French Creek Flood Waters Sweep Through Union City, June 1892
Stark black headlines in the Union City Times announced what Union City and Union Township residents already knew that Saturday night and Sunday morning in June 1892. Several rain and thunder storms of what the Times called “unprecedented fury” rumbled though Union City on Saturday night June 4, 1892, and Sunday morning June 5, 1892 and caused disastrous flooding. The storms demolished buildings, washed away bridges and scattered wreckage and debris everywhere. The Times estimated that the damage to city property including streets and bridges would reach $30,000 while the individual losses would approach $75,000.
The storm damage to Union Township and the surrounding countryside equaled that to the damage in the Borough. French Creek swept many horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry into its surging waters where they drowned. As well as losing their stock, farmers faced the losses of their crops as the flood waters washed out and ruined their crops. The loss was estimated to reach several hundred thousand dollars.
That Union City Saturday Started out Sunny, but Then the Storms Arrived
Saturday morning opened bright and pleasant and many people rejoiced to see the pleasant day after the stormy week. Then in the early afternoon a huge black cloud appeared on the southeastern horizon and soon a matching cloud appeared on the southwestern horizon. The two storm clouds swept toward each other and soon lightning shows lit up the sky like fireworks and thunder rumbled a bass backdrop. Balls of fire fell from the sky and just before they hit the ground they burst like rifle shots.
The storm broke its full fury over Union City about three o’clock in the afternoon. Thunder and lightning roared and flashed in concert and rain fell in sheets. The storm lasted for about an hour and then the sky grew bright again and people breathed sighs of relief and enjoyed the cool air. This was only the calm before the second storm.
The Second and Third Storms
The clouds began to roll around and renewed their charges of lightning and booms of thunder. About five o’clock that evening, the thunder and lightning grew more intense and the rain hung over the Borough like lace curtains. The storm lasted until nearly seven o’clock, and again Union City residents studied the sky, hoping that the storm had passed for good this time. By this time all of the little streams in Union City and the surrounding area had grown to overflowing their banks and they poured into the valleys and lowlands.
At about eight thirty, the third and the most severe storm crashed over Union City and raged for two hours. By this time, the rain and wind and moving water had transformed Union City into a devastated, flooded landscape.
French Creek Changed into a Tidal Wave
In normal times, little French Creek, which flows from east to west through the heart of Union City, did not challenge a ten year old boy who attempted to wade through it. After the three six hour storms, the cloud bursts had swollen French Creek so that it erased its banks. The raging creek had nowhere to carry the water that kept rising every moment so it invaded homes and businesses and carved new channels.
Then Clark’s dam gave away and a solid wall of water rushed down French Creek’s narrow channel. The logs, lumber, and debris escaping from Clark’s Mill Pond soon formed a dam at the new double track iron bridge that the Philadelphia and Erie Railroad built just east of their depot. The dammed water scoured a new channel and came surging down the railroad and lowlands on the north side of the track.
Early in the evening, the Philadelphia & Erie work train was ordered out and ran east about half a mile to try to strengthen the iron bridge near Steenrod’s Mill. Roaring French Creek took out the bridge and carried it away. Then the workmen boarded the train and started to return to Union City. When they were within 600 feet of the depot, they discovered another bridge had been washed away. The train stood on the track, while the surging waters on each side of the road bed washed away everything in its path. Rescuers brought the work men to Union City in boats. The loss to the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad Company totaled thousands of dollars.
It was now 11:00 o’clock in the evening, and the sky overhead still lowered black and threatening even though the force of the storm had died down a little. The water rushing down Willow and Crooked (Market) Streets filled the cellars and flooded the lower floors of the houses and businesses along the streets. The water undermined foundations and swirl away loose property as it moved along.
All of the Electric Lights Went Out, but the Rescuers Continued Working
At 11:05 on the evening of Saturday, June 4, 1892, water covered the floors of the electric light plant on Crooked Street and the engineer shut down the entire plant. Darkness settled over Union City, but several hundred Union City citizens didn’t let the darkness stop them. They lit all of the lanterns they could find and continued their mission of saving property and lives. Many residents of Willow Street were rescued from their homes and rowed away in boats.
Rescue parties worked all night long and when morning dawned with a cloudless sky and bright sun they made their weary way home for some well earned rest.
Business Blocks Collapse
Some sound sleepers on high ground didn’t realize what damage the storms had done to their town until the ventured out and about town. The principal business streets were clogged with wreckage and the entire distance of Waterford and Willow Streets and East High Street were littered with debris.
The Deamer Block fell in a pile of ruins, with a crash that could be heard many blocks away. When the building fell it also took the end of the two story frame building that Mr. Tansey and Mr. Warner owned. A first floor billiard room occupied the first floor of the building and C.A. Law’s merchant tailoring firm the second floor. Mr. Law managed to get most of his goods out of the building before it collapsed, but the owner of the billiard room managed to salvage only a few articles. The billiard tables were twisted out of shape and wrecked.
The flood waters undermined the foundation under the south wall of the Keystone Block and about one-third of the wall fell out. Since the building was a skeleton brick the timbers held up, and the Waters Brothers who own the building said that the building could be saved. The Johnson House Hotel was located in the Keystone Block and guests who had been brave enough to go to bed the night before were awakened early and told about their danger. They hastily fled to higher and drier ground.
Goodnough’s Jewelry Store occupied a one story frame building, located between the Odd Fellows Block and the Post Office. The flood waters carved a new channel down Crooked Street to the rear of the Odd Fellow’s Block to the mill race on the north side of the Post Office Building. Shortly after eleven o’clock the Goodnough Block collapsed into the water. Rescuers managed to remove all of the goods except for a big safe before the water carried the building away.
The High Street Bridge Collapsed
For three years Union City citizens compared the solid masonry of the west abutment of the High Street Bridge with the widening cracks in the masonry on the south abutment of the Main Street Bridge.
At half past five o’clock on the morning of Sunday, June 5, 1892, the rampaging water of French Creek carried away the High Street Bridge. The bridge collapsed with a mighty crash and ended up at the bend of the creek nearly one thousand feet below High Street, where the day before it had spanned French Creek. The twisted and broken iron tangled into a mass, and the stone abutment that the Borough of Union City had built a few years ago for more than two thousand dollars lay piled up at the bottom of the French Creek.
The Post Office Foundation Undermined
On Sunday, June 5, 1892, people walking around town soaking in the sunshine after the storm observed the walls underneath the rear of the Post Office Building give way. The waters in Main Street had receded enough to permit pedestrians to pick their way over debris which filled the street from Main Street Bridge north to Waterford Street.
French Creek Claimed the Cooper Planning Mill
The Cooper Planning Mill, located on the south bank of Little French Creek and the east side of Main Street, was occupied by Mr. Loomis and Mr. Middleton as a planning mill and sash, door, and blind factory. For several hours many willing workmen carried out finished work, tools, and light materials from the building.
Everyone worried that when the Planning Mill went down the Main Street Bridge would go with it. At twenty minutes past eleven o’clock the workmen finished. Just then about one-half of the big two story frame building collapsed and fell into the rushing roaring torrent, twenty feet below. The building was so completely wrecked that it passed under the Main Street Bridge without harming it.
The Union City Times Gave a Timely Warning
The Union City Times story ended with a word of warning for flood beleaguered Union City citizens about their health after the flood. The Times said that filth of every conceivable kind and description lurked everywhere and the flooded district smelled unbearably in some places. “As soon as the waters recede sufficiently clean it up and be sure a good, thorough job is made of it,” the Times advised.
The Times concluded the story with another warning. “Another thing should be looked after closely – drinking water. We venture to say that there is not a well in town from which water can be taken that is pure and wholesome. Boil your drinking water. Use disinfectants freely, and do everything you can to avoid an epidemic of disease that might prove more terrible than anything we have yet passed through.”