Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Pittsburgh's March Madness

March Madness: Pittsburgh disasters strike at the end of March

The end of March seems to be an unlucky time for Pittsburgh, or at least it seemed that way in 1936 and 1937.  From March 16th to March 22nd, 1936, the city of Pittsburgh experienced an incredible flood.  This flood came to be known as the Great Flood of 1936.  On the first day, Monday, March 16th, heavy rains and melting snow began to swell Pittsburgh’s rivers.  Tuesday brought terrifying reports from Johnstown.  Four bridges were destroyed, and severe damaged occurred in downtown Pittsburgh, Cambria City, and the South Side as waters continued to rise.  By noon on Tuesday, the flood waters had reached 27 feet at The Point and were not showing any signs of stopping.  On Wednesday, numerous people died as buildings were swept off their foundations.  Many residents became trapped by rising water within their homes.  Fires broke out and panic began to set in as families were stranded, many without power or food.  Emergency workers were mobilized, including the National Guard, state police, firemen, the Red Cross, and many others, to rescue those marooned by the flood and to provide basic necessities.  By the end of the day Wednesday, the flood waters began to slowly recede. 

At the end of the week, both survivors and relief workers were exhausted.  Water, candles, and gasoline were in short supply, and Downtown Pittsburgh had to be placed under martial law.  Sicknesses, such as scarlet fever and whooping cough, broke out among children at emergency shelters.  As many as 62 people died from flood-related causes, and 500 people were injured.  Devastating as this tragedy was to Pittsburgh,  the Great Flood also created many heart-touching stories of good Samaritans, and the nation watched as the citizens of Pittsburgh stepped up to the challenge.   For example, numerous local Boy Scouts stepped in to act as traffic directors when all available policemen were on flood duty.  Hardworking Pittsburghers set right to work rebuilding, and there followed a high demand for labor to aid in reconstruction.

The following year, 1937, tragedy struck locally in Upper St. Clair with the crash of TWA flight 15A at Clifton on March 25.  The flight, carrying passengers and mail, was heading for what is now the Allegheny County Airport.  At a time before Black Boxes in airplanes, investigators only had eyewitness reports to piece together what may have caused the crash.  Pilots of another TWA flight saw warning signs that the plane was out of control just before “it fell to the ground in a spin to the left.  Several witnesses on the ground corroborate this description of the final maneuvers of the airplane.  The fact that the airplane did not strike high obstructions in the immediate vicinity of the accident indicates conclusively that the descent was practically vertical.”  The plane crashed nose-down near McMurray Road and Route 19, shutting down traffic on Washington Road.  All persons on board, ten passengers and three crew members, were killed, presumably on impact.  In the Report of the Accident Board of the Bureau of Air Commerce, investigators reported their determination that an excessive accumulation of ice caused the pilots to lose control of the plane.  The event caused quite a stir as one of the worst disasters that occurred in the area, up to that time.  Numerous residents made the trip to view the wreckage before it was removed, and the Historical Society has several oral histories recounting memories of the local tragedy.

Now that we have safely made it past these notorious anniversaries, see if you can find traces of the Great Flood around our city in the form of commemorative plaques, personal stories, and newspaper articles in local archives.