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Son of Frankenstorm: The Great Flood of 1843

We've been warned about Frankenstorm. But imagine Delco in 1843: industries centered around mills & mill communities along creeks. And you have no warning when the storm of the century arrives.

Pundits have labeled the current storm we are in the midst as "Frankenstorm." Middle-agers remember Hurricane Agnes devastating the area and the state in 1972. Old-time Jersey Shore residents remember the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962, reported in Wikipedia to be "one of the ten worst storms in the United States in the 20th century, it lingered through five high tides over a three-day period, killing 40 people, injuring over 1,000 and causing hundreds of millions in property damage in six states." 

Since the beginning of time, Mother Nature has periodically proven her strength and unleashed her fury on the human population.  

Today, with power and backup power, modern communications, flood hazard areas where no building is permitted, and building codes and better construction materials and methods, and weather forecasting, we are somewhat better prepared to face what she throws at us.  

We have some warning–frankly we have had non-stop warnings. We have been told to say inside. Today, whole cities and transit systems and school systems are shut down as a precaution. We have emergency backup systems in places; we have warm and dry places to go if all else fails at home.  

We have been warned–we have the benefit of experience and, yet, still some will go out in it; some who can't resist getting close to the edges of life will fall in. Our emergency workers: firefighters, policem and National Guardsmen will put their lives at risk. And others, safe and secure in their homes, may be injured when winds and debris break through their safety net and do damage.  

But imagine now that you are living in the 19th Century without the benefit of all of these modern conveniences.  Imagine that the power to run your main industries is water power - mills up and down the creeks in this area - the Darby, the Crum, the Ridley and Cobbs.  Imagine the places where the roads must cross over these creeks - we hardly notice them today as we glide by over concrete and steel bridges.  

But imagine the 19th Century, where many crossings are simply fords - low areas where it is usually safe to cross; and in the more heavily trafficked areas there are relatively simple wooden bridges, with piers and pilings driven into the ground by hand labor. Your dams are not vast concrete and steel reinforced structures, but stone and earthen dams, good enough for your run of the mill storm, but not your storm of the century.  

When a storm is coming, you have no way of knowing. Perhaps you live in a wooden house near a creek, that you and your neighbors built with available materials. You have not moved your carriage, your wagon, your horses and livestock, your crops in the barn, to higher or more secure ground or places. You have not moved your merchandise to higher floors. You have not evacuated your home near the water because you don't know the storm is coming. Your fuel - your wood pile, your coal, may be stacked outside or in a small shed. That is the world you would wake up to in Delaware County on August 5, 1843, when the 19th Century "Frankenstorm" arrived.

Ashmead's History of Delaware County described what happened that day:  

"At daybreak, the sky indicated rain, and about seven o'clock a moderate fall set in, which, while it slackened, never entirely ceased until between the hours of two and six o'clock that afternoon, when the extraordinary opening of "the windows of heaven" took place which made such extended ruin and misery in a brief period of time. The rain, when falling most abundantly, came down in such showers that the fields in that part of the county removed several miles back from the river are said to have been flooded with water almost immediately, and where the road was lower than the surface of the ground on either side, the water poured into the highway in a constant stream of miniature cascades. The lightning played incessantly through the falling torrents, reflected from all sides in the watery mirrors in the fields producing a weird and spectral appearance, such that those who witnessed it could evermore recall.

In those sections of the county where its greatest violence was expended, the character of the stream more nearly accorded with that of a tropical hurricane than with anything which appertained to this region of country. The clouds wore an unusually dark and lowering appearance, of which the whole atmosphere seemed in some degree to partake, and this circumstance, no doubt, gave that peculiarly vivid appearance to the incessant flashes of lightning which was observed by every one. The peals of thunder were loud and almost continuous. The clouds appeared to approach from different directions, and to concentrate at a point not very distant from the zenith of the beholder. In many places there was but very little wind, the rain falling in nearly perpendicular streams; at other places it blew a stiff breeze, first from the east or northeast and suddenly shifting to the southwest, while at a few points it blew in sudden gusts with great violence, accompanied with whirlwinds, which twisted off and prostrated large trees, and swept everything before it.

The almost instantaneous rise of the water in the creeks throughout the county is hardly paralleled in any flood on record, and the manner in which the current is related to have moved clown the various streams to the Delaware would be incredible if it were not that the destruction it produced fully sustains the statements.

Darby Creek … was a wild, struggling torrent, swollen seventeen feet beyond its usual level, crushing even solid masonry before it as it rushed outward towards the river.  Ithan Creek … in Radnor, rose to such an unprecedented height that the arched stone bridge which spanned the stream on the old Lancaster road [Conestoga Road - ed], near Radnor Friends' meeting-house, unable to vent the water, was undermined and fell, allowing the torrent to escape through its broken archway. On the west branch of Darby Creek, before that feeder enters Delaware County, considerable damage was done in broken dams, which, freeing the water therein restrained, resulted in augmenting largely the force of the freshet, which rushed in irresistible force to Hood's bridge [Goshen & Darby Paoli Roads - ed], where the Goshen road crosses the creek, and the double arched stone structure there yielded before the mass of water that was hurled against it, attaining at that point a height of seven feet beyond the highest point ever before reached so far as records extend. In its mad career the torrent injured the mill-dam of Clarence and William P. Lawrence's grist-mill [near Barnaby's and the carwash along West Chester Pike - ed], and more than a hundred feet of the western wing wall of the stone bridge that spanned the creek on the West Chester road was swept away, the water reaching a point thirteen feet beyond its usual level. The stone bridge near where the Marple and Springfield line meets on Darby Creek [near intersection of Burmont and Reed roads - ed] had a large part of the guard-wall demolished.

The stone arched bridge, known as Howard's bridge, on the road that intersected with the Newtown and Marple Line road [Marple Road where it now crosses high above the Blue Route and the creek- ed], was almost destroyed. Below this point and above Hunter's Run a sleeper bridge was bodily carried off its abutment.

Homes, dams, bridges, mills, factories, livestock, people, were all swept away in the ensuing floods. Most of the bridges on Chester, Ridley, Crum and Darby creeks, numbering 52, have been swept away, and the loss to the county will not be less than $80,000. The county had just finished building bridges; we boasted of the best bridges in the State, and the finances of the county were in a flourishing condition, and next year there would have been a great reduction of taxes for county purposes. This dispensation of Providence will cause a large expenditure of money to rebuild our bridges, and consequently the taxes will be necessarily high.

On the day of the flood, a mill owner named Beatty was putting in extensive improvements to his mill. A neighbor seeing the work, said, "Mr. Beatty, you are building a monument which will stand when you and your grandchildren are six feet under ground.  It can't get away."  Yet at five o'clock that afternoon there was not a stone to be found in place. 

The toll in human life was high. Nineteen people died in Delaware and Chester counties alone. Some of their stories were recounted at the time:

Mr. John Rhodes and five of his family were swept away with their dwelling at Rockdale, and all of them lost. A women and child who arrived from Philadelphia the same evening, named McGuigan, were drowned at the same place.

At Flower mill a colored woman named Ellen Jackson, whom in attempting to save the life and property of Mr. William G. Flower, lost her own. The sudden rise of the water swept her away, and Mr. Flower's life was saved by his clinging to a tree.

At Kelly Mills on Darby creek, a house was carried away by the torrent, and Mrs. Julia Knowlin and her four children were drowned. Their bodies have been recovered and interred at St. Michael's Church, Philadelphia.

The large stone bridge over Darby creek, at the village of Darby, was swept away, and Mr. Josiah Bunting, Jr. and Russell Flounders who were upon it at the time, sunk with it, and lost their lives. They were both worthy young men, and their premature death is most afflictive to their relatives and friends."  "The body of Flounders was found four days afterwards on the meadows two miles below, while Bunting's was not recovered for two weeks, when it was discovered wedged in among the broken arches of the bridge.

Intermingled with the stories of tragedy, there were stories of heroism, and of luck, of people thrown into danger, and acting to save themselves and others:

"A double frame house, occupied by William Tombs and James Rigley and their families, floated down the stream, lodging against the factory, opposite a window in the picker-room. From the upper window of his house Rigley succeeded in passing his wife and child into the mill, and then rescued Tombs (who was ill at the time), his wife and two children from the garret of the house, to do which he was compelled to break a hole in the roof. How quickly he acted may be gathered from the fact that in six minutes from the time this house rested against the mill it was again whirling down the stream. 

In one of the centre dwellings resided George Hargraves, his wife, five children, and his brother, William Hargraves, and in the adjoining one lived Thomas W. Brown, his wife and child. When the flood came they endeavored to secure the household goods in the basement; the water rose so rapidly that their escape was cut off, and they retreated to the second story. William Hargraves, finding the walls of the building yielding to the force of the flood, plunged into the water and was carried down the stream for more than half a mile until, catching in a standing tree, he succeeded in holding on until the flood subsided and he was saved. While there, his brother George and his four eldest children on a bed borne by the current, passed by, and a moment after William saw them hurled into the water and drowned. The bodies were found about nine miles farther down the stream, that of the youngest child firmly grasped in its father's arms. Jane Hargrave, the wife of George, when the water broke through the house, with her baby in her arms, was standing in a corner of the room, and strangely that part of the floor, only a few feet square, remained, and there the woman stood for five long hours until rescued by Thomas Holt.

At the time the torrent poured down upon them, John Rhoads, his daughters, Hannah and Jane, and his granddaughter, Mary Ann Collingsworth, were in the dwelling, and with it they were swept away. All of them were drowned. In one of the houses, Mary Jane McGuigan and her infant child was washed away and perished. Her body was found early in April, 1844, a short distance from where the house which she occupied at the time of the freshet stood. The body of John Rhoads was found two and a half miles down the creek, one of his daughters at Baldwin's Run, nearly five miles away, while the body of the other daughter was borne into the Delaware, and was found near Naaman's Creek, about six miles below the mouth of Chester Creek. The corpse of the grandchild was not found until nearly six months afterwards, when a heavy rain on Jan. 17, 1844, washed away some earth near where Rhoads' house had stood, and exposed the remains to view.

William G. Flower, who was at the time lessee of his father's mill, was in the meadow when the waters rushed down upon him, and he was whirled along until he succeeded in catching a vine which was entwined around a large tree on the race bank, and by means of which he mounted into the branches, but the tree was torn up by the roots, and among drift-wood, timber, and trees he was carried down by the flood until he was lodged in a standing tree, to which he clung, although much exhausted, until the flood had in a measure abated, when Abner Wood bravely swam to him, carrying a rope, by means of which Mr. Flower was safely brought to shore."

Today, in 2012, we hope we will not see that kind of destruction from this storm. We've been warned. We've had time to stock up on supplies. We’ve had time to go outside and secure our possessions, to put our porch furniture away, to take down our decorative items, political signs, wind chimes so they do no turn into weapons of destruction when they are hurled through the air at 70 miles per hour.  We know better. 

Don't we? We'll see what Mother Nature hath wrought later in the week. As I say to my children: make good decisions.

For further reading on the flood of 1843:

A contemporary newspaper account of the Flood:  http://www.phillyh2o.org/backpages/Floodof1843_newspaperarticles.htm

Ashmead's account of the flood goes on for several pages, and can be found here:  http://www.delcohistory.org/ashmead/ashmead_pg100.htm

The flood was so remarkable that a committee of the Delaware County Institute of Science was appointed to investigate and make report bout it.  Here is their report, with a fuller account of the devastation of the storm:  http://www.phillyh2o.org/backpages/Floodof1843.htm

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