MUNCIE, Ind. – “It started raining hard again. By evening the whole country along the river was already under water, and at night there was such a flood as we had never seen here, and even the oldest inhabitants of this river could not remember anything of the sort.” – Abraham Luckenbach and John Peter Kluge, March 9, 1805.
Luckenback and Kluge were Moravian missionaries who lived in what is now Madison County two centuries ago. Her journals documented life along the upper White River from 1801 to 1806, including terrible spring storms in May 1804, March 1805, and May 1806. Subsequent floods destroyed their fields and fences, along with some of those of the Lenape, Shawnee, Myaamia, French- Canadian trappers and American squatters living in the area.
Although flooding is best understood as a relative concept at this point. Natural wetlands and floodplains have covered much of east-central Indiana for millennia, beginning at the end of the last Ice Age about 18,000 years ago. This ecosystem began to change significantly in the 17th and 18th centuries when trappers wiped out the beaver population. The Indiana DNR estimated that before 1780, 5.6 million acres of wetlands stretched across present-day Indiana. 85% of that has been drained over the past 242 years for “farms, towns, roads and to protect human health,” according to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. 813,000 acres is all that’s left.
In 1881, enough wetlands remained for historian Thomas Helm to estimate that 20% of Delaware County was prairie, “commonly of the class known as wet prairie.” Frank Haimbaugh noted in his 1924 history that “a considerable portion of the county in its natural state was poorly drained and unfit for agriculture”.
Undaunted, settlers and their descendants dried up most wetlands for farming between 1830 and 1900. Residential areas and suburban sprawl made up the rest. During heavy rains, local rivers and streams neglected development as they swelled and flowed into old flood plains. As a result, Munsonians faced major flooding well into the 20th century.
The worst flooding in local history occurred in late March 1913. Commonly known as the Great Flood of 1913, torrential spring rains at Easter triggered widespread flooding across the Midwest. The Muncie Star estimated five inches of water fell over the city on Sunday, with the White River “rising at a rate of eight inches per hour.” Overland and train lines were destroyed when municipal sewers became clogged. Most of the land in the bend of the river, now McKinley Neighborhood and Muncie Central but then known as Wysor’s Bottoms, was “covered by several inches of water”.
The rain lasted until Monday. The Evening Press reported that “Eastern Indiana is being hit by a flood. Traffic is backed up, roads are often impassable and train schedules are being changed or suspended.” Muncie’s earthen dams remain intact for the moment, but “in many parts of the city, basements are flooded, some of them for the first time.”
A wet hell broke loose early Tuesday morning to devastate the magical city. The press wrote that the “White River, like a yellow-haired plant breaking its bonds, crept up from its banks last night, carrying everything before it. All around the city, from Westside Park, which is flooded, to the Indiana Steel and Wire Mills to the east, the river has turned into a yellow, raging torrent.”
At around 1:10 a.m., “a 100-foot strip of the North Walnut Street levee gave way.” Another section failed about 20 minutes later, pouring “tons of blackwater into the low northern part of town.” Around 3:00 a.m., “water broke over Wheeling Avenue and tumbled into Riverside.” City workers rushed to bring the remaining earthworks ashore, “all the city’s garbage carts were put into service and tons of earth and stone were dumped.” dragged to the low places.” But the effort failed, “the great causeway leading from Madison Street to Lake Erie and the Western Railroad was overrun at 7:16 a.m..” The White River would eventually at 22.6 feet (tide level is 9 feet) peak.
Everything happened so quickly that Munsonians scramble to rescue stranded neighbors. “Wagons, boats, cabs and all life-saving appliances were put into service.” Hundreds “were taken from their homes, some from second-story windows, some from rooftops and others from telephone poles and trees.”
Watchmen closed the Whitely (Wysor), High Street and West Jackson bridges after their lower decks were submerged. The flood swept away the East Jackson Street Bridge at 11:00 a.m., followed by the Chesapeake & Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroad Bridges around noon. A High Street bridge guard named Jack Maddox was “swept into the river trying to protect the bridge” from debris. His body was found in Chesterfield two days later. As far as I could find out, his death was Muncie’s only one. Other cities fared worse. In Dayton alone, 360 people drowned. Two dozen died in Peru along with hundreds of circus animals.
The river began to recede Wednesday morning. The star reported $100,000 in damage ($3 million today). The destruction of the railroads accounted for most of the loss, along with Muncie Water Works, Indiana Steel and Wire, and Muncie Electric Light. Hundreds of residents were also affected, where “two hundred homes in the north end of Muncie and 100 others in Normal City and Riverside were damaged by the dirty, murky water.”
The great flood of 1913 devastated many communities in the eastern United States and sparked a public outcry for federal flood control measures. Democrats made it part of their platform in the 1920s, which became policy a decade later under President Roosevelt. The Feds began building new levees in Muncie in the 1930s. The system was completed by the Army Corps of Engineers around 1950.
When I think about what I’m most grateful for this Thanksgiving, Muncie’s dams top the list. As the full weight of climate change falls upon us this century, flooding is becoming an increasing threat to Muncie. The levees are all that stands between us and disaster in the epic storms to come.Chris Flook is a board member of the Delaware County Historical Society and Senior Lecturer of Media at Ball State Universityj.