Central Ohioans Recall 1959 Flood, Biggest Since 1913

January 28, 2009

Fifty years later, the memories in central Ohio are fresh. The flood of Jan. 21, 1959, is not easily forgotten for those who lived through it.

Columbus musician Arnett Howard was 8 when Ohio National Guard troops evacuated him and his family from their flooded neighborhood.

Newark resident Bob Pricer was a WCLT radio reporter who roved the city, telephoning in reports to the station and helping guide police to where people needed help.

Across the state, up to 6 inches of rain fell on frozen, snow-blanketed ground, washing swollen streams and rivers over their banks and causing the worst flooding in Ohio since the big flood of 1913.

The 1959 flood, Jan. 21-24, killed 16 people statewide, forced 49,000 to evacuate their homes and caused extensive damage to homes, businesses, roads and bridges, according to the Ohio Historical Society.

Columbus was the worst hit of Ohio’s major cities, though no one died. Some streets in the city were under 3 feet of water, 100 homes were badly damaged and 3,200 people were evacuated to Red Cross shelters.

Streets in Mansfield were under 4 feet of water. A third of Chillicothe flooded when the Scioto River surged through a levee of sandbags. Floodwaters closed industries in Youngstown and Canton.

Howard was at his family’s home at 175 Chicago Ave. asleep in bed with his three younger brothers. They were snuggled together for warmth because their father had switched off the furnace, anticipating flooding as rain continued to fall. Their parents woke the boys and told them it was time to leave.

Outside in the flooded street, Ohio National Guard members helped the family and their neighbors climb into a big troop transport truck, Howard recalled this week. The truck deposited them at a Marine and Navy center, where Confluence Park now sits.

“A good bit of the community was there, all of us on government-issued cots,” Howard remembered.

He and his brothers weren’t scared: “It was a big adventure for us kids,” he said.

In Newark, Pricer drove the streets that were navigable in his 1954 DeSoto and filed dispatches by phone back to his radio station. Owens Corning was under 8 feet of water; it was so damaged that it would take about two months for the plant to reopen. The city water plant was underwater.

At one point, Pricer took over the police radio to direct officers.

“They were short-handed. The police they had were out responding. I was feeding information to the cruisers,” said Pricer, now 85.

No one in Newark died in the flood, but homes and businesses were heavily damaged. The water rushing through Raccoon Creek was so loud, “it sounded like an ocean,” remembered John H. Weaver, 87.

At the time, Weaver was president of Fyrepel Products Inc., which made heat-protective clothing for industrial and firefighting use. The building, which sat just south of E. Main Street at the North Fork of the Licking River, was quickly filling with water that night.

For a time, Weaver and a co-worker sloshed around in waders moving equipment. But the effort was a losing one. The building filled with 4 feet of water.

Afterward, Weaver was among the business people who formed a light-hearted organization dedicated to commemorating their survival of the flood. First called the River Rats and then the more dignified Rising River Association, the group held annual dinners beginning the year after the flood and later erected a totem pole to protect Newark. An indigenous Alaskan artist hand-carved it from a utility pole.

The totem pole went up in 1962. It stands to this day at the ready: “To Prevent a Recurrence of the Great Flood Jan. 21 1959,” its plaque reads.

Columbus has its own protection. A floodwall in the Franklinton neighborhood was dedicated in 2004. It is supposed to keep floodwaters from 75 percent of the neighborhood.

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