To all who read this article. I apologize for the "glitches" that are scattered throughout this piece. Cut and paste from Word doesn't seem to be working too well, today. I didn't actually type the little @ and other symbols that you will see as you read. Sorry!
Although the Buffalo Creek flood that raged through Logan County in 1972 resulted in a greater loss of life and property, the people who survived the flash flood that struck Charleston on the night of July 19, 1961, were just as devastated by the loss of their families, friends and homes. The Buffalo Creek Flood was a disaster with manmade beginnings. The dam holding the water and coal slurry was not sufficient for the task. One hundred and twenty-five people died when the dam gave way and swept through sixteen communities. Much has been written about that terrible event, and the legal proceedings that followed brought the flood to the nation=s attention.
However, little has been written about the 1961 flood that resulted in the loss of 22 lives in and around Charleston. After weeks of research, I was able to combine my own memories, other first hand accounts, and newspaper coverage regarding this tragic event into the article you are now reading. According to then Mayor Shanklin, 57 people suffered major injuries, 1,567 suffered minor injuries and 1,637 families were affected. Mayor Shanklin was quoted in the Charleston Gazette on Thursday morning following the flood, AIt=s the worst thing I have ever seen in Charleston.@
Wednesday had been a dreary day. Over a half an inch of rain had already fallen. I remember sitting on our front porch with my grandmother, two uncles, and a neighbor, listening to them talking about the possibility of high water. No one seemed really concerned, though, so I continued pushing myself back and forth in the old-fashioned "glider". No one knew what Mother Nature had in store for later that night. Just at the edge of our yard was the two lane road leading up to Baker=s Fork and Rutledge Road. On the other side of the road was the creek. There was a bridge directly across the road from our house that led to Hubbard Elementary School. I had gone to Hubbard for the first and second grade. I learned later, as an adult, that the flood water was measured at ten feet high inside the schoolhouse.
It began raining again about eight o=clock and continued until midnight. During that time an additional 5.14 inches of rain fell. What I remember most clearly about that night was being told to get my shoes on, and hearing the words, Athere=s been a Cloud Burst.@ I had no idea what a cloud burst was, but within minutes I was being handed out the back door of our house, to a man in a boat. My grandmother and I were taken with others, to higher ground. The water eventually reached to six inches from the ceiling inside of the house I had grown up in. The strength of the flood water not only pushed the house off its foundation, but also destroyed so much of my childhood. When I was finally allowed to see the house a few days later, it was like visiting a strange planet. Things were familiar, but very different. Everything that was left behind was covered with thick, drying mud. The only belonging I was able to keep was my tall AMary Jane@ doll. She had floated to the ceiling on a mattress. It took my grandmother days of scrubbing to get the doll clean enough to allow me to be able to play with it again. My uncle, who was raising me, was a strong, confident young man, not long back from the Air Force. I never saw my uncle cry before or after that night. But years later, I was told that as he and a few neighbor men stood above the devastating, rushing waters that night, tears ran down his face as he watched our home being destroyed, and saw his beloved piano being carried downstream by the raging flood.
And yet, as bad as things were for us, our family survived that night intact. The total loss of life was twenty-two, but the number of people affected by those deaths will never be known. My uncle had taken me along when he gave piano lessons to the sister of one of the youngest flood victims. She and her mother were both lost that night. The young mother=s body was found one and a half miles downstream of Greenup, Kentucky on Saturday after the flood. She had been carried by the fast moving waters of the Elk, Kanawha, and Ohio Rivers, to be found 120 miles from her home on Rutledge Road. A total of thirteen people from our area were lost that night.
On Garrison Avenue, nine people perished. The rapidly rising water took people by surprise. Many had already gone to bed, or had just tucked their children in for the night. Soon cries were heard to Aget out!@, Aget to higher ground!@ But for many, the water was already upon them and rising fast. It rushed down what many knew as Magazine Hollow, like an angry, raging river, taking everything in its path. Homes, cars, city buses, and people, were carried along helplessly.
News traveled fast. A woman who worked at the S & J Restaurant asked Clyde Ingram of Red Oak Street, on Charleston=s West Side, to take her to Garrison Avenue in search of her daughter. Mr. Ingram remembers that he had a new 1960 GMC truck, and was young and unafraid of a little water. As they were driving towards Garrison Avenue, they saw a house coming down the middle of the road, headed straight for them! The young Mr. Ingram was able to back his truck out and turned around in time to escape being added to the list of flood victims. However, a man who lived on the same hill as Mr. Ingram was not so lucky. He was washed under a parked car and drowned.
In the aftermath of the disaster, President Kennedy made 17 million dollars available to government agencies to help repair the widespread damage. A report was sent to the President by Jack Sullivan of the Office of Civil Defense Mobilization, after he had toured the areas hit by the flood. AI have never seen worse devastation, and I=ve seen a lot of disaster areas.@ stated Mr. Sullivan. He added that, Athe damage to streets, highways, and bridges is tremendous.@ When the party he was touring the flooded areas with had visited the downtown areas, they moved on to the Elk River, and Elk Two Mile sites. The devastation was even worse there, as many of the foundations of people=s homes had not been left to show where they had once sat. Bridges and houses, Alooking like a bulldozer had wrecked them, were piled against trees as much as thirty feet high,@ according to the Gazette on July 21.
Teamster President James R. Hoffa expressed sympathy to all the flood victims, and stated he Ahopes the money ($10,000 donated by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters) will also help all the people in Charleston recover from the disastrous flood without financial ruin.@ The local Teamster=s Union also raised money to aid in the flood relief efforts.
Dana Hicks of the Disaster Relief Agency, was quoted in the Gazette as saying the flood was estimated to have caused $1.5 million in damages to state roads and $2 million in damages to the State=s main eight-story office building. A huge portion of Kanawha Boulevard, near the Capitol Building, caved in after flood waters washed away the banks.
Four years later a 1965 Charleston Gazette article titled ACharleston=s 1961 Tragedy May Not have Been in Vain@, was written as a follow up to articles published in August following the flood. Those articles had called for plans to be made to combat future flooding. The United States Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Agriculture, the Soil Conservation Service, and the Appalachian Regional Commission had begun working on what they hoped would ultimately become Aa showcase for water resource development in the United States.@
The result of several years of planning and work can be seen in the earthen dams that were built in carefully chosen locations to control the type of flooding that hit the Charleston area that night in 1961. The dam closest to where I had lived that devastating night, was built at Martin Hollow, just off Bakers Fork. According to a marker which stands at the site of the dam, it is Floodwater Retarding Dam No. 13. It was built under the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act by the Capitol Soil Conservation District and the City of Charleston with the assistance of the Soil Conservation Service of the Department of Agriculture in 1973. The height of the dam is 450 feet, and it has a volume capacity of 34,600 cubic yards. Hopefully, no future cloudburst will ever test those limits.