News From Terre Haute, Indiana

March 24, 2013

In 1913, Mother Nature left Vigo as a land of devastation and death

Howard Greninger
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — It was 1913.

Terre Haute was bustling as immigrants had found “the high ground” to their liking and settled here to work and raise their families.

New beginnings were found, too, in the Easter season and the onset of spring. That seasonal shift, though, would bring with it natural disasters unlike any seen here before or since.

“The high ground” would prove not high enough when the flood waters came.

But first, “an angry express train” in the form of a tornado roared through Terre Haute, where 17 people died and more than 150 were injured. Homes and industries lay in ruins.

Days later, the second of weather’s one-two punch, spawned by repeated downpours, struck. The Wabash River crested at more than 31 feet, the water rushing over its banks to envelope anything and everything in its path.

Four more people died as a result, and hundreds of families were forced from their homes.

“Terre Haute was the only city hit with a double whammy. I don’t think there has ever been anything here that comes close to measuring up to the devastation, damage and death” from those natural disasters, said Vigo County Historian B. Michael McCormick.

For residents of Terre Haute and Vigo County, March 23 to March 30, 1913, was to become the most dreadful week to date. It remains unparalleled in state history, part of a massive storm that spread out over much of the Midwest, heavily impacting the Ohio Valley as well as the Wabash Valley.

On Easter morning of March 23, the Wabash River was at 7 feet — below normal for that time of year — as the heavy rain began in earnest. Then came the wind.

Near 10 p.m., “with a velocity estimated at more than 100 miles an hour,” a tornado hit the southern portion of the city, the Terre Haute Tribune newspaper reported the next day.

“Houses, large and small, of brick and of wood, were picked up like straws, whirled about and dropped in thousands of pieces,” with “a trail of shattered homes fully four blocks wide, from the Wabash River, just above Prairieton, northeast to the open fields east of 25th Street,” the newspaper reported.

At least 250 homes were destroyed or badly damaged. The area from Third Street to Fifth Street on Voorhees Street “presented a scene of levied houses.” Between 13th and 25th streets and Hulman and Washington streets, 40 homes were destroyed, the newspaper archives reflect.

The Root Glass Co. factory, the Hulman Street station of the Southern Indiana railroad, Garland Foundry and L.H. Mahan “hot house” were among larger establishments badly hit. In many places, fire broke out. Damage to the Root and Garland properties were estimated at between $750,000 and $1 million (in 1913 dollars), the Tribune reported.

That tornado likely, in part, changed the future economy of Terre Haute, McCormick said. That’s because the “Johnson Brothers Areo Motor Works” plant, as the Tribune called it, at 16th and Hulman streets was “crushed flat.”

“Johnson Brothers tried to get support from the community to rebuild their factory, but they were not successful,” McCormick said. “It was not because people did not want to help so much as it was because there was so much devastation, no one knew where to turn first,” he said.

The company moved to the South Bend area, McCormick said. It’s now called Johnson Outdoors Inc., with its headquarters in Wisconsin.

Rain continued on March 24 and into March 25, foreboding the second natural disaster. By early March 25, a Tuesday, the Wabash River was at 19.5 feet, already above the 16-foot flood stage.

W.R. Cade, an observer for the U.S. Weather Bureau (renamed the National Weather Service  in 1970), reported that on Wednesday, March 26, “the crest of the flood passed Bluffton and Logansport. Bluffton recording a stage of 20 feet and the Logansport’s observer being unable to make a reading.” That was later determined to be a stage of 22.5 feet.

While that crest had yet to hit Terre Haute, the Wabash River was 28 feet, 6 inches by 2 p.m. that Wednesday, the Tribune stated, and had been “steadily rising at the rate of four inches an hour.”

That afternoon, fully half of West Terre Haute, all of Taylorville (Dresser), and a large area in the northern part of Terre Haute, from Fourth to Sixth streets and from Maple Avenue north and south “a considerable distance,” were under water.

“Hundreds of families have been forced out, hundreds of houses are surrounded by water in Terre Haute, West Terre Haute and Taylorville and many of the homes are floating about in deep water,” the Tribune reported.

The newspaper carried numerous short reports of events of the day.

One such anecdote stated: “Five horses belonging to Joseph Coston, Sixth Street and Maple Avenue (in Terre Haute), found standing to their knees in water, were rescued.”

Another read: “In the haste of leaving many families forgot to extinguish their lamps and friends in boats made the rounds, putting them out to avoid danger of fire. In one home they found a lamp still burning although the table on which it was placed was floating about the room,” the Tribune reported.

Traction service on every line into Terre Haute was suspended. About five miles of traction lines (track used for electric trains) “between Numa (in Parke County) and Clinton (in Vermillion County) has been washed out,” according to the Tribune.

By 8 p.m. March 26, a levee north of Maple Avenue gave way. “Big houses were picked up and swept away and those which withstood the attack of the flood were immersed in half a dozen feet of water,” the paper reported.

The Taylorville (Dresser) levee broke about the same time, and by 9:30 p.m., the levee had been breached in three places. By 10 p.m. every building in Taylorville was under water and the “Valentine Packaging Co.” was flooded.

The newspaper reported a big tramway at the Vigo Sand and Gravel Co., located at the foot of Walnut Street and constructed less than a year earlier at a cost of $22,000, fell apart about 9 p.m.

The flood of 1913 cemented its notoriety the next day, a Thursday, March 27 — the highest water level recorded along the Wabash River in Terre Haute was set.

“At 10 a.m., a stage of 31.3 feet was reached and the water remained at this point for four hours, at the end of which time it began to fall slowly,” the Weather Bureau’s Case noted. The National Weather Service now lists the official high mark as 31.1 feet.

Flood waters shut down the plant of the Citizens Gas and Fuel Co. as water was 3 feet inside the plant. An electrical power plant of the Terre Haute, Indianapolis & Eastern Traction Co. had also been put out of commission by flood waters.

By 10:30 a.m., three-quarters of West Terre Haute was under water. It was estimated that 4,000 people were left homeless by the flood. All but 700 of West Terre Haute’s 6,000 residents were said to have fled to higher ground.

The Tribune reported property loss from the flood would be close to $25 million, a devastation figure in 1913.  One dollar back then is worth $23.45 today, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculator, using the Consumer Price Index.

The rain ended by the early hours of Friday, March 28, as the river steadily dropped. It was the last measurable rain until March 31. A small consolation to those hit by the double whammy.

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or howard.