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Column #222 - February 23, 2003

1936 St. Patrick’s Day Flood Devastated The Region
by Glenn Tunney

         Winter brings snow, and melting snow can produce flooding.  In 1936, the Monongahela River went on a memorable rampage that became known as the St. Patrick’s Day Flood.  That 1936 flood was caused by the combination of a saturating rainfall, the meltdown of a deep snow pack, and a decision to open the gates of a dam that was upstream from the victimized towns.  These three ingredients fused to create a disaster.
         On the evening of March 16, rain continued falling as it had been for days.  When St. Patrick’s Day dawned, the skies had dumped two and one half inches of rain across the headwaters of the Monongahela, melting the snow pack in the process.  The Monongahela began rising rapidly.  At 10 a.m. in Brownsville, navigation at Lock No. 5 was suspended as the Mon’s muddy waters topped the lock walls.
         The rainfall continued until noon, stopped for a few hours, then was replaced by hail and sleet.  When the afternoon editions of the Brownsville Telegraph hit the streets, front page stories described a worrisome situation in communities along the area’s already-flooding streams and creeks.
          “In the Fairbank, Newboro, Orient district,” the Telegraph stated, “observers reported that Dunlap’s creek ‘looks like Lake Lynn.’  The Fairbank-Orient road was flooded, and water was pouring into basements and the lower floors of many homes as householders moved their furnishings to safety.
         “The square at Fairbank was partially under water, but none of the stores were flooded.  Monongahela Railway officials reported their tracks were covered between Orient and New Salem and many slides were hindering traffic between Brownsville and Fairmont.”
         The flooding streams were a bad omen for river communities, where all eyes were on the rising Monongahela.
         “At 2:20 p.m. [on the 17th],” reported the Telegraph, “Lockmaster C. W. Keibler said the river’s stage here was 22.7 feet on the upper gauges [above the Brownsville dam] and 28.8 feet on the lower gauges, more than seven feet above the normal level.  He was unable to predict how much more water would pour down the valley from the watershed.”
         Any prediction Keibler might have ventured may have been too optimistic, because upstream at Lake Lynn dam, a fateful decision had been made.
         “Sixteen of the 26 flood gates were opened at Lake Lynn,” the Telegraph stated, “allowing great amounts of water to pour into the Monongahela.”
         Downstream communities soon learned of this decision.  The Telegraph wrote of their concern, “The upper Monongahela Valley braced itself for the ‘worst flood in ten years’ as attendants opened wickets as the Cheat river dam and river men looked for a crest that may go as high as 35 feet, 15 feet above flood stage.”
         As dire as the Telegraph’s prediction sounded on that afternoon of March 17th, it would have been a blessing had it come true.  By the next morning, the river would reach nearly 43 feet before its filthy waters would begin to recede.
         Overnight, the situation along the Mon changed from bad to disastrous.  On Wednesday, March 18th, the Telegraph described the stunning scene along the rampaging Monongahela.
         “The unprecedented flood which rushed down the Monongahela valley during the night brought untold suffering to the Brownsville area’s populace,” the Telegraph reported, “and left countless thousands of dollars worth of property damage in its wake. The lowland sections of Brownsville proper, the West Side and Lilley [½ mile north of the West Brownsville rail yard] were flooded and at least 350 families were either marooned in their homes or forced to evacuate to high places.
         “Fourteen families were marooned in the ‘creek’ district here and volunteers used a government boat to rescue the victims, which included two-year-old twins and a six-month-old baby which, with its mother, had to be carried from the roof of their home.”
         In Brownsville’s Neck, “every store in the block suffered heavy losses, and thirty-two inches of water poured into the basement of Brownsville Public Library in Snowdon Square and destroyed several hundred books.”
         Union Station was open, but train service was at a standstill.  “Passenger train service here was practically paralyzed,” explained the Telegraph.  “Because of water on the first floor of the P. & L. E. station at Pittsburgh, no trains were able to leave for Brownsville.”
         Conditions were no better on Brownsville’s South Side, where “traffic was blocked on Water Street, and several feet of water covered the athletic field.”  As for the school in that part of town, the Telegraph explained that “the Second Ward school here was closed today with eight inches of water in its basement.  Principal Mark Evans said the action was taken for sanitary reasons after the flood put the school’s lavatories out of commission.”
         In West Brownsville, “water reached the first floors of every home along Water and Middle Streets for a distance of five blocks.  Scores of families at Lilley evacuated and sought refuge with friends on Blainesburg hill as the river submerged the little mining community.”
         To compound the flood victims’ distress, three inches of snow fell on St. Patrick’s Day, adding to the suffering of the hundreds of families who were marooned in their homes without heat.  At 8 a.m. on the morning of the 18th, the river crested at 42.3 feet, just three feet lower than the all-time high water mark of 1888 at Brownsville.
         On March 19th, the Brownsville Telegraph reported, “By this morning, the river was falling a half foot an hour on the lower gauge at Lock No. 5 and the stage at 10:30 a.m. stood at 30.5 feet, a drop of more than 12 feet from the crest of yesterday.  In West Brownsville, scores of homes that had been flooded for 24 hours were clear of water and householders were hard at work clearing out mud and debris.  Virtually all roads, except those blocked by slides or washouts, were open in the area.”
         Attention now turned from the receding waters to the distraught families whose homes had been invaded by the flood waters.  Only then was it discovered that one group of families had not been evacuated from their flood-stricken neighborhood.
         “Twenty-six children, seven men and five women, flood victims from Lilley, spent last night in West Brownsville fire house,” the Telegraph reported on March 19th.  “They were discovered huddled yesterday in a boxcar at Lilley, cold, hungry, and weakened.  Volunteers, headed by Mrs. W. S. Conwell and Mrs. J. W. Lane, Red Cross representatives, secured blankets from the Red Cross and made beds for the women and men.  Most of the boys slept on canvas in the fire house.
         “Soup and other food was fed to the group late yesterday afternoon.  Mrs. Conwell declared today clothing and more food is needed immediately to care for the group.  Mrs. James Stapleton of West Brownsville donated milk and butter, and food was supplied by other volunteers.  Legion officials this morning were assisting in the work and it was hoped the Lilley delegation could be made relatively comfortable until they can return to their flood-swept homes, probably late tonight or tomorrow.”
         A county-wide relief effort was begun.  In Brownsville, the Fayette County Red Cross designated the Mardorff Building, adjacent to the Plaza Theatre, as the official collection point for donations of food, cash, clothing, and bedding.  Mrs. Robert L. Herron, president of the Brownsville Senior Women’s Club, and Mrs. Clive Phillips of the American Legion Auxiliary, announced that the women’s clubs would keep workers there throughout the day to receive all contributions.
         The W.P.A. joined the effort to lend a hand to those in need.  All W.P.A. workers of Fayette county were instructed to be ready to begin working six-hour shifts doing rehabilitation work.  By March 20, the Lilley families who had been quartered in the West Brownsville fire house were able to return their homes, which had been cleaned of debris by volunteers.
         Despite the community’s distress, its citizens did not forget others whose circumstances were similar or worse.  The Telegraph reported that “the International Bakery [on Second Street] shipped 3,000 loaves of bread to the Pittsburgh area where a severe food shortage was imminent with bakeries unable to operate because of a lack of power.  Commander Samuel F. Beaver of Brownsville Post 377, Veterans of Foreign Wars, issued a call for food to be sent to Johnstown to aid the homeless there.”
         Much of Pittsburgh, where the flood is still considered the worst in its history, was without electrical power in the flooded areas.  The Telegraph explained that to make it possible to publish a newspaper in the city, “a gasoline generating plant was taken from the Brier Hill mine last night [March 20] and sent to Pittsburgh to operate the Post-Gazette Publishing company plant due the flood crisis.  Trucks carrying the equipment became stuck last night at Brier Hill and the G. W. Stephenson Transfer Company here worked throughout the night to loosen the vehicles.  They left Brownsville at 11 a.m. for Pittsburgh.”
         When dawn broke on March 21, some folks in Brownsville smiled as they arose from their beds, knowing that finally spring had begun.  Their smiles disappeared when they looked out their windows and saw that Old Man Winter had left a parting gift – five to seven inches of new snow that had fallen overnight.  The snow would make the clearing of mud and debris even more tedious.
         The winter of 1936 did not go gently into that good night.
         The third week of March 1936 was indeed a week to remember.  Today when conversations turn to the subject of flooding, the two events that top the list of disasters wrought by the mighty Monongahela are the  “Election Day Flood of 1985" and the “St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936.”


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