Downtown: 1936 Flood, March 20
City Water Fails; 45 Dead, 350 Hurt
Receding Rivers Reveal Vast Desolation
Bulletin: Public Works Director Leslie M.
Johnston today beseeched Pittsburghers to conserve the rapidly
diminishing water supply.
From Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, 20 March 1936.
Water famine hit devastated Pittsburgh today.
The specter of thirst and pestilence joined the twin horror of fire and flood.
Squirrel Hill was the first to feel the blow.
Water faucets trickled dry early today.
In other sections of the city the supplies will be exhausted within a
Officials said they could not be replenished for 48 hours.
South Hills Get Relief
The famine struck Pittsburgh just as one or two pumps of the South
Pittsburgh Water Company, serving 200,000 residents of the South Hills,
started restoring service.
Even so, only a few homes had water.
Warnings have been sounded against using water for sewage disposal in
Water Shortage Acute
James H. Kennon, managing engineer of the Bureau of Water, declared that
pumps at the Ross station, heart of the water system, cannot be repaired
before Saturday night.
"I am thoroughly familiar with the situation. The motors, generators,
and the electrical works must be taken apart and dried. That will take
until tomorrow to dismantle, another 24 hours to dry. We'll be doing well
to get the plant in operation by
He issued his statement after being told that an employee at the Ross
Station had declared the pumps would be in operation today. He said
the employee was wrong.
The dead in this district were 45, the injured treated at hospitals 350,
the missing unestimated as the appalling flood began to give up its
Rescue Work Started
According to the Associated Press, at least 153 persons were believed
dead in 11 states and the district of Columbia as a result of floods
and storms. This figure included Pennsylvania, 108, and West Virginia 18.
As the waters, lowering from a crest of 46 feet, touched 30.7 at midnight,
the work of reconstruction and rescue had started. One-tenth of the normal
electric power was restored--borrowed from out-of-town sources.
Some street lights were lighted again. A
skeleton street car service began. Emergency telephones were
installed. Hospitals got light.
The destruction, revealed by the receding flood was indescribable. The Point--heart of
Pittsburgh's industrial and commercial
life--emerged in ruin. Along all the rivers were factories, houses and
business places cluttered with wreckage.
Damage Total Huge
It seemed unquestionable that the estimate of damage
downtown--$25,000,000--would be multiplied when the havoc in the whole
district is counted.
The toll in human misery was incalculable. At Etna, five were burned to
death trapped like rats; a 3 months old baby was drowned and seven were
In Sharpsburg, waters were giving up their dead and hundreds were
treated in emergency hospitals after being rescued.
In McKees Rocks, thousands watched from the West End Bridge >while two
men were drowned after a double rescue attempt failed.
The Waverly Oil Works where 300,000 gallons of oil caught fire at the
height of the flood on St. Patrick's Day, burned until 1:46 a. m.
Explosions and fires harried the whole flood area, but all were
Officials said the food supply was adequate. Thousands were still
marooned; some in grave danger, while workmen invaded the Golden
Triangle to clean out debris.
Twins were born in Mercy Hospital. A child was born to a
woman isolated by the flood.
Two Coast Guard Boats arrived for a survey. Rescue forces helped
by Council's $1,000,000 relief fund and the $3,000,000 collection
The Etna disaster was the most pitiful. Scores were trapped in a
row of houses opposite the Etna Forging and Bolt Company. The plant
exploded. The fire reached the houses. The people had to burn to
death, drown or suffocate. They died.
A rapidly rising death toll was virtually certain as the flood relaxed
its grip on Pittsburgh and dozens of other communities.
St. Francis Hospital, with 1,000 patients, reported its water supply near
exhaustion, and no plan devised to meet the emergency of a water famine.
There was no prediction as to when normal telephone service would
was on half rations and food was being taken there by boats.
As the devastating flood receded this was the situation in brief:
Water: Restored supply to South Hills' 200,000 people by this afternoon,
but none for the 700,000 Pittsburghers, for whom a famine of 48 hours is
predicted. Water officials laboring desperately to restore service. Utmost
Few Street Lights
Light: Some street lights on again downtown. Company struggling to extend
Food: Inconvenience certain but no actual famine, according to officials.
Swift and Company diverting shipments from Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit
Telephone: Service slowly restored as pumps clear water out of Bell
Company's office. Additional exchanges operating.
Transportation: Direct cars to East End and South Hills
again. Others await new power supply. Shuttle trains running.
Pennsylvania Railroad runs one train to New York, with
connections for Chicago.
Shelters: Libraries, churches, municipal buildings, police stations, welfare
stations, private homes and other places thrown open.
Rescue: Those in acute need telephone Court 6010, Red Cross, National Guard,
police, religious, Boy Scouts, volunteers, labor day and night.
Damages: At least $35,000,000 Downtown, according to Safety Director
Thomas A. Dunn. Incalcuable throughout the district.
Industry: Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company
until Monday. Plants of the U.S. Steel, Bethlehem Steel, Jones and
Laughlin and other plant concerns silent awaiting power and cleanup.
The Heinz plant
flooded and idle. Uncounted thousands out of work.
Business: At least half the Golden Triangle, where
towering office and mercantile buildings are situated, ravaged by
flood. Banks, stores, hotels, slowly struggling out of mud and water.
Traffic: Liberty Tubes reopened as fans are started.
Highways slowly cleared. Traffic jams worst in history, police report.
Public urged to stay out of Downtown.
Flood Stages: From its unprecedented crest of 46 feet the river fell
slowly. Beginning at 1 a. m. yesterday the stages were: 44.94, 38.30
(noon), 37.35, 36.64, 35.94, 25.47. At this point the reading was
inaccurate. Resuming at 6 a. m. the reports were
33.83, 33.29, 32.60.
Future: A week at least will be required to restore normal light and power.
Resumption of normal business and industry impossible probably for weeks.
Police and 3,000 National Guardsmen guard flood district. Boy Scouts
direct traffic. Hundreds of volunteers assisting. Firemen on double
Bathing suspended. No radios blaring. Candles furnish light.
Cups, bottles, jugs, filled with water. Pantries stocked with canned food.
Electric refrigeration useless. Housewives postpone washing, ironing,
sweeping, cleaning. Dishes frequently unwashed. Some heating
systems useless. Milk deliveries good. Gasoline for the family auto
scarce. Walking rediscovered by many.
At 6:30 a.m. today the Pennsylvania Railroad started shuttle service
between Pittsburgh and East Conway, stopping at intermediate stations.
Water was receding from east bound tracks.
Shuttle trains were running between Aspinwall and Federal Street and
between New Kensington and Pittsburgh, adhering as closely as possible
to usual schedule.
The Red Cross urged residents to increase precaution against diseases,
to use no water except where absolutely necessary, to boil it before
drinking, and to stay out of flood area. The statements warned:
"Receding waters leave a dangerous health menace."
The flood devastated towns and country districts all over Western
Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.
From Johnstown, Wheeling, Kittanning, Vandergrift, Apollo, Leechburg,
Tarentum, New Kensington, Greensburg and dozens of other communities
along the Allegheny, Monongahela, Ohio and their tributaries came
reports of destruction.
Damage at Tarentum was terrific. Five were reported dead at
Vandergrift, where National Guardsmen said looting had got out of hands.
They appealed for more militia.
Hourly it became more and more apparent that the full story of the
devastation will not be told for days or weeks. Coverage of the flood
hampered by disrupted telephone communications, blocked highways,
slow telegraphic transmission, and silent radios. was fragmentary.
The situation became more appalling as the meager early
information was supplemented by reports trickling in from outlying
Death, injuries, and ruin became almost commonplace. Districts
heretofore safe from all high waters were stricken. Nowhere
were authorities prepared to cope with a situation never before approached.
Failure of electric power, with its consequences--paralyzed
transportation, unexpected darkness, water shortages, and telephone
disruption--was among the worst features of the flood.
As the waters receded, authorities prepared to combat possible outbreaks
of vandalism and violence.
District Attorney Andrew T. Park asked liquor dealers to close their
stores at 5:30 p. m. each day. Militiamen and policemen in the flood
zone were ordered to admit nobody.
Transcribed by mb.