Floods are the most common and widespread of all weather-related natural disasters. Floods have enough power to change the course of rivers and bury houses in mud. Flash floods are the most dangerous type of floods, because they combine the destructive power of a flood with incredible speed and unpredictability.
The City of Sunbury is extremely vulnerable to flooding due to its exposure to both the North and West branches of the Susquehanna River and the effects of flash flooding from Shamokin Creek. Early Flood Accounts Historian Meginness provided the following account of flooding on the West branch of the Susquehanna. The first known to early history occurred in 1744, the second in 1758, the third in 1772, the fourth in 1786, and the fifth in 1800. The Indians in the valley had a tradition that a great flood occurs every 14 years, which seems to have been verified in these five instances.
In a memorandum on file in Harrisburg, signed by Robert Martin and John Franklin, they state that on the 15th of March, 1784, the Susquehanna rose to a flood exceeding all degrees ever known. The flood was so sudden that it gave no time to guard against the mischief; that it swept away 150 homes and 1000 persons were left destitute of provisions and clothing. The flood was later known as the “Ice Flood”.
The freshet of October 1786, was known as “The Pumpkin Flood”. The next great flood was recorded on the 28th of June, 1829, and again on the 13th of March, 1846. History also records a great flood in October 1847 which was documented to be at least three to four feet higher than any previous rise. July 18th and 19th, 1851, documents that a great storm raged for thirty-two hours and the flood that followed was greater than any previous.
The next was the memorable flood of St. Patrick's Day in March, 1865. At Williamsport it attained a height of 27 feet. But the greatest flood occurred June 1, 1889. These figures are no doubt figures taken along the West Branch, probably at Williamsport. But since historian Meginneas wrote this account over eighty years ago, this "greatest flood" has been exceeded eight times in Sunbury. Some of the floods, which he notes, 150 and 200 years ago are difficult to compare with latter day data.
Much of Sunbury’s damage from latter floods was due to the fact that the valley drained by Spring Run, the run-off from the hill section, would not drain while the river was at flood stage. With the lower part of the city like a mammoth saucer, the excess water could only overflow into nearby homes and cellars.
The 1936 Flood Old residents of the city laughed at the idea that the water would reach Cameron Park as it had never ''done so before”. But it did, about two feet. Water continued to rise steadily all day Wednesday, March 18th, until in the evening between eight and ten o'clock the water came over the bank in theupper part of the City rushing in torrents down Susquehanna Avenue, North Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Streets, carrying destruction and misery in its course. Houses were moved from their foundations, porches torn loose, pavements uplifted and on reaching the Market Street business section nearly all the plate glass store windows were broken.
The water rose so rapidly that the people had to seek safety in their second stories. Calls came rapidly for boats to rescue people and they were taken to the hill sections of the City, where they were given shelter. About 1700 people were taken by train on Thursday morning to Shamokin and Mt. Carmel, where they were cared for until the water receded.
The water continued to rise all night until ten o'clock Thursday morning when it reached the crest and it held until four o'clock in the afternoon, when it started to recede to the relief of the people. By this time the entire city west of the hill section was entirely under from two to fifteen feet of water. By Friday morning the water had entirely receded from this section. The part radio played in this flood follows: Radio broadcasting stations throughout the Susquehanna Valley played a big part in the memorable flood of 1936. From Williamsport to Harrisburg radio stations WRAK, Williamsport; WKOK, Sunbury; WHP and WKBO in Harrisburg did much to alleviate suffering, direct life saving activities and send out news to an anxious world outside of the flood area. Short wave operators hurried to the scene of devastation to assist in sending messages for flood victims to friends and relatives in the unaffected parts of the country.
In Sunbury where WKOK, located in Fort Augusta, remained on the air for more than 103 hours constantly broadcasting news and requests for boats, food, medical supplies and sending messages for stranded victims. The residents throughout this entire section of the country have been loud in their praise for the local station. Through their efforts panics were averted, lives were saved. More than 5000 messages were transmitted by WKOK during the days of the emergency. The regular staff remained on duty from Wednesday afternoon until Sunday morning.
Through the super-human efforts of the P.P.& L. Co., power was uninterrupted in Sunbury, thereby making it possible for WKOK to remain on the air throughout the long days and nights the water surged through street and homes. For more than 48 hours, the main switch at WKOK was under water, nevertheless they remained on the air.
At Williamsport WRAK was handicapped by the lack of telephones in that city. All telephone communications were out and for 180 hours WRAK broadcast through the help of a well organized staff or short wave operators stationed throughout the city. WRAK's staff was marooned in their studios for three days. Fortunately their city power was unimpaired making it possible for that city's radio station to remain on the air uninterrupted. It was the first time in the history of the Susquehanna Valley floods, that radio was brought into the picture. National Guard units were mobilized and took full advantage of its wide reaching powers.
The rich and the poor rubbed elbows with each other as this was one time when money could not buy anything as all the food stores with one exception were flooded. The gas supply gave out and people had to use coal oil stoves where they had no coal stoves. The one thing that stood out so prominent was the service given by the Penna. Power and Light Co. The officials of this company worked strenuously to keep their plants in operation and the light never failed. Had this service broken down there is no telling what might have happened. This company is to be highly commended. After the water had receded in all parts of the city the people were shocked by the destruction of property. The city commission started immediately to work to clean up the city with the assistance of the CCC boys and the WPA. Streets were flushed with fire hose and side walks cleaned of all the mud and muck.
Next the water was pumped from the cellars, all rubbish and spoiled merchandise was hauled to the dump, and destroyed by burning. Property damage and loss of merchandise exceeded $4,000,000. The WPA workers worked continuously for two weeks cleaning the city, and done a good job. Sunbury owes a debt of gratitude to Shamokin, Mt. Carmel and other communities for the food and supplies furnished, which can never be paid. Special mention goes to Philadelphia and vicinity for thirty truck loads of food and supplies and the loan of city policemen.
A writer in the Philadelphia Inquirer described our situation in Sunbury in March 1936: For nearly a week a large part of Pennsylvania was in chaos as angry rivers rose in their wrath and poured dark and rushing waters over village, town, and farm land. Sunbury was one of the cities hardest hit. That Susquehanna, which winds through Pennsylvania like a sluggish snake, had sent 15 swirling feet of water into the town and in its irate path, it splintered houses, tore down trees and poles, and piled up debris.
Office buildings were like perpendicular islands in a vast and muddy sea. Rain and snow, mingling in an icy formula, beat down upon a scene of desolation. The lights went out. There was no heat. Over the noise of the rain and water rose human cries of panic. People were trapped in unsafe houses. People were cold and hungry, people were ill. Fearing epidemic, fearing starvation, fearing it knew not what. A relief caravan was set out from Philadelphia with several bus loads of men, food, blankets, and medical supplies. National Guardsmen, public and private relief agencies sprang into action. Headquarters were established at the Fairmount Hotel. The Red Cross, Coast Guard and other relief agencies performed services that the ordinary citizen had never been called upon to face.
Residents of the Susquehanna River Valley will long remember the flood of 1936, when the river reached a height never equaled in the records of Susquehanna floods since 1782!