Universal York

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York County people have weathered some serious storms

Lewis Miller shows his 21-year-old self salvaging ale and beer during the 1817 flood.

We should not panic when we hear of impending storms and flooding, but neither should we be complacent. If an area is to be evacuated, the smart thing to do is leave before you find yourself underwater.

Fellow blogger Blake Stough’s post earlier this year showed Indian Rock Dam, built in the early 1940s to contain the Codorus Creek and minimize flooding in York. Even with that barrier, Hurricane Agnes caused extensive flooding in 1972, with water covering virtually the same area of downtown York as in 1933. This link will take you to Jim McClure’s post on Hurricane Agnes.

The floods of 1817, 1884 and 1933 were the worst the county has even seen. My York Sunday News column of a few years ago is below. It tells the sad story of those who didn’t heed warnings to get out of their neighborhoods in 1817, as well as the heartening response of the public and government to hasten recovery.

It Could Happen Again

Weather forecasters point out the dangers of ignoring the potential consequences of unusual weather. To their horror, citizens of York found that out in August of 1817.
Storms from three different directions converged on the county. The heaviest rain in memory started to fall around midnight on Friday, August 8. The deluge continued without ceasing until nearly 1 p.m. Saturday, when it suddenly became clear and sunny.
Yorkers noticed the Codorus Creek was rising but, according to Carter and Glossbrenner’s 1834 history of the county, they were not too concerned on this suddenly beautiful day. The writer reports that some were “amused” as they watched the large wooden bridge over George Street being swept away. The rapidly rising water “soon covered Main [Market] Street from above Water [Pershing] to Newberry.” Many residents and shopkeepers of the heavily populated area near the creek stayed in the buildings, merely moving to the second floor, even though they were advised to leave while they could still wade through the water.
Then word came that the large dam at Spring Forge [Spring Grove] had broken. Water from that broke other dams in sequence and “came foaming, rolling, roaring on.” The Codorus was said to form a “mighty river” between 1/4 and 1/2 mile wide. The rushing water carried pieces of mills, dams, bridges, and buildings that battered the homes in which the residents thought they were safe. As the waters rose some knocked holes through ceilings so that they could climb higher. Rescues were attempted. The next York Gazette reported that Penrose Robinson and John Wolf saved “two persons of color” by snatching them from a roof into their small boat. For hours other residents helplessly watched houses being swept away or destroyed.
When the waters finally started to recede it was found that at least ten persons out of the population of around 3,200 had lost their lives. The most heart-rending loss was of the two-year-old child of John Williams. The family had gone for safety to the second floor over their grocery store. Suddenly the west gable end of the house fell and the child was swept away in its cradle. Mrs. Williams was injured trying to unsuccessfully save the toddler.
Others lost included the Williams’ neighbors, Hugh Cunningham and his wife, whose house tore loose in the deluge and traveled downstream. Daniel Updegraff and Martin Eichelberger’s fifteen-year-old son Samuel, who were in the Cunningham house drowned, as did a Colvin girl. Remarkably, when the house came to rest against an apple tree, Joseph Wren was found safe in the attic. The nearly eighty-year-old Revolutionary War veteran had apparently gone to sleep there after helping the Cunninghams carry furniture upstairs. The Gazette also reported that Henry Bradley perished while trying to save some fowl. Regrettably, the accounts do not list the names of several persons of color who also drowned.
Many houses not completely destroyed were damaged so badly to be unlivable. Up to 100 structures were ruined, including breweries, tanneries, factories, stores, mills, barns, stables and other outbuildings. Around 50 families lost all their possessions and their livelihood. Samuel Welsh and John Barnitz lost their breweries, John Elgar his nail factory. Phineas Davis lost his watchmaker’s shop, but reportedly saved watches and tools. Artist Lewis Miller drew himself retrieving bottles of beer from the creek “at old George Hay’s meadow–down Queen Street.” Total damage was estimated at $200,000 in 1817 dollars.
The rest of the town reacted quickly. Chief Burgess Charles A. Barnitz signed a resolution August 12, calling every citizen to liberally extend relief to those affected. It named a committee of ten to solicit funds and dispense them to the sufferers. Comfort came from other communities–a receipt in the files of the York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives thanks the Hanover Committee for collecting $206.60 for York flood relief. The next session of the state legislature granted a total of $6,000 toward rebuilding bridges, which had been all destroyed, and repairing streets.
Yorkers remembered the great flood of 1817 for many years, with good reason. It still stands as the third worse flood ever recorded here. Only the 1884 and 1933 waters were higher. As engineer Daniel G. Meckley III pointed out in a paper on the history of the Codorus Creek, Indian Rock Dam was built in response to the 1933 flood. Still, in 1972 the waters generated by Hurricane Agnes reached only .2 feet lower than in 1817, covering virtually the same area. For more on Meckley’s paper, see Jim McClure’s previous York Town Square blog
If we learn anything from history, in this case it should be that Mother Nature is to be taken very seriously.