ByGone Muncie: Dams Worth Our Gratitude

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”.

The Pennsylvania and C&O Railroad bridges were destroyed on March 25, 1913.

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”.