, but casualty reports ranged from 36 to more than 40.
It wasn’t until dawn arrived on Aug. 4, 1915, that stunned Erieites caught their first glimpses of the scope of destruction: Streets clogged with mud, remnants of houses and barns, twisted and smashed automobiles, broken machinery, tree trunks, clothing, cattle and chicken carcasses, and human remains.
Later that day, Erie Mayor W.J. Stern issued a citywide proclamation, part of which read: “A catastrophe, the worst in the City of Erie, causing a loss of life and property, which, at this hour, it is impossible to estimate, has befallen us.”
Stern urged Erie residents unaffected by the floodwaters to “respond to the appeals for help by liberal contributions of money, clothing and shelter,” according to an Erie Daily Times story.
Stern asked that contributors send checks or bring cash to the Mayor’s Office, and clothing and food to rooms at the Associated Charities Building in the 100 block of East Fifth Street.
That same day, the Erie Daily Times launched a relief fund for flood victims with a $100 donation.
“Let your pocketbook speak your sympathy,” a Times story implored.
Storms, record rainfall envelop Erie region
It all happened so quickly.
A succession of storms unleashed 5.77 inches of rain in the Erie area between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. Aug. 3. Four inches of rain fell between 4 and 7 p.m.
All of that water was funneled from the Mill Creek watershed into Mill Creek, which flowed through central Erie.
As its waters rose, Mill Creek overflowed its banks into farmlands and yards in the Glenwood Hills area, according to historical accounts.
Saturated soil along the creek’s banks collapsed, sending trees, barns, chicken coops, outhouses and other structures into the rapidly rising Mill Creek.
Debris collected near a culvert at 26th and State streets, where Mill Creek flowed under State Street. Soon, a reservoir formed that extended south for several blocks. Police and firefighters unsuccessfully tried to clear the dam with dynamite.
At about 8:45 p.m., the culvert broke and a wall of water, estimated in newspaper accounts as high as 25 feet, tore through the central city, moving in a northeasterly direction toward Presque Isle Bay.
Written accounts estimate the floodwaters’ path of destruction at four blocks to six blocks wide and nearly 3 miles long.
Acts of heroism
The wave knocked trains and street cars off their tracks.
During the height of the flood, every available firefighter and police officer frantically worked to save lives in the stricken areas.
Men, women and children were taken from endangered buildings by rope, ladders and pieces of lumber thrown together.
Erie Fire Chief John McMahon and firefighter John Donovan lost their lives from the flood.
Donovan, 25, died the night of the flood while trying to save McMahon. McMahon, 58, contracted typhoid pneumonia from exposure and died at his West Fourth Street home on Aug. 20, a little more than two weeks after the flood. McMahon was directing a group of firefighters and had just handed the last occupant of a house at East 23rd and French streets – a blind woman – through a window to another firefighter, according to newspaper accounts, when raging floodwaters lifted the house from its foundation and toppled it into the rushing current.
McMahon and three firefighters, including Donovan, were carried on the house’s roof for four blocks before it struck a large pile of debris and disintegrated near East 19th and French streets.
The four men were tossed into the debris-filled torrent.
“It was a terrible ride,” McMahon recounted in an Erie Daily Times story a few days later. “If a piece of that debris would have struck a man at the rate it was going, it would have gone right through him. We bumped something once and we went up in the air.”
Donovan drowned in the current.
“His fight did not last long, however, as I saw something strike him on the head and he moaned,” McMahon said in a newspaper account. “That’s the last I ever saw of that brave lad.”
McMahon was rescued from under a 20-foot pile of debris after a woman heard his cries for help and notified rescuers she believed someone was trapped in the wreckage.
McMahon was badly bruised and cut.
“I was clinging to some of the wreckage of the house when more of it piled on top of me and rendered me helpless,” McMahon said. “It must have been traveling a mile a minute. I tried to free myself from it but was helpless. I must have then been rendered unconscious for that’s the last I remember until I opened my eyes and saw people around me.”
A police officer discovered Donovan’s body washed up in a pile of debris. Donovan’s feet were sticking out of the debris and he had a tight hold with one hand of a tree limb, the Erie Daily Times reported.
McMahon, badly bruised, was confined to his bed for a week before he contracted typhoid pneumonia, according to published reports. Erie newspapers published daily reports updating his deteriorating condition.
McMahon died at 6:15 a.m. Aug. 20.
McMahon had joined the Erie Fire Department in May 1885 and was appointed chief in October 1893. After becoming chief, he adopted new department rules and regulations. His men were required to wear uniforms, and McMahon later introduced rules requiring firefighters to pass rigid physical and mental exams before they could be appointed. During McMahon’s tenure, new fire houses were built, new engines were purchased and improved fire alarm boxes with key protectors were installed.
McMahon also was responsible for creating the Erie Fire Relief Association, which provided help to injured firefighters and their families, and to families of firefighters killed in the line of duty.
Several hundred attended McMahon’s funeral at St. Patrick Catholic Church. It was one of the largest funerals in Erie history. McMahon is buried in Trinity Cemetery.
Rescuers and relief workers faced a grisly task in the flood’s immediate aftermath. Bodies were washed into Presque Isle Bay. Others were found buried under debris.
Four members of the Higgins family, who lived at East Seventh and Holland streets, perished in the flood; John Higgins, his wife, Winifred, and their children Marian, 1, and James, 14.
As the floodwaters intensified, the family refused to leave their home because the 1-year-old was ill. Rescuers found the girl clasped in the arms of her dead mother.
Erie historian Caroline Reichel remembers stories her father told her. He was 20 and living near East Second and Ash streets when the flood hit.
“My dad said he was walking a day or so after the flood and there was a lot of still water down there,” Reichel said. “He saw a ring floating in the water, so he went to reach for it, and it was attached to a finger, a hand and a body.
“He told also about seeing and hearing about people climbing trees to save their lives, and a lot of times they couldn’t stay up there very long. They’d fall. Some of them could swim, but a lot of them fell and drowned. It was horrible.”
Reichel, a Millcreek Township resident, offers summer and fall history tours at Erie Cemetery and is known as “The Erie Cemetery Lady.” She has a history tour on the Mill Creek flood scheduled for Aug. 9.
“It was devastating,” she said. “There was another flood there in 1893 and it was nothing like the flood of 1915.”
Six people who died in the Mill Creek flood are buried in Erie Cemetery, Reichel said. Only three of those six flood victims have tombstones at their graves.
One of the victims is Margaret Ruess, who was 68 when she died in the flood. She lived in the 2300 block of French Street.
“The current carried her five blocks from her home,” Reichel said. “Her mutilated body was found at daybreak in a store on the northwest corner of 18th and French Street. Her clothes were torn from her body, which was crushed almost beyond recognition.”
The day after the Mill Creek flood, state Health Department sanitary guards were dispatched to Erie from Harrisburg to oversee relief efforts.
For days after the flood, police, militia and naval guards patrolled the city’s stricken areas.
The flood’s heaviest path of destruction was from 26th Street north to Second Street and from State Street east to German Street.
Conservative estimates, according to newspaper reports, placed total citywide property damage at between $3 million and $5 million in 1915 dollars.
Some of the city’s worst-hit areas included French Street from East 26th to East Ninth streets and east to Holland and German streets, where authorities found a two-block-wide mass of debris.
Numerous State Street businesses, including every business from 19th to Seventh streets, received flood damage. Most stores had windows smashed, partitions damaged and stock destroyed.
City officials estimated about $175,000 of damage to State Street businesses, according to newspaper reports. The pavement on State Street from 14th to 19th streets was ripped from its base and huge chunks of road debris were carried away.
Some high-profile, flood-stricken businesses in the State Street and downtown included the Boston Store, Warner Brothers, Isaac Baker & Son, Osborne-Newman, F.S. Bond and Trask, Prescott & Richard.
Lovell Manufacturing sustained an estimated $100,000 in damage.
From East 13th Street north, French Street was under a foot of mud and rock.
Sidewalks and streets from 26th Street north to Second Street were buried under mud and gravel in depths of 6 inches to 3 feet.
Preventing another flood
Residents could not use the flood-ravaged section of the city for more than a month, according to the Historical Society of Erie County.
Two weeks after the flood, city, county, state and township authorities met at Erie City Hall to discuss possible solutions to prevent another catastrophe.
In response, city engineers began to work on a flood-prevention system, according to the Historical Society.
The answer would eventually be the construction of the Mill Creek Tube, a 12,200-foot-long, reinforced concrete tube that carries Mill Creek under Erie to Presque Isle Bay, where it empties near today’s Erie Waste Water Treatment Plant.
Construction of the $1.9 million project began in 1918 and was completed in 1923.
The tube measures 18 feet high and 22 feet wide, and drops 200 feet in elevation over its length.
The tunnel was built by Metz & Roth Co. Inc. The original contract called for the tube to be constructed in 22 months. A mile upstream of the Mill Creek Tube entrance is a drift catcher built about the same time as the Mill Creek Tube. It measures 211 feet, 6 inches in length, 18 feet tall and has a 6-foot-wide walkway on top.
The cement structure was designed to catch logs and other large, heavy debris.
So far, the system seems to have worked.
There has not been another major flood in the city since 1915.
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