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St. Patrick's Day also connected with disaster

| Sunday, June 17, 2012, 12:43 a.m.

On Monday, Americans of all backgrounds will claim a wee bit of the legacy of the Emerald Isle, in celebration of St. Patrick's Day.

The day also will mark the 72nd anniversary of a powerful flood that swept downstream from Johnstown to Pittsburgh, claiming about 80 lives.

According to an account published soon after the natural disaster, as part of a 24-page booklet issued by the Blairsville Dispatch, the St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936 also is thought to have caused more than $500 million in damage, a figure not adjusted for inflation.

A copy of the booklet was provided to The Dispatch staff by Blairsville resident Ron Evanko, who obtained it from Ralph E. Graff of Greensburg.

Many of the flood's longest-lasting effects weren't immediately apparent.

While it already had closed the previous August, the flood damage ensured there would be no rebirth for the Columbia Plate Glass Plant that at one time had employed 510 along the Conemaugh River in South Blairsville.

Soon to be relegated to similarly watery graves were the small Conemaugh River towns of Cokeville and Livermore. They were among the many low-lying hamlets and pockets of habitation that were permanently abandoned because they were located within a flood plain that is regularly inundated when water pools upstream from the Conemaugh Dam at Tunnelton.

Prompted by the '36 flood, that dam was constructed in the 1950s to help protect the city of Pittsburgh from future severe flooding.

As recounted in the Blairsville Dispatch's commemorative booklet, a factor contributing to the devastating flooding was the extreme cold that lingered in the region as the winter of 1936 gave way to spring. In many places, the ground was frozen solid to a depth of four feet or more.

The few inches of ground from which frost had been driven quickly was saturated once a steady rain began to fall on the evening of March 15. The drenching would continue for the next 50 hours.

Four inches of rain fell during that period, averaging 2 1/2 gallons of water for every square foot of ground.

The resulting rising tide came to a head on March 17.

Early that afternoon, the Blairsville-Indiana highway was under four feet of water at Josephine. The Jacksonville Road closed soon after, as did the Cokeville-Derry Road, at 5:30 p.m.

The Pennsylvania Railroad discontinued service from Blairsville both south to Cokeville and north to Indiana. A train of 15 loaded coal cars was placed on the Conemaugh River trestle bridge between Blairsville and Torrance in a successful effort to weigh it down and keep it from being swept away.

At 7:30 p.m., the order went out for residents to abandon Cokeville. Families were evacuated via row boats. That scenario was repeated downstream in Bairdstown and Livermore, which was submerged under 18 feet of water.

More than 600 refugees made it to higher ground in Blairsville to ride out the flooding.

At 10 p.m., the swollen Conemaugh rose over the floor of the highway bridge leading from Blairsville to the village of Cokeville--also submerging the highest point of land in the smaller Derry Township community. The south span of the bridge gave way an hour later and its two center sections gave way at 12:30 a.m. March 18.

At Blairsville, the floodwaters crested at 5 a.m. and then finally began to recede after 7 a.m. The remaining northern span of the Cokeville bridge provided a platform for onlookers to survey the debris that emerged as the water level fell.

As measured at the Bairdstown Bridge, the 1936 flood reached an elevation of 929 feet. That surpassed the much deadlier Johnstown flood of 1889, which caused the Conemaugh to rise to nearly 923 feet at the Blairsville span.

North of Blairsville, the rising Black Lick Creek claimed Campbell's Mill bridge at 8 p.m. The old mill building there was seen floating downstream at about 11 p.m. The skating rink building was submerged at the popular recreational spot of yesteryear, Campbell's Mill Park.

Other bridges were washed out at Bolivar, Livermore, Tunnelton and Apollo.

The Saltsburg bridge was covered with water and moved about four feet. Nearby, the bridge crossing the Loyalhanna Creek was destroyed.

Because of its toll in human lives and the permanent effect it had on the region's landscape, the flood of 1936 won't soon be forgotten.

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