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The St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936

New America Media, News Feature, Naomi J. Crain Posted: Mar 17, 2010

Each year on March 17, I remember my mother’s birthday and think of her at 25, left alone on a houseboat with three small children in the St. Patrick’s Day flood of 1936. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and my parents, Wyckoff and Naomi Crain, my brothers, Frank and Graydon, and I lived on a houseboat on the Allegheny River at Aspinwall, upstream from the old Highland Park Bridge and Wicket Dam.

Dad, known on the river as Spike, worked for the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. His job kept him away for days at a time checking the navigational lights on the rivers. Ambitious and hard working, he also had started a river contracting and towing business. In time, it became a huge concern called Crain Bros, Inc.

Mom and Dad, 18 and 19 years of age respectively, had met on the steamboat, Crucible, where he was working as a deckhand and she as a chambermaid. They fell in love and began their marriage living on Dad’s 20-foot workboat, the Sturdy M, as part of the wide flotilla of houseboats that were moored on the Allegheny River beginning above the Ninth Street Bridge and continuing on down onto the Ohio River.

During the winter of 1936, large quantities of snow had fallen, and relentless cold had formed ice in the streams and rivers some 20 inches thick. In the early weeks of March, warm weather and light rain caused rapid melting, sending huge ice cakes down the river. Ice gorges formed at various points upstream, creating dams and forcing the water to back up behind them. All tributaries were at record high levels. River commerce had stilled, and men worked around the clock securing boats and equipment against the threat of flood.

When Dad was called in to work, he and Mom assumed we would be safe on the boat. What better place to be in a flood? They were used to high water and flooding, but they had no way of knowing that this would be the worst flood in Pittsburgh history.

In the pouring rain on the morning of Tuesday, March 17, Dad attached long lines to the houseboat, dragged them up over the bank and tied them to the towering Carolina Poplar trees that paralleled the river. The houseboat would go up with the flood and down when the water receded. Confident that his knots would hold, he drove off to do his job. It rained hard for 24 hours. That evening and through the night, the river rose a foot an hour.

My mother didn’t talk much about her years on the houseboat and the hardship of rearing children there, of pumping river water to wash our clothes, of cooking on a coal stove, of carrying drinking water, and seeing that we didn’t fall overboard. A petite beauty, she was feisty and fun, kind and romantic. This picture of us documents our time on the houseboat.

As Dad predicted, the boat rose with the river and the ropes held; it floated up and over the bank, settling close to the trees and out of the way of the huge ice cakes being carried down the river. We watched the continuous tumult of docks, barges, boats, parts of houses, trailers, chickens squawking in their coops, cars, logs and trees being swept past and heard the shattering clang of metal and splintering wood as they hit the piers of the railroad bridge.

At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 18, the flood reached its crest of 46 feet at Pittsburgh.

The waters began to recede, and had things gone as planned, the houseboat would have floated freely on the long rope extensions. However, it had settled in among the trees and the ropes became entangled in the branches. It began to tilt. There was no electricity or telephone, no boaters passing by. It was total isolation, just Mom, three children and the river. As it tilted more and more, her fear became terror. If it capsized, how could she save us? Where was Spike? Why didn’t he come for them? Would he get back in time?

Toward evening of the fourth day, she saw a skiff approaching, the lone rower, Spike. It had him taken all this time to get back to Aspinwall and then to find a rowboat. Somehow, Dad and Mom managed to get us and our dog, Rags, off the houseboat and into the skiff without falling into the river. He rowed us along the flooded railroad tracks, careful to avoid the submerged junk that littered the area. We passed by the second floors of abandoned houses where a couple begged to be taken off their porch roof. I was afraid the boat would sink; Dad promised to send help. He rowed us up into Aspinwall as far as Brilliant Avenue, and where we went after that, I have no idea. I do know that later Mom told Dad in no uncertain terms, “We are through living on the river.”

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