Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Schenectady's Worst Flood

This post was written by library volunteer Gail Denisoff.

This image shows flooding on the Erie Canal looking towards State Street. Advertisements for The Carl Company, J.E. Davidson's Son, Dan A. Donahue, John Wagner's Furniture are shown. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives Photo Collection.
Schenectady has experienced its fair share of spring flooding. Concerns rise, especially in the Stockade area, whenever temperatures begin to climb causing ice to start thawing and breaking up in the Mohawk River and the streams feeding into it. Couple that with heavy rain and you have a recipe for disaster. Schenectady residents thought the March floods of 1893 and 1913 which hit a high-level mark of 21 feet were the worst they had ever experienced. That was until the flood of 1914, still considered the worst in Schenectady history.

A view of State Street after the 1914 Valentine's Blizzard.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives
Photo Collection.
The winter of 1914 was a tough one. Not only were the temperatures unusually cold for all of January and February but Valentine’s day brought a blizzard dropping 32 inches of snow in less than 20 hours. Drifts reached 15 to 20 feet in some areas. March arrived with warmer weather and rains. Small creeks began to swell and ice that had built up over the long winter was breaking apart. In the early morning hours of March 27th, loud grinding and cracking sounds were heard emanating from the Schoharie Creek and other small waterways as gigantic chunks of ice started crashing and hurtling their way to the Mohawk River.

As the floes moved into the river, joining masses of slowly colliding slabs of ice, destruction followed. By 7pm that evening, a 300-foot bridge in Amsterdam gave way, the same bridge that had been destroyed exactly one year before. Soon after, two private bridges in the Schenectady area fell to the unrelenting mounds of ice. First the Rexford Toll Bridge collapsed followed by the Freemans Toll Bridge. Onlookers described the ice slabs as twenty feet high and three feet thick. The piers of the Scotia Bridge were also being barraged by the ice but were still considered secure.

Massive chunks of ice were common during the 1914 flood. This photo shows some of them on North Street. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives Photo Collection.
Early the next day linemen from the New York Telephone Company attempted to string cable across the Mohawk at Freeman’s. By this time the river was raging and rising rapidly. After rowing a boat through the hazardous current twice unspooling their cable, the three men aboard attempted a third crossing. This time they weren’t as fortunate. A massive cake of submerged ice shattered their boat sending the three men into the river. Two of the men, John Inglis and John Becker, were pulled under and drowned, the third, William Ryan, held on to wreckage from the boat and managed to get to a railroad bridge where he was rescued.
The Stockade experienced some of the worst of the 1914 flood. This photo shows the only method of transportation that people in much of the Stockade could use, boats. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives Photo Collection.
Meanwhile, the rising river was spilling over its banks in the city of Schenectady and heavy rain was falling. American Locomotive and General Electric, both having suffered losses from the flood the year before, had workers stack sandbags and timbers to block the water. Sandbags were also placed on manhole covers to prevent the back up of sewers on Dock Street and River Road along the canal. Washington Avenue, South Ferry Street, North Street, South Church Street, Ingersoll Avenue and other streets leading to the river were filling with water. By 5am on the 28th men were pounding on doors to awaken residents to vacate their properties.

At 10:30 am the General Electric whistle blew sending thousands of workers out of the plant to make their way home on flooded streets. Trolley service was cut off going into Scotia. People used rowboats to make their way through the rising water. By 11:45am flood levels had reached 23.5 feet. The area around General Electric was covered by two feet of water and four feet covered the grounds of American Locomotive. South Church Street was six feet under water and many riverfront cottages had water up to their rooflines. Between 300 and 400 homes had been evacuated.

Even with the flood, some people found ways to entertain themselves. This photo shows Reuben Dworsky (left) and Isidore Goldstork (right) rowing down a flooded Broadway during the 1914 flood. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library & Archives Photo Collection.
Between 2:00 and 3:00pm the ice jam finally began to move. Water rapidly receded and by the morning of March 29th much of the water had returned to normal levels. About 30,000 people made their way to the river to watch the massive chunks of ice floating by resulting in a boon for trolley service. What followed was a mass clean up effort. Stores tried to beat the flood by moving merchandise to upper levels, but many still had flood sales in the ensuing weeks. General Electric and American Locomotive reported relatively small losses, but other business and homes were hit hard with hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

Major flooding has continued to be a worry in Schenectady over the years. Most problems seem to occur in spring although some are associated with other events, most recently, Hurricane Irene in August of 2011. Much of the Stockade was once again under water with many people forced to evacuate. Hopefully, Schenectady will never again experience a flood that compares to that of 1914.

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