Couple writes letter in dark and cold of ice flood as it was happening
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article includes a letter written by Katherine Smart and her husband, Joseph F. Smart, who witnessed the Ice Flood of 1918 in Lock Haven. The writing was edited and published by their grandchildren, Joe Smart and Elizabeth Smart, in May 2011 and presented to The Express for publication on the 100th anniversary of the Ice Flood.
Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, lies at the junction of the Susquehanna River and Bald Eagle Creek in Clinton County. Spring floods, caused by rain-accelerated snow melt and the runoff blocked by ice jams, were common until a levee was completed in 1995. The city proper is flat and not much above river level, although the hills of the west end of town are well above the traditional flood level.
In 1918 our grandparents were about 26 years old and had been married four years. They shared a duplex with relatives in the low-lying part of the city. Our grandfather and his father were miners of the special clay used in the making of fire-brick, vital to the steel industry and other factories. They commuted to work by train upriver to the town of Farrandsville.
This document is a letter written mainly by our grandmother, Katherine Smart, but with a paragraph or two from our grandfather, Joseph F. Smart, over the three-day period from Wednesday, Feb. 20, through Friday, Feb. 22, 1918, to tell relatives about what became known as the Ice Flood of 1918.
I remember going with my grandfather to the home of Uncle Ted and Aunt Myrtle Smart in the late 1950s and having the high water lines pointed out to me, and the floods of ’18 and ’36 were common topics of conversation among those who lived through them.
As we read this letter, we were impressed by the self-reliance, good humor, and sense of pride in homes and city displayed by everyone. The story also indicates how we ourselves have become dependent on instant communications. This experience of our grandparents was not the greatest trial they endured in their lives, and it pales against the devastation from natural disasters we read about almost daily. But it does open a window on the lives and character of these our ancestors, and we felt truly blessed to read their words in their own handwriting.
One other note – we have not changed the punctuation or word usage. The letter is as they wrote it. If the spelling and syntax is not what you see in modern works written with all the benefits of spell-checkers, remember this was written by people under stress, using pens which we now consider antique, and in the dark and cold of an ice flood as it was happening.
Joe Smart and Elizabeth Smart
Day of the February flood,
Feb. 20, 1918
Well Mine Dear Family:
We got tired of living down stairs so moved up, so here I sit in my boudoir at my library table writing you a letter as calm as tho there wasn’t a foot of water down stairs, etc. Well if my old man were only here it would be pleasanter but I am hoping he is safe in Farrandsville but fearing he is trudging over the hills home.
Well to explain. I was calmly washing at about 10 o’clock when Mr McCloskey comes over & sez, sez he, we are going to have a flood. We could see it there away off in the fields. He carried my pot. up for me and then I proceeded to wash about ¢ hr & went out to look & it was coming in the fields across from Glenns. Well Myrtle & I went up & run the motor cycle down & up on the back porch, mother of Mrs McCloskey helping. We laughed so we nearly fell over. Then I finished my washing & got rest of things out of cellar as well as a bbl. of coal etc, Philip & Myrtle helping me. It didn’t go in our cellar until about 2 o’clock. We telephoned for Ted & he came home. Well at 4 we thot we better begin moving a little higher so Ted slugged pot. apples etc all up stairs & we now have everything up here but stoves, kitchen table, & cabinet & piano which is up on my washbenches. Several men came in a boat & helped with piano & carried heaviest things up.
The trains have all stopped & we telephoned or Mrs McCloskey telephoned Joe at 5 & told him how we were etc, but we are afraid they will try coming over the hill. Blanche is over here with me & the rest of the family just over the other side of the wall. They wanted me to come over but I like it better here & we can get back & forth over porch roof if we desire & can talk thru medicine cabinet so it might be lots worse.
Joe fixed the car & run it up town last night but am afraid up town is flooded too. Mary is up at Aunt Mae’s. She went to school this P.M. & couldn’t get home but I suppose they are surrounded now. It doesn’t seem it could raise much higher or it would go over the ice jam or carry it out pretty soon. I guess they tried to dynamite it but failed this P.M. Its getting cold & there is a thin scum over the water.
Our 20 gal. of gasolene we were so proud of having is probably well mixed with aqua now. We set it up on some boxes but it is far above these & it upsets easily as it isn’t heavy. Believe me we will have some mess when this is over will do our house cleaning I guess early. Mazie I would sure have sent for you if I had known I was going to move.
Thursday 3.30 P.M.
Well we are still living upstairs also my husband and I are in different parts of the world it seems and I am afraid will be until tomorrow anyway. Was last night a long one well I assure you it was the longest one I ever experienced. We crawled in bed boots & all to keep warm but I was up every half hr all night. At 1 o’clock it was 27 in deep in our house, but it only raised one inch from 12 – 1 o’clock so then I tried to sleep but I had no more than gotten a little in the notion when we heard cries of help! help! It was way down the railroad & there was a fire but the boys (Ted & Leo Caprio) thot it was some old shacks along the track & what made it so bad is that the water is frozen about 2 in. of ice all over it & they can’t go in boats or I think our men would be here as I imagine they walked down and are up at Ginghericks or Lester’s.
At 4 o’clock the water began to fall & the ice cracks etc. It has fallen 18 in. so there is only nine in. now. Ted has been down & is soon going to try & start fires up. The piano was in about 4 in but I don’t think it hurt it any. Will probably have to oil the pedals & it will need a good cleaning but we feel very thankful. We have oil cooker in the back room & this is our kitchen, dining & living room & we are very comfortable. Caprio’s haven’t any fire and they stay over at Mother’s. She has her oil heater & big lamp but her cooker won’t work so we do all the cooking here. also Caprio’s. We go back & forth over the roof. Mrs McCloskey has my heater but she is going to let it down with a rope tonight also a gal. of oil & we will have kitchen fire going. I didn’t sleep a wink but rested & feel fine today. We will no doubt stay up here a week or more before we move anything down until it gets all dried out good but there is going to be some mess all over for this ice is just settling down & freezing & it will be all over until it melts off. They say all the stores are flooded & everything to Jones St. That’s one St. above Aunt May’s. If Joe were here we would have a picnic but I am sure he must be safe & so we make the best of it. I wish you could have seen it. Just a sea as far as you look all frozen over. The house across the street was flooded to middle of window sash, & up where Father used to live same. Just the top of the old shed sticking out. I suppose the car is flooded up town but not as badly as if it were down here & maybe they run them up out of danger. The lights went out at ten o’clock. Tonight won’t be so bad.
I was just in the front room & saw two men walking around on ice in middle of road & over this corner field out here to Litzes house. Believe me that’s going some for the water must be 10 ft deep in the road. It seems to be going quite fast. I just measured again & its only 6 in. deep dropped 3 in in 40 min. That’s fine for it has only been going 1 or 2 in an hr. When the ice breaks away from houses etc it sounds as tho we were being bombarded. You know this is my first introduction to a flood and they had an especially big one for the purpose. I only hope you people do not hear of it and worry. Its harder on Joe & Father than on us for they don’t know how we are located etc. If Joe had only been here we could have gotten some dandy pictures.
Mike (Mrs W.J.) just came to hire out to make my fire but I am going to throttle him & tie him with mine shirt waste string & take his boots & do it myself. I have been crazy to paddle around down there. She has on Ted’s wadders & has gone down to investigate then let me build the fire as I understand it better. Ted cleaned the stoves out.
And I, Jos. F., am home got here by canoe & wading most of the way at that some places up to my hips and some places the ice would hold a person up but not many. I did not mind it near so much as I did my wading experience of last night which was thrilling also chilling. we came down on the 6 oclock train from work but the train only came as far as bellefonte ave. station so we started to wade from there and after trying different ways of getting through for about a half hour we found we could not get thru so we waded back up to Aunt Mays. by that time our feet were numb, absolutely no feeling in them at all but we didnt freeze them and soon had dry clothes on and felt O.K. and helped get their goods in dry places. the water lacked a foot of coming in the store but it wasnt long until it was in and by midnight there was a foot there. that was the highest. it didnt do much damage to him (80 gal oil upset & 3 bbl salt about all) I stayed up until about 1 o’clock and then layed down but did not sleep any. some how I couldnt enjoy myself. from seven oclock until about five I stayed inside and watched people trying to walk over the Ice and falling in. I think I saw at least 25 men fall thru and then I happened to find where I could get a boat and it wasnt long before I was headed toward home but it was mighty slow business as we had to break the ice ahead of us as we went and wade part of the time and finally when we got to the deepest water (around the station) the boat couldnt get thru any more and I came the rest of the way on foot and here I am.
9 o’clock. – Here is my husband and very glad am I. He walked in just as we were sweeping water out. Mother got down stairs and opened front door and out went the other 6 in. of water she grabbed a broom & began sweeping & I did as soon as I could get down with rubbers & we swept mud out so it looks quite respectable then we started fires & Ted got ice off of porches etc. It just went down fast from then on & people are walking on ice on walks now. Tomorrow we are going out & do the sights. It will take some time for our city to present a neat appearance also my house for there is ice everywhere. We are about to take our single bed down & fix fires & go to bed for a good nights sleep.
With Love and Love from the Flood Survivors.
(From the handwriting it appears she wrote this postscript
while on their tour to “do the sights.”)
This town is a sorry sight. We are just going up town. Mary & her father just came down, frozen horses etc. up to church window sills & some places on Main St the chunks of ice from river broke windows. Am going to send you a telegram as all kind of rumors will be told. It was up to roof in houses down on the island. Even our gasolene is O.K. The cans floated & corks stayed in. We are going up to find out about the car. I have kitchen floor cleaned up pretty good. Will write again Sunday. Wish you were all here today to see it. Better come down. If it stays like this it will look fierce for a long time altho every one is busy cleaning up all they can. We feel very thankful for escaping so nicely. Havent heard if any lives lost but no doubt some were. Don’t worry about us at all for we are fine house is warm & we boil all water & are going to put disinfectant around & there isn’t any odor in our house only cellar. The water has gone out of there pretty good about 3 ft. left I guess.
Lots of Love
K & J