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.
TERRE HAUTE —
It was 1913.
Christmas in the Park: Judges survey lights; troop 200 comes out on top
The rockin’ snowmen were singing “I can’t get no satisfaction,” but they won first place anyway.
Board of Works: Sewage fees waived on Indiana 46
The Terre Haute Board of Works and Public Safety approved a memorandum of understanding Monday between the board and the Terre Haute Department of Redevelopment to waive sewer connection fees along part of Indiana 46/U.S. 40 on the city’s east side to promote future development.
VCSC Board approves oil, Pepsi contracts, gets ‘beard fund’
The Vigo County School Board approved a six-year exclusive agreement with Refreshments Services Pepsi and an oil and gas license with Pioneer Oil during Monday’s School Board meeting.
Agency seeks help for homeless
A Terre Haute agency that works to help homeless people hopes that other groups wanting to help will get involved to better document the needs in the Wabash Valley.
2 days, 2 fatal car wrecks in Parke County
The Parke County Sheriff’s Department has investigated two fatal accidents over the past two days, at least one caused by black ice, authorities say.
Tribune-Star staff takes awards for writing, editing, design
The Tribune-Star won three first-place awards among Indiana newspapers with a daily circulation between 18,001 and 39,999 in the 2013 Hoosier State Press Association Better Newspaper Contest.
Aviation plant noted for safety system
GE Aviation in Terre Haute has earned the Voluntary Protection Program Merit Certification for implementing safety systems that identify, evaluate, prevent and control occupational hazards to prevent employee injuries and illnesses.
Ivy Tech board awards renovation contract
Renovation of the Learning Achievement Building for the use of diesel technology gained unanimous approval Monday from Ivy Tech Community College Wabash Valley’s Board of Trustees.
Jury selection begins for death of inmate
Jury selection began Monday afternoon for a Terre Haute man accused of involuntary manslaughter in January.
James Madison Ross IV, 40, appeared in Vigo Superior Court 1 with defense attorney Christopher Shema.
Rockville man on run found, arrested
A Rockville man faces criminal charges after a domestic disturbance and a three-hour manhunt.
Battery, stabbing suspects face charges
The condition has improved for a Terre Haute man who sustained severe head injuries in an assault on Friday afternoon.
Man picked out of lineup, charged with armed robbery
A Terre Haute man faces two counts of armed robbery stemming from a November incident in which two men were robbed at gunpoint near 10th and Locust streets.
Honor awaits 181st Intelligence Wing
As he sat on his mother’s lap inside the Air National Guard Base at Terre Haute International Airport-Hulman Field on Sunday, little Henry Shultz was all smiles as he waited for the start of a ceremony recognizing his father’s service to the community and the country.
‘The mind is a dark forest’
If you hadn’t noticed by reading this newspaper or hearing me crow about it myself, I have another collection of stories out in print.
MAUREEN HAYDEN: Hoosiers’ priorities vs. legislators’ agenda
Every year at about this time, Statehouse reporters like me ask lawmakers what their priorities will be for the coming year.
Restaurant Inspections: Dec. 9, 2013
Operation Warm Christmas: Giving warmth
Crews from a Wabash Valley heating and cooling business traveled in two different directions — one went north and the other south — during the early, cold Saturday hours with one mission for the day: to bring warmth to two Terre Haute homes this season.
Small tax, big Statehouse fight
Who would have believed that old fork lifts, barber chairs and aging computers could capture the attention of so many folks around the state?
‘A part of living history is now gone’
With the death of Nelson Mandela, the world has lost a “giant of history” whose fight for justice and spirit of forgiveness continue to serve as an inspiration to many, say those familiar with his legacy.
Pepsi, oil and gas agreements on School Board agenda
The Vigo County School Board will consider an agreement with Pepsi and an oil and gas license with Pioneer Oil when it meets at 6 p.m. Monday.
Q&A: Wabash Valley legislators reply to questions on business tax proposal
Wabash Valley legislators reply to questions on business tax proposal
Indiana lawmakers face ambitious agenda in short session
Lawmakers are crafting an aggressive agenda for the new year that includes a tax break for businesses, preschool funding for the poor, road spending and a divisive constitutional amendment — all packaged into a so-called “short session” of the Legislature.
Sifting the ashes: Prairie Creek First Baptist Church
The cause of a late Thursday fire that destroyed a 137-year-old church sanctuary may never be known due to the intensity of the blaze.
Miracle on 7th Street: Snow just in time
It was cold and snowy in downtown Terre Haute Friday, but the holiday spirit was very much alive at the annual event, Miracle on 7th Street.
Tim Meadows: SNL cast member knew he was prime time
If you watched the first broadcast of “Saturday Night Live” on Oct. 11, 1975, raise your hand.
That gives you something in common with Tim Meadows.
City slickers: First heavy snowfall of season leaves roads slippery through night
Snow and ice covered roads, cars, buildings and homes in the Wabash Valley late Thursday night and throughout the day on Friday as the first winter storm of the season moved through the area.
Four-car crash leaves 1 dead
A four-vehicle crash in eastern Vigo County led to the death of a 51-year-old Brazil woman Thursday evening.
Former Sen. Richard Lugar receives Chapman S. Root award.
Former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, recently praised by President Barack Obama for making the world a safer place, visited Terre Haute Thursday to receive the Chapman S. Root award.
Wabash Valley prepares for today’s snow and severe drop in temperatures
The weather outside was more frightful Thursday night than it was expected to be this morning, as an icy mixture of precipitation played out. But snowfall is expected to continue today to accumulate up to seven inches in the Terre Haute area, according to the National Weather Service in Indianapolis.
Lilly grants $5M to 3 Vigo colleges
Three Terre Haute colleges will benefit from a combined $5 million in Lilly Endowment grants intended to help students find “meaningful” employment after graduation.
- More News Headlines
- Christmas in the Park: Judges survey lights; troop 200 comes out on top