Sure to be of interest to current Herkimer County residents, the story of the Flood of 1910 is reprinted here with the kind permission of the Herkimer County Historical Society. All punctuation, etc. is exactly the same as in the booklet.
The 28th of February, 1910, is a date destined to remain memorable in the annals of Herkimer, historic capital of the like-named county of New York State. For on that date it was that a flood unprecedented throughout the surrounding section of Central New York, if not a wider area, began its visitation upon the thriving and industrious commercial beehive on the Mohawk, inflicting damage of which the true extent can only be estimated, but which the most conservative figures place far up in the hundreds of thousands. Where Herkimer lies, the often contracted valley of the of the Mohawk has broadened and merged with the valley of the West Canada, a stream sometimes more euphoniously referred to by its old Indian title -- the Kuyahoora. It is a pleasing spot among the beautiful foothills of the Adirondacks, which there recede so as to leave ample space for the steady growth of Herkimer's level streets, attractive with blocks of substantial business houses, handsome dwellings, churches and industrial edifices which rank among the most important of that kind in the country. But though nature has been thus favorable, she has her caprices here as elsewhere which serve to remind man with what infantile dependence he must lean upon her.
The channel of the southerly flowing West Canada passes through the eastern portion of Herkimer to its north shore with wide flats, once fertile and cultivated but now ruined by the swirling waters which washed away their richness and left a waste of sand and stones behind, seamed with the minor channels formed as the flood subsided. It has been no remarkable occurrence for these flats to be inundated when spring thaws had swelled the streams, and masses of broken ice gorged their channels, but as the major part of Herkimer lies on higher ground, safely removed from these conditions, their attendant discomforts have affected comparatively few and the bounds of the high water were thought to be well established. It remained for an exceptional season and a particular combination of circumstances to make possible the great flood which left no part of Herkimer wholly immune, for where it did not reach directly the supersaturated ground filled cellars and basements, extinguishing furnace fires and destroying goods and supplies wherever the owners had failed to remove them in time. As stated, there had been a phenomenal sequence of weather which first put a heavy armor of ice on the streams, then covered the land with masses of snow and finally turned abruptly from wintry cold to the mildness and showers of spring. Rivulets rolled down every slope and the West Canada, spreading its branches far through the distant mountains, grew quickly to a roaring, threatening giant, and the stream it was which caused the subsequent devastation. Though styled a creek it has rather the proportions of a small river so far as the channel is concerned, but its flow shows the extremes common to mountain-fed water courses. In the dry days of summer it does little more than moisten the bed, but is quickly responsive to rains and thaws. While the damming of ice is a frequent accompaniment of its early spring breakups, and occasionally a menace to surrounding property at whatever point in its length this may happen, it never took so serious a form before as when the ice piled through Herkimer in a great barrier on the occasion we are considering, driven by the enormous volume of water which sought its way to the swelled but relatively calm Mohawk. The latter doubtless assisted to make a bad matter worse by obstructing the outflow of its tributary, as the West Canada makes a partial westerly turn at the point of junction which opposes the two currents in a measure.
Paralleling the West Canada through the capital is a hydraulic canal, designed to furnish power for a number of industries and equalize the stream supplied for the purpose. This useful channel merely helped widen the mischief when the turbulent stream overflowed its west bank opposite German Street, in the extreme northern part of the village, raced part of its shifting bulk down the canal and adjacent lands, and sent part through German Street westerly to Bellinger Street and down the latter in a southerly direction, taking what is said to have been the creek's ancient channel. So effective was the ice jam at the point stated and so great the flow from above that it was a matter of hours only for the flood to attain its maximum from the time when it broke bounds in the afternoon of Monday, the 28th, and crossed the canal into the village. As it traveled wreck and damage accompanied it. The big Horrocks desk factory in German street, located not far from the place of the break, soon had its basement flooded to the ruin of a quantity of stock which was stored therein. The southward sweep of one part of the water carried it through the well stored yards of the Snell and West Canada lumber companies, whence boards, shingles and all the other forms of like wood products went sailing toward the river. In the direct path of the water also were the Wagner couch factory, the Mark and Gem knitting mills. Both mills are located beside the hydraulic and suffered severely. The flood drove quite through the basement of the latter from back to front, the building facing Albany street, and rose well on the upper sashes of the front windows. The panes restrained it enough at the surface to cause it to wash up on them and present an odd effect as if the water were at a higher level within than without. Machinery and stock suffered here and in the Gem mill, corner of Eastern Avenue and King Street which was partially undermined by the current in one part. In the avenue without, the water stood not less than three feet deep, wholly stopping through traffic on the Utica & Mohawk Valley electric railway, whose tracks run through that thoroughfare, and thence into Mohawk Street. In the last-named street the water did not reach the motors and cars from the west were able to reach the station, corner of Main and Mohawk Streets, where passengers forded to and from the trolleys on the backs of men hired for the purpose by the company. A few steps north run the tracks of the New York Central, along which the water flowed practically through the village. As it continues to rise people were soon wading knee deep in Albany street, which parallels the north side of the Central, and even Main street from the intersection of Albany south was in similar condition. The water did not progress further than this toward the upper business section, so far as the surface was concerned, but invaded the merchants' basements and did what harm was left in its power by their inability to get all of their stored property upstairs. In the big Munger department store, for example, the entire force worked all of Monday night to anticipate the incoming of the water, but it still found a quantity of perishable merchandise there when it reached its maximum the following day.
Meantime the other arm of the flood which had reached across German street transformed Bellinger street into a swift stream navigable by boats with some difficulty but too deep and dangerous to wade. The water rose to the top of the street letter boxes, turned yards into ponds and the unoccupied lots on the west into a lake. A teamster attempted to drive across the street when one of his horses missed its footing and fell. The poor animal drowned before anything could be done to extricate it. St. Francis deSales Roman Catholic church had its basement flooded nearly to the ceiling and a newly purchased piano ruined. In some homes carpets were torn up in haste and carried to the second story with the lighter furniture, and heavy pieces were blocked up barely in time; in other cases residents were caught before they could complete their preparations. For the benefit of those wholly cut off a boat service was organized, and in this as in other directions the volunteer fire department did loyal and invaluable service, in which it was assisted by firemen and boats from Little Falls. The relief of those in need was another phase which received prompt attention. Mayor T. M. Grogan whose guidance was demanded in a hundred directions, rose splendidly to his responsibilities, and other officials and leading citizens performed their parts well.
Nothing in the nature of a panic prevailed at any time when the people found the waters rising about them. In fact, a splendid spirit of fortitude was shown throughout the whole trying time. One poor fellow, a middle-aged laborer with whom the writer talked, said: "My wife and I lived in a basement near the creek. I was away when the water came down and she only had time to get away to a neighbor's. All of the little stuff we had is under water and ruined. I don't suppose there will be any way to get back damages for it." It was a heavy blow for this man to face at this time of life, but he bore it stoically and there were many similar instances. Some who thought themselves secure from the discomforts that were afflicting their neighbors were quickly undeceived, as in the instance of one lady whose family wanted to go out in the first hours of the flood and view it. They were hesitating lest it should rise far enough to reach their home, but the confident mother said: "Go ahead, no high water ever reached this house nor ever will." They went and on coming back some time later found the house surrounded and the help of a boat was necessary to reach it. Men left work and hurried to their homes to prepare as they could against what was coming. Many families, realizing that the municipal pumping station, which draws the public water supply from artesian wells, would be among the first places put out of action, thoughtfully filled all available vessels with a supply of drinking water, pressing even bath tubs into service. The precaution was well taken for the station furnace fires were quenced Monday night and the plant rendered useless until the flood subsided. Some of the people were left in the position of Coleridge's ancient mariner, with "Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink." Few hardships look more appalling than prospects of a water famine, and it was in devising means to relieve this condition that Mohawk and Ilion gave one of the many evidences that proved them royal neighbors. They filled water carts from their own systems and sent them over to distribute the invaluable fluid. Herkimer people were prompt to think of each other and take means for helping themselves.
A fund was quickly under way for the relief of the needy, and a committee formed to take charge of the relief work. One of its most earnest helpers was Principal Margaret Tuger, of the South Side school, a woman noted for her interest in such tasks and as the instrument of many benefactions. Donations were prompt and liberal, with the result that any aggravated suffering did not occur. The Court House, the State Armory at Mohawk, and other public places, together with the lodge rooms of the various Herkimer fraternal organizations, were thrown open for the reception of such as had been driven from their habitations, and there they found comfortable lodgment with their children from the raw though not exceedingly cold air and the universal dampness. The "Brooklyn" section of the village, lying along the creek in the northeastern part, was visited with especial severity and was largely represented among the refugees.
One thing which earned for Herkimer many expressions of admiration and respect was the sturdy way in which her people dealt with their troubles, in no way seeking to inflict a share of the labor and expense upon others. For the neighborly kindnesses of their sister communities they were sincerely grateful, and were circumstances ever to be reversed would do their utmost to show it. But they considered it not only a matter of legitimate pride but a duty to help themselves to the extent of their power. Hence while the many offers of assistance received from far and near were cordially acknowledged, Herkimer steadily refused to take advantage of them so long as she felt her own resources equal to dealing with the emergency. This conviction conveyed as delicately as possible, was not misunderstood and gave offense nowhere. Had the trial been such as exceeded Herkimer's powers to cope with, she would have welcomed the aid which the people of this land are ever so generously ready to extend. As it is, however, she has proved herself and will be the stronger for the test.
A variety of odd incidents were to be noted here and there. For instance, two cottages, one especially small, stood directly in the course of the stream a short distance above the Little Falls-Herkimer highway. Around them both the great blocks of ice piled high. The larger was raised from its foundation and partly overturned, the ice holding it at an angle of forty-five degrees. The smaller, a few feet away, was undisturbed. When the water had subsided, the leaning house was visited by sightseers, who found that for a majority of persons the most marked sensation of dizziness was produced on entering, due seemingly to the inclination of lines which one ordinarily sees vertical and horizontal. To ascend the stairway was to get some of the of the sensations of a convivial club man coming home late, and a look through the windows was as though all outdoors had turned topsy-turvy. Locomotives on the level line of the New York Central appeared to be climbing impossible grades and familiar landmarks were all a-teeter. The fame of the house askew soon spread and it was besieged by the curious. Its enterprising owner then took to charging a ten-cent admission with the kindly purpose of using the proceeds for the benefit of the tenants, who had been obliged to flee, and the plan worked very well toward reducing their losses.
There was but one means for fighting the ice which had caused and was continuing the flood, and that was dynamite. The supply at hand being insufficient, quantities of the explosive were rushed in from neighboring places, including some stored for use on the barge canal which the state donated. A state engineer with a corps of expert dynamiters was sent up from Albany to co-operate with the barge canal blasters and those put on the scene by the steam and trolley roads and the village government. The key to the situation lay about the railroad bridges and embankments, which while they were doubtless only in part responsible for the jam did much to contribute to the congestion of the stream. So formidable was the great ice barrier that it was doubted whether the blowing out of a portion of the embankments and tracks would not have to be resorted to, and it was even rumored that these operations contemplated the destruction of the great ten-arch steel and concrete bridge over which the Utica & Mohawk Valley line cars climb from the village to the elevation of the hillside on the east along which its line extends for several miles. However, nothing so radical became necessary, although it seemed for a while as if the powerful blows of the dynamite were trifling in the midst of such a large area so packed and massed. Lines of the cartridges were laid, connected at intervals of a few yards by the wire along which was sent the electric current that exploded them. Each heavy detonation was accompanied by the elevation of big columns of ice and water that rose high into the air, and the ice field became scarred with enormous gashes that presently filled again. But the experienced eyes of the experts had selected the strategic points to assail and gradually the resistance of the mass at these places was weakened. Above, between and below the bridges they worked doggedly under the eyes of succeeding hundreds of sightseers for whom the operations made a picturesque scene. The difficulties of getting through from the west had barred direct travel thence, but as the trolley company had two cars on the eastern end of the road, these did a land-office business in bringing spectators from Little Falls as far as the high ground at the upper end of the trolley bridge, whence a splendid view could be had. Many of the more venturesome descended on foot to the lower ground, that they might inspect the work at closer range. This was not without peril and one fatality resulted from the eagerness of some to approach so close. A Herkimer observer was struck on the head by a large piece of ice following the discharge of a blast, and so severely injured that he died soon afterward. The sheriff's office thereupon took action and stationed men to prevent onlookers from inviting a repetition of the tragedy. It seemed marvelous that there was no accident among the blasters themselves, whose familiarity with the explosive they handled bred contempt. Some among them would walk out to an obstruction, cut and connect a fuse, calmly light it in their hands, place the cartridge where it would do the most good and get to comparative safety with no particular margin of time to spare before the explosion.
On Wednesday it could be noted that progress was being made and presently a channel was established, looking like a mere slit but still a channel through which chunks of ice moved slowly and uncertainly riverward with many stoppages and minor engorgements. But the wedge had entered and was driven steadily on by the titanic pounding that steadily widened the break and shattered the masses which strove to form fresh barriers. The current grew swifter and became able to clear itself. A steady line of loose blocks was moving out. There was a feeling of cheer and encouragement that night which the next day justified. On Wednesday morning tracks and highway were crossed by a broad, swift river, shallow but strong, which could be forded on foot only along one course from the east. This course was by way of the Central's southern most track, No. l. The roadbed under it had been half washed out along the embankment section, and a dam of sand bags had been piled along the upper side to partly protect it. A miniature torrent roared down through between the ties, making a fall of five or six feet and escaping toward Eastern Avenue. Thus the current flowed only about ankle deep over the southern cuds of the ties and afforded a slippery, precarious footing. Shallow as it was the water gripped one's feet in places with threatening force, so that it was necessary to get one foot inside the south rail at times in readiness to secure a safety grip.
Injury or drowning were very strong probabilities in the event of being washed over the bank. Farther on the water deepened but had less current and the chief worriment was an unpleasant ducking which would result from floundering in one of the numerous slippery hollows. Of course rubber boots were the only footwear in sight, and importations of these had to be made when the local supply was exhausted.
Thursday morning it was possible to walk into Herkimer dry shed and the crisis of the flood was past. With the sustaining excitement of the first days removed, people came to realize the strain and the trial which still awaited them in restoring their homes and business to cleanliness, comfort and health. The work of the firemen was a subject of repeated praise. They manned boats, they distributed a large share of the relief, they watched the flood sections at night and helped to guard property, for while there was no disorder of looting, it was deemed best that no precaution be neglected at such a time and while so many houses were temporarily deserted.
Conditions quickly resumed something like their normal status. The moment it became possible to rebuild the pumping station fires they were started and water was soon coursing through the veins of the local systems once more. Another day elapsed before the dynamos were considered in safe condition for use and electric light could be restored. Meantime the West Canada sank to its natural level, but stranded all along its course were the huge ice blocks, mixed with earth, which told what building material it had carried to erect barriers stronger than itself could destroy.
Sunday was a fine sunshiny day, and the last chapter of the flood episode would be a tale of the wonderful influx of visitors who all day long poured in thousand after thousand, taxing the trolley line even beyond its large capacity and claiming the service of all the rolling stock that could turn a wheel. Through every street there was a constant procession, but of course only a very poor idea of the flood could be gained from the signs it had left, deeply as they were printed. The seamed streets, full cellars, ponds where back yards had been, first floors carpeted with mud, stained walls and promiscous debris could only in part express the force which had been at work. At the foot of Bellinger street, held back by the railroad embankment there, was still to be found enough water to have floated a boat, but the West Canada had sunk back to rippling innocence and gently moved along low under its banks as if incapable of strife and violence. Warned by the health authorities, every precaution in the way of ventilation and disinfection was taken, with the result that no visitation of illness came in the wake of the water, and this was something to be truly grateful for after all that had been undergone. For days the task of pumping out store basements and cellars went on day and night with every sort of pump and engine that could be obtained. Fire steamers were loaned from Rome, Ilion and Mohawk to assist in the work, Herkimer having also a steamer of her own. Only the Rome engine held through to the end, as the sand carried into the machines with the water was more than the others could stand without repair.
Never again, probably, will Herkimer be visited by such another costly wetting, not merely because the conditions which produced it were phenomenal, but also because there is a strong sentiment for the improvement of the West Canada by the state if possible, by some means anyhow which will render it out of the question for it to break bounds at those points where such a thing could occur, whatever the preceeding weather conditions. The matter is one under advisement at the time this booklet goes to press, hence more definite information on this point cannot at this time be incorporated. It is not reasonable for so important an industrial community as Herkimer to be exposed to such happenings, and the strength of this feeling cannot but produce timely action. With this assurance we close what has aimed to be hardly more than a general narrative, since the average reader has little use for statistics and wearies of too much detail. The numerous pictures will agreeably complete the tale and give an adequate impression of one of the most momentous events of the kind in New York State history.
Note: After the flood, the State of New York working with Herkimer undertook much groundwork with careful planning. Improvements were made around the West Canada Creek and throughout the village of Herkimer to be sure that another horrendus flood like Herkimer's Flood of 1910 couldn't happen again. To date (1999) this flood is just a memory in history with no other similar occurrences. There are many pictures taken of the flood on file with the Herkimer County Historical Society.
Copyright © 1999 Herkimer County Historical Society
Photo Copyright © 2003 Betsy Voorhees
Copyright © 1999 Betsy Voorhees/ Martha S. Magill