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Apollo: St. Patrick's Day 1936, a walk and talk about the flood

Mary Ann Thomas
| Thursday, March 15, 2012

Residents will have the chance to revisit the "big one" -- the Great St. Patrick's Day Flood of 1936 -- in a special presentation by the Apollo Area Historical Society at 1 p.m. Saturday.

The program will feature a walking tour of the town, historical photos and accounts, and a screening of the short home movie of the ravages of the flood shot by Apollo druggist Bill Pauley.

The film, along with the picture book "Windows of Apollo's Past," will be for sale.

A perfect storm of substantial snow melt and rain swelled the Kiski River, which gushed into the town's business district taking homes and the town's bridge.

An indirect casualty of the natural disaster was Effie Jane Louffer, 72, who died March 18, according to newspaper accounts, as "a result of shock" after leaving her home on North Fifth Street when it was threatened by flood waters.

In Pittsburgh, where the water rose to 21 feet above flood stage, more than 60 people were killed and 500 people were injured.

Apollo didn't have the population nor the death toll of Pittsburgh, but the town suffered, and some say terminally.

The business district, railroad tracks, portions of northern and southern Apollo were underwater. North 11th Street at Warren Avenue was 12 feet under, according to Alan Morgan, secretary of the Apollo Area Historical Society.

"It was likely the worst flood to hit Apollo since it was founded in 1816," he says.

The flood wiped out 24 houses -- that never were rebuilt -- in nearby Kiski Township at the site of the current Roaring Run Trail. Some in the Pegtown section of North Apollo were swept away, as well, Morgan says.

Historical Society vice president Sue Ott says participants will revisit the flood's path of destruction in the tour that will last about an hour -- depending on questions. Walkers will make 12 stops covering an eight-block area from the W.C.T.U. building (Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the society's home) through the town plaza from First Street to Eighth Street.

The tours might be divided into small groups if the numbers warrant. A dozen Historical Society members will be on hand to answer questions. Tape will mark how high the high water levels reached buildings during the flood.

At each stop, historical photos will be shown and newspaper stories will be read as walkers will try to re-create the vantage point the photographers had while snapping the photos.

"It's remarkable how many houses are still standing," Ott says.

According to the March 20, 1936, edition of the "Apollo News Record":

• In the section below the railroad in Apollo, "15 houses are missing and a score or more have been twisted or shifted from their foundations ...

• "The settlement up the river was practically demolished ...

• "In Pegtown, many houses were completely destroyed ...

• "The highway bridge in Apollo left its piers at 4:25 a.m. Wednesday when snapped under the terrific onrush of rapidly mounting water filled with hundreds of homes, heavy timber, and other debris. The railroad bridge south of Apollo held together by heavy timber and steel rails finally let go a few hours later when it left its piers at 7 a.m ... .

• "Apollo Steel Company was surrounded by water, hundreds of employees volunteered their services to remove the mud and debris deposited when water with a depth of seven feet or more swept through the plant."

One of the freaks of the flood, recorded in Ripley's Believe it or Not, was that flood waters somehow positioned an American flag perfectly in a local garage.

One of the surviving artifacts of the flood is a three-inch-tall ceramic doll found by the mother of Don Stevenson, a long-time member of the historical society. The doll was found at the Avonmore Bridge when the flood waters receded.

Some things just didn't survive the flood, like a street car line from Apollo to Leechburg; also, the two-year absence of a viable bridge for automobiles hurt the town immeasurably, according to Morgan.

"A lot of people say the flood was a reason that Apollo declined with the bridge being out for two years," he says.

"It was in the middle of the Depression and people don't like detours. If they had a car, they were driving someplace else."

When a new bridge was completed in 1938, Morgan says, "There was a big celebration -- parades, ball games and the stores had sales. They ... welcomed everybody back to town."

The tour will end at the Historical Society's home, which will remain open until 3:30 p.m. to offer participants time to tour the display of flood artifacts and watch a running film loop of flood images.

Additional Information:

Revisiting the 1936 flood

What: Apollo Area Historical Society will offer a St. Patrick's Day Flood walking tour

When: 1 p.m. Saturday

Where: Meet at the historical society's building, 317 N. Second St.

Admission: Donations accepted. Proceeds benefit the museum and Drake Log Cabin

Details: 724-478-3037


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