News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 30, 2012

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES: Sept. 30, 2012: A look back at the Great Flood of August 1875

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The damage inflicted by two major 20th century floods diminished the importance of several previous Wabash River deluges.

On March 28, 1913, the Wabash attained a record of 31 feet, 10 1⁄2 inches. On May 21, 1943, the river crested at 30 feet, 6 inches.

Contemporary Terre Haute newspapers reported that the river reached 25 feet, 8 inches above the low water mark on Aug. 3, 1875. Some argued that the river probably reached a height of 27 feet, 6 inches, or more. The discrepancy was precipitated by alterations which affected the points of measurement.

After the 1875 flood, the Indianapolis & St. Louis Railroad, which built the bridge at Tippecanoe Street (later called “The Big Four Bridge”), filled the river with thousands of yards of stone every year for several years to secure the safety of the bridge piers.

As a result, the river measured three or four feet higher at the Big Four bridge than it did at the Vandalia Bridge a few blocks south.

As subsequent events reveal, the effort to protect the piers did not save the bridge from collapse on Feb. 23, 1900, when ice displaced the tracks, causing a massive wreck involving a locomotive and 36 freight cars in a 51-car train.

On Feb. 18, 1883, the water level at the Vandalia railroad bridge reached 26 feet, during a month when two floods impacted Vigo County. This column previously discussed that flood but not the 1875 disaster, which resulted from one of the wettest July in history.

During July 1875, more than 17 inches of precipitation hit southern Indiana and rain continued into early August. Fear for the safety of several bridges was expressed in print on Aug. 1 as the river raised from 18 to 22 feet between 7 p.m., Saturday, July 31, and 7 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 1. By the night of Aug. 2, it had passed 24 feet and, at places, was three miles wide.

The levee below Prairieton collapsed on Saturday, flooding thousands of acres, and a mile and a half of the Vandalia railroad track was washed away at Reelsville.

Newspapers began comparing the water levels in 1875 to the great floods of March 1828 and June 1858. One pioneer farmer asserted that the 1828 water mark was 18 inches higher than the 1858 mark.

Railroad traffic was halted. Union Depot, usually bustling with heavy passenger traffic, was quiet. Mail delivery ceased and post office boxes were empty.

Two bridges of the Evansville & Crawfordsville Railway between Oaktown and Hazleton were out. The Vandalia bridge over Big Sugar Creek moved at least a foot and the bridges over Croy Creek and Eagle Creek were gone. The Evansville, Terre Haute & Chicago Railway lost at least three trestles in Vermillion County. The Terre Haute & Logansport Railroad’s bridge over Otter Creek and Lost Creek collapsed.

The family of John Hudson, who lived in a small house on the south side of the west end of the Vandalia bridge, was transported by ferry boat Monday. The Hudsons lost 20 head of hogs. The McGath family, which resided on an island in the river near the foot of Ohio Street, lost pigs and chickens.

Sugar Creek was nine inches higher than all previous records. Sugar Creek Township was inundated. The Terre Haute Gazette reported that William McQuilkin, John Harris, James A. Bennett, George F. Ellis and Webb Casto, among others, had suffered substantial loss in crops and land.

 The Terre Haute Water Works, situated on the river near the Big Four bridge, was threatened, and employees frantically tried to protect the facility with sandbags. Many farmers lost their entire crop. The McWoods home was flooded to the eaves. Comet, an excursion boat, loaded as many of the family items as possible.

 Montgomery Queen, “The King of Showmen,” and his Caravan, Circus & Menagerie were scheduled to reach the city, on Wednesday, Aug. 4, featuring a living giraffe, two giant ostriches, 11 baby lions, a pair of India elephants, red-maned sea lions, mastodon kangaroos, a hogapotmus (sic), Emidy’s British Cornet Band, James Robinson, Charles W. Fish, Little Mollie Brown, Romeo Sebastian, William E. Gorman, Madame Louise Tournaire and Master Clarence Robinson, all sensational equestrians and bareback riders.

The California-based circus could not reach Terre Haute in time for its scheduled show. Queen contacted Robert G. Hervey, president of the Illinois Midland Railroad, in Mattoon to transport his “resplendent masses of magnificence” to their destination, but Hervey could not accommodate him.

Butcher Peter Mischler, who had the contract to supply the circus and its canvasmen with meat and breadstuffs, was particularly upset. Mischler had purchased a large quantity of bread and slaughtered a herd of cattle.

It was a hapless year for Queen, a circus pioneer who advertised that he paid Fish, Mollie Brown and James Robinson more weekly than the combined salaries of any other six circus personalities. Financial setbacks incurred on the road in 1875 forced him to file for bankruptcy in 1878.

The river ceased to rise Tuesday afternoon and began to recede very slowly on Wednesday. James Paxton Voorhees, son of U.S. Sen Daniel Wolsey Voorhees, arrived Thursday morning on the first train from St. Louis since the inception of the flood. Though it ceased raining in Terre Haute by Wednesday, heavy showers continued north of the city. A large tree floating down the river struck the draw of the Big Four bridge with tremendous force. The sound of the crash could be heard for several blocks. However, there did not appear to be any damage to the bridge.

By Thursday, Aug. 5, the river was nearly five miles wide at Darwin and York, two unincorporated communities in Clark County, Ill. Communication between Darwin and the rest of the world was cut off. Poignant river scenes earned notice from the press: a corn crib with eight or nine chickens on top floating down the river and a stable containing three unaccompanied horses.

By Friday evening, Aug. 6, the river was slowly returning to its original channel, leaving thousands of dollars in damage, primarily to crops and farmland. Fortunately, there were no reported human fatalities. The 1875 flood remains among the worst floods in Vigo County history.