A Night of Terror and Destruction
At about 9:45 in the evening on Friday, 17 June 1892, just after many had retired to their beds and others were enjoying a rest after a very oppressive day, Mahanoy City was startled with a hoarse reveille from the whistles of the collieries up the Lehigh Valley. The first thought, naturally, was of fire, and the firemen rushed to the hose houses. The streets were filled with people rushing to find the cause and were attracted to Main Street and, looking north, followed the sound of the whistles.
Before proceeding far, a carriage dashed toward them, the occupant driving for his life and crying, "The dam is breaking! Fly for your lives!"
A panic of the most dreadful character ensued. The crowd turned and fled, the fear of a repetition of the Johnstown disaster, which had occurred just three years earlier, ever present in their minds. In the distance could be heard the rushing of the mighty torrent.
Other people who heard the alarm went fairly wild, leapt from their beds headed for their doors. Panic stricken men, women and children rushed through the streets to the hills, the sides of which were black with the hurrying crowd.
A wide-spreading stream came rushing down Main street, on which the rays of the electric light glittered and danced. The depth of the stream which rushed down North Main street, was fully two feet. As it came on it was accompanied by a rumble and noise that could be heard quite a distance away. All that section of town lying north of the railroad bridge and along the creek showed the most serious effects of the flood. The bridge on North Main street was partially destroyed.
By the time the water had reached the intersection of Main and Centre Streets, many people had fled for the hills. The stream then divided and spread in three directions. A large part of the stream flowed along Main street, the water going as far as Mahanoy street. West Centre street became a roaring torrent, while at every side street the water passed oft in the direction of the creek. Borne on the crest of the flood was debris of all kinds. Huge trees, telegraph poles, logs, tree stumps, wagons, carts, and parts of houses were all piled together, blocking the streets. The water spread over three-fourths of the town. Those who had not fled sought shelter in their houses.
For a full fifteen minutes the flood seemed to gain in volume, the black waters covering the streets, and finding their way into basements, and every nook and cranny. Then the waters began to rapidly subside, and in their place remained a covering of slime and mud in some places several inches deep, and all the indescribable debris of the flood.
The condition of things between the town and the water company's dam was simply frightful. Houses in the track of the flood had been torn from the foundations and toppled over. The water and debris swept into the workings of Schuylkill and North Mahanoy collieries, doing great damage, the full extent of which was not known for several days.
Immense quantities of coal dirt were washed away by the stream, and at many points in the valley and around the collieries, immense masses of dirt, timber, and other rubbish had been piled up over the railroads. Traffic on the railroad was suspended, and the late trains arriving on the Lehigh Valley Railroad were halted. A bridge near Schuylkill colliery was carried away.
The reservoir which broke was known as dam No.2 and was one of three owned by the Mahanoy City water company. It was built in 1872, broke five years later and was long considered to be unsafe. Almost the entire breast is carried away. Lately the breast of this dam had been raised, and for several months it had contained about two inches more water than before. The day before the breach, workmen were engaged in the wing at one side of the dam, fixing the breast. and accounted for the muddy condition of the water. The dam was tapped also to lighten the pressure along the breast, but the probabilities were that the dam broke from below, the watchman having noticed a waste of water along the base of the breast. Almost the entire breast of the dam had gone down. Below the broken dam was dam No.1 which fed the water mains. Into this the mass of earth and stone was carried and it was filled clean to the brim with the refuse deposited.
The town was left absolutely without water and at the mercy of fire should it break out. Inquiries of the authorities of the Water Company the next morning elicited the statement that they would go to work at once to repair the damage, but had no idea how soon the water would be running again. At several points the water pipes were washed away, and it was feared that the pipes were so filled up with dirt that they would have to be taken up and relaid. The outlook was extremely gloomy.
To add to the gloom of the situation, electric lights went out for want of water for the boilers. The gas pipes under the Main Street bridge were broken by floating debris and the gas went out as well, leaving many section of the town in darkness.
Sunday was a lively day in town. All day long carriages and farm wagons from the neighboring country, filled with curious people, came in, all intent on seeing the effects of the flood. Fully, forty carriages were standing in front of Smith's livery at 12 o'clock. Each incoming train brought its quota to swell the crowd. A steady stream of people tramped up the Lehigh Valley, over the course of the waters. The valley was the scene of bustling activity.
Railroad repair gangs were hauling the railroad cars out of the mud, relaying and ballasting tracks. At each of the collieries forces of men were at work rebuilding trestles and repairing broken steam and water pipe connections.
At many points along their line of pipe the Water Company had gangs of men engaged in relaying their pipes and pushing as vigorously as possible the work which is necessary to relieve Mahanoy City from its water famine. At every spot of interest groups of interested people stood, pointed out, and discussed objects of interest.
In the meantime, the people got along as well as they could using water from the mountain streams, springs and wells within a distance of several miles. The water company thought they could give the town a partial supply from their other dams, but found that the mains were clogged with dirt, and was being remedied as fast as possible.
About five hundred dollars was collected within a few hours on Saturday amongst the people of Mahanoy City, and was to be used to supply the pressing necessities of some of the deserving flood sufferers. There were stories afloat that one of the Robinson Patch families had over $1,000 laid away in a trunk, which was carried away in the flood, and that a Mrs. Fogarty had $1,500 "planted" in her cellar, all of which was gone.
The only good news was that the timely warnings and several large embankments that stayed the force of the flood prevented any loss of life, although some narrow escapes were made.