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The ice flood of 1918

Let’s be honest here — Nobody has exactly had the time of their life over the past year. A pandemic, social unrest, political issues… It hasn’t been great lately, and at this point, I’m only hoping things improve.

But at least it’s been reasonably warm, up until the past few weeks. At the moment, it’s been holding steady in the twenties, and I’ve been plausibly looking for a Yeti in my backyard. And now that the temperatures have dropped, it bears a distinct resemblances to the 1918 Ice Flood, which happened this time of year — A hundred and three years ago.

It began on a Wednesday afternoon. Feb. 13, 1918. Around 2 p.m. the water began to back up onto Water Street, and the residents took it fairly calmly at first. They were used to Water Street flooding in those days. It’s right there in the name. The concern came a few hours later, when chunks of ice began backing up onto Grove Street. That was when people began evacuating, moving their animals and possessions up to safer areas.

Initially, West Church Street and Bellefonte Avenue seemed safe enough. But as the water kept rising, people scrambled to move again, to safer ground, or at least to the second floor of their first choice of location. With the temperature dropping overnight, people lit oil lamps and huddled around them for warmth. Some of the ice pieces coming off the river were literally the size of houses. The ice chunks being washed up into the city made the temperature approximately the same as a giant martini, without the fun of getting to drink a giant martini.

The ice also killed communications in much of the city. Enormous ice chunks not only damaged the phone lines on the east, they also blocked traffic and prevented any repair efforts. Because the Susquehanna River flows east in this spot, most of the damage was happening on the eastern end of the city. This left the phones and roads to the west undamaged, and word was sent to Renovo.

Lock Haven was getting hit by the flood much worse than some of the other Clinton County communities, and Renovo stepped up to help. The floodwaters went down overnight, and a relief train came from Renovo carrying stoves, oil, bread, and most importantly, volunteers. They helped to distribute the supplies to people in need, and began assisting with pumping out basements.

Gibson Paine, supervisor of the paper mill, told his men to forget about profit for a change and go help. They went out into the community, delivering coal and helping to shovel ice off of porches. About an hour later, an army of railroad employees joined in, a 150 men arriving to help clear the streets of ice.

“But everywhere, order prevailed,” the Clinton County Times reported. “Nobody seemed to think of anything but work, work, work. They were working to save property and put things in order to prevent sickness and possibly save a life.” (I’ve accidentally found that the Clinton County Times often said things that today come across as a little prophetic.)

Mayor John Cupper reacted as well, meeting with city council and voting to provide $5,000 in flood relief, which is $200 billion by today’s standards. Cupper also contacted the Express with some encouragement for his city. And as I can’t really improve on his message, I’m going to end this article with it.

“The city of Lock Haven, my friends, has not been wiped out,” Cupper said in a prepared statement. “The city of Lock Haven is coming back fast, and it will be back stronger, grander, and better for every one of us.”

——

Lou Bernard is a Lock Haven resident with a keen interest in the history of this area. He is adult services coordinator at Ross Library and may be reached at loulhpa@gmail.com or 570-660-4463.

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