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March 24, 2013

Historical perspective: Great Flood of 1913 strikes Vigo

TERRE HAUTE — With winds exceeding 100 miles an hour, a multi-funneled tornado struck the east bank of the Wabash River southwest of Terre Haute shortly before 11 p.m., Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913.

Only 15 minutes later, 17 Vigo County inhabitants were dead or dying and more than 1,000 were homeless as the community confronted what is still described as the worst natural disaster in its annals.

Terre Haute was not the only city devastated that Easter. Ten tornadoes and many smaller cyclones roared across the Midwest. Torrential rainstorms in Cincinnati, Dayton, Peru and a handful of other cities initiated what has been described as the most widespread natural disaster in American history.

The first Vigo County victim was Gardentown, an unincorporated community north of Prairieton known for its farms and greenhouses. Three residents were killed and all but two structures were wrecked by winds and fire.

An immense dark cloud with shafts looking like six large trees, the cyclone headed northeast, touching down at Warren Park, the elegant horse farm and country estate owned by William Putnam Ijams and his family. Warren Park, now occupied by Honey Creek shopping complex, was the former home of trotters Axtell and Axworthy.

The Ijams residence survived, though its brick walls were fractured. The main barn, 18 horses and several outbuildings were destroyed and a grove of trees and 17 poplars that flanked the main drive were uprooted.

Crossing Margaret Avenue, the funneled cloud cut a path several hundred yards wide through new Krumbhaar Place subdivision, south of Voorhees Street and east of Prairieton Road. More than 150 people were left homeless. In the eye of the storm, new Greenwood School miraculously survived, standing as a memorial to the calamity.

St. Anthony’s Hospital at Sixth and College was the destination of choice for those injured or maimed. Greenwood became a prime shelter and first aid station. By noon on Monday, more than 400 people had been served sandwiches and coffee there.

The Terre Haute city council placed Capt. Benjamin E. Stahl of the Light House Mission in charge of the Greenwood School relief station. Hulman & Co. and Loudon Packing Co. provided Stahl with large quantities of food.

Third United Brethren Church at Third and Grant streets, near the northern edge of destruction, and Fairbanks School at Sixth and Hulman streets, also were converted to a temporary hospitals.

Though Fred Coppage, owner of “Our Theater” at Seventh and Seabury streets, lost his residence at 2019 S. Eighth St., he turned over his theater to present shows to others to benefit needy victims.

A few blocks south of Voorhees St., the storm angled across Third Street to impose mayhem on Gartland Foundry and Root Glass Co. Between Voorhees Street and College Avenue, east to 13th Street, the tornado wrecked more than 100 residences.

According to several witnesses, the storm cloud divided. One section, containing two shafts, headed east between Hulman and Washington streets. The other went northeast, killing Dr. Mahlon Moore at his office at 629 College Ave.

The Terre Haute & Southeastern Railroad depot, at 14th and Hulman, and Johnson Bros. Motor Co., at 16th and Hulman, were lifted from their foundations and disappeared. Buildings at Leonard H. Mahan’s floral farm near 17th and Hulman streets were also wrecked, and Mullens grocery at 25th and Dean streets was flattened by the storm.

Unable to raise funds to rebuild, the Johnson brothers relocated to South Bend.

The smokehouse at the former Southern Indiana roundhouse at 15th and Hulman streets was flattened, and the yard clerk’s office and dispatcher’s office were wrecked. Several employees suffered serious injuries.

Volumes could be filled with stories of tragedy and despair stemming from the 1913 tornado. Besides 17 local fatalities, 330 were injured. The sound accompanying the tornado “defied description, like 10 million bumblebees.” Another reported it was like “four passenger trains crossing the Big Four bridge at the same time.”

By Tuesday, March 25, much farmland in Prairie Creek Township and land west of Taylorville were flooded, the first indication that Vigo County would soon play a significant role in what is now known as the Great Flood of 1913. Its impact was more widespread than hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.

When the Maple Avenue levee broke late Tuesday, the area within a block of Union Hospital was flooded. Due to a rampage from Sugar Creek, a significant portion of the population of Toad Hop, a hamlet a mile west of West Terre Haute, were forced to abandon their homes. The National Road was impassable for nearly a mile.

Valentine Packing and the slaughterhouse of Terre Haute Abattoir Co. on the west side of the river, as well as the National Drain Tile and Terre Haute Vitrified Brick plants, were closed Tuesday night. All of Taylorville, half of West Terre Haute and a large area in the north part of Terre Haute near Union Hospital were floating in deep water. The road to St. Mary’s village was submerged.

Already past flood stage, the Wabash River was rising rapidly at two inches an hour. By 3 p.m., Wednesday, the river had reached 28 feet, 6 inches.

Vigo Clay Co., American Clay Co., and all Sugar Creek Township mines halted operations. More than 1,000 people on the river’s west side sought sanctuary in Terre Haute, inducing Mayor Louis Gerhardt to close the main bridge. A police cordon was engaged to stop illicit traffic. The county commissioners finally condemned the viaduct.

Citizens Gas & Fuel Co. plant was shut down on Thursday when three feet of water covered the first floor. Interurban service to Terre Haute was discontinued and all rail traffic, except westbound Big Four trains, was at a standstill.

The Palace Theater and Ruddell Furniture in downtown West Terre Haute were underwater by late Wednesday.

The river reached a record 31 feet, 101⁄2 inches on March 28 before receding. Four deaths were charged to the flood, raising total fatalities for the week to 21.

Easter tornadoes at Omaha killed more than 500 people, and flood damage in Dayton was enormous, but Vigo County had the distinction of being the major urban victim of a tornado and flood in the same week.

 

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