When The River Raged

Historic flooding in March 1956 used to evidence need for Kinzua Dam

Times Observer file photo An aerial photo of the southside of Warren during historic flooding in 1956. Warren General Hospital, in the center of the photo, was largely evacuated during the flooding. Another thing that stands out? There’s precious little space between the water level and the bridge decks.

Now, I’m not trying to pass any judgment on whether Warren County – and the nation at-large – needed the Kinzua Dam.

But in March 1956, inches of rain accompanied by a significant amount of snowmelt left Warren flooded – and isolated – on a historic level.

And, for someone who doesn’t know Warren County without the Kinzua Dam, the photos are utterly remarkable.

So, the story of the flooding of 1956:

(As an aside, if anyone has personal stories from the flood that can be included in a subsequent week’s story, feel free to reach out to me either by phone at 723-8200 or email at jcotton@timesobserver.com).

A Department of Interior geological survey report from 1956 notes “general flooding… in northwestern Pennsylvania. The runoff was due to moderately heavy rains falling on a thick cover of snow of higher than normal water content during a period when the average temperature was seven degrees above normal.”

The flooding on the Allegheny River struck Salamanca and Warren the worst.

“The Weather Bureau reported the greatest amount of damage occurred at Warren, Pa…. Eight feet of water swirled through Warren causing damage of almost $900,000.”

A Weather Bureau climatological study – under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Commerce, called the flooding the “second highest of known records and practically isolated Warren, Pa.

“A series of rains during the period of March 5 to 8, augmented by considerable snow melt, resulted in floods of varying intensities in several sections of Pennsylvania. Major flooding occurred on the upper Allegheny and lesser flooding on the lower Allegheny and along the Ohio River below Pittsburgh…. The hardest hit in the Allegheny River Basin were Warren, Pa., Salamanca, NY., Oil City, Pa., and Meadville, Pa.”

Between government surveys and reports – as well as the work of the Warren Times-Mirror – details of how the flood affected the Warren are readily available.

“At Warren, Pa., the second highest crest of historic record occurred, flooding practically the entire business district…. Water up to four feet flowed through parts of the business district of Warren, Pa., a community of 15,000 people, as the main Allegheny River and Conewango Creek overflowed their banks. The entire west and south sections of Warren were flooded with first floors of many residences and business establishments flooded. This flood, the second highest of known records, practically isolated Warren with all main highways flooded and impassable.”

A dike, built after the 1948 flood as partial protection to the South Side, was not high enough or long enough.

Warren industries suffered severely including especially the DeLuxe Metal Furniture Company and Sylvania Electric Products.

Schools, especially Beaty Junior High and the old high school, had to be closed with water running through the lower sections of both.

The Memorial Field region was flooded and damaged and the (downtown) area was flooded badly enough to prohibit the publication of a daily paper.

Flood waters crested at 18.4 feet in March 1956, only good enough for the second highest in record behind a flood in 1864 which crested at 19.4 feet.

A random river reading from the U.S. Geological Survey – Jan. 30 at 8 p.m. – showed a river level at 7.23 feet.

“When the 1956 flood struck, Warren was almost completely isolated from the outside world. All possible boats were pressed into use. The Warren Fire Department with the aid of 12 units from Chautauqua County and nine neighboring companies evacuated some 2,500 people from isolated homes in the West End and South Side and other flood-ravaged areas. Civil Defense workers aided rescue workers with walkie-talkies.”

The U.S. Weather Bureau sent Vern Houghton, the Allegheny River’s river forecaster, to a Chamber of Commerce meeting in June 1956 to discuss the flood which occurred three months earlier.

“Mr. Houghton recommended that, as a minimum protection, two weather stations should be set up in this vicinity, one near Sugar Grove and the other at Scandia. He predicted the cost would range from $500 to $1,000,” the Times-Mirror reported. “In discussing the unpredicted flood of this past March, the river forecaster noted that in spite of receiving reports every six hours from numerous weather observation points upstream on the amount of rain, the bureau was unable to forecast the eventual rise because of spotty information cm the depth of snow accumulated on desolate, back-country slopes.”

The three heaviest consecutive days of rain included amounts of 1.1 inches, .9 inches and .75 inches.

“However, he pointed out that this alone was not enough to bring the flood… that was produced by the vapid run-off of snows which could have been predicted if the Weather Bureau had the Information about the snow accumulation. It was pointed out that not one station of that type is operating in this vicinity. Another variable mentioned by Mr, Houghton as contributing to the flood waters was the rapid temperature rise, an important factor contributing to a swift run- off of ground snow in the warm rains. The river observer noted that Warren is the tip of a fan-shaped catch-basin area at the confluence of the Conewango Creek and Allegheny River and receives the brunt of high waters from the huge section.”

Mr. Houghton stated that crying “Wolf” too often would lessen the effectiveness of the organization and that the best way to insure correct predictions is to expand and improve the present set-up which provides only spotty reports in many areas.