St. Patrick’s Day: The memories come flooding in
First came the roar announcing the watery deluge tumbling at frightening speed through the Alle-Kiski Valley on March 17, 1936.
A man, clinging to the roof of his house as it floated under the Vandergrift bridge on the swollen, churning, Kiski River, was reported rescued a half-hour later as he and his former residence arrived well down the Allegheny River.
His was among an estimated 125 houses that had been swept into the Kiski alone, as the early stages of what would become known as the St. Patrick’s Day Flood was revving up for its campaign of destruction through the A-K Valley on its way to Pittsburgh.
That sound echoes today with its memories and lessons, illuminated anew Wednesday, St. Patrick’s Day, at the Alle-Kiski Valley Historical Society’s Heritage Museum in Tarentum by these activities:
• A 6 p.m. guided walking tour of a portion of Tarentum hit by flood waters. Those wishing to take part are asked to be at the museum by 5:30 for a brief pre-walk presentation.
• Official release of “Remembering the St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936 in the Allegheny-Kiski Valley,” a 337-page collection of historical photos and text from newspaper stories compiled by museum manager Mickey Cendrowski in a three-year labor of love. Most of the news stories are from the Valley Daily News, predecessor to the Valley News Dispatch.
Cendrowski will discuss the book at a 7 p.m. program in the museum, where the third installment of a St. Patrick’s Day Flood photo and newspaper exhibit is under way through April. There also will be a slide show during her presentation.
It is vital that we continue to remember that day 74 years ago says Cendrowski, a Russellton, West Deer, resident.
“The 1936 flood was the worst natural catastrophe that we have ever seen in the A-K Valley,” she says. “It is almost beyond comprehension what those folks went through back then, and we are talking about the same folks who had just lived through the Great Depression. Talk about a double blow.”
That’s why she dedicated the book to the survivors. “It is my hope that this book will help serve as a reminder to all today that we can overcome any obstacle or disaster,” she says. She also hopes that it will give people new appreciation for the strength of their ancestors. “It perhaps will give children and grandchildren a better understanding of what they lived through,” Cendrowski adds.
She finds some of the most interesting photos in this book the ones in which residents are being rescued from second-floor windows. She senses that their happiness was, in some cases, mixed with fear.
“I’m sure that not all of those folks could swim, and that water had to be freezing cold. And while that water looked calm on the top, the current underneath was very strong. That would have scared me to death,” she says.
Down on record
The book offers 326 photos from communities such as Apollo, Vandergrift, Leechburg, Freeport, Natrona, Braeburn, Brackenridge, Tarentum, Creighton, Springdale, Cheswick and Acmetonia.
Cendrowski says she laid the book out “in the same order that the water flowed,” proceeding down the Kiski River, then the Allegheny. She appreciates that most people will be inclined to look at the photos first.
“But you really need to read all of the stories, too, to get a much better picture of what life was like back then,” she says. “There is lots of local history.”
While admitting the book was a daunting task, Cendrowski says she could not have completed it “if all those other people credited in a special page of thanks in the book had not done what they could do.”
That includes former Valley High School student Robert Livorio, who conducted interviews for the book with some of the flood survivors.
On a personal note, says Dolly Mistrik of Tarentum, historical society president, Cendrowski’s work brought back memories of her father sharing his “flood album” and stories with her and her family every year. “Every year, we would walk to downtown Tarentum to see how high the water was and look at the high-water signs from the flood on the buildings,” she says. Some of those signs are found in the book.
“We need to keep all local history alive, not just the happy and good times, but the disasters that our families lived through,” Mistrik says. “If we do not take time now to put the stories and memories in writing, they will be forgotten forever, which would be a sad tale for the area.”
Jim Thomas of New Kensington, past historical society president, is impressed with the finished product. “The idea to include newspaper stories and personal accounts, in addition to photos, added a lot more meaning and helped me to visualize the conditions during and immediately following the flood,” he says.
Board member Charles “Skip” Culleiton, a Tarentum native now residing in Lower Burrell, says reading the book made him more aware of the devastation caused by the flood. “I’ve wondered how I would have felt if it had been my home, my business or my church that had been buried beneath eight or ten feet of water, which also destroyed nearly all of my material possessions,” he says.
Culleiton and Thomas will lead the walk through the flood area of Tarentum. “You will be able to visualize how it looked during the flood and during the recovery process that followed,” Thomas says.
“The one good thing that came out of the 1936 disaster was the flood-control projects that, hopefully, will save future generations from having to face a similar disaster,” Culleiton says.
In the midst of that disaster, Cendrowski says, “there are stories of folks opening up their homes to strangers and doing what they can to help their fellow man.”
She says she often wondered what it was about the St. Patrick’s Day Flood that drew her to devote so much time to exploring it. “But if the truth be known, it has not been the flood but the people who lived through the flood that have drawn me in,” she says. “I consider it an honor that folks have shared so much of their memories with me, and now, with my book, I can return that honor, by making sure that what they went through is not forgotten.”
St. Patrick’s Day Flood program
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, walking tour; 7 p.m. discussion and slide show
Where: Heritage Museum, Allegheny-Kiski Valley Historical Society Heritage Museum, 224 East Seventh Ave., Tarentum
Admission: $5 suggested donation
Museum details: Regular hours are noon-3 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays. Regular museum admission is $3; $2 for those younger than 12; free to Historical Society members. Group tours are available year-round any day or time of the week.
About the book
‘Remembering The St. Patrick’s Day Flood of 1936 in the Allegheny-Kiski Valley’ compiled by Mickey Cendrowski; $25.
Proceeds will benefit the historical society. The book is available at the museum or the Tarentum branch of Community Library of Allegheny Valley, Lock Street and Fourth Avenue. Cash, money order or checks accepted; no credit cards.
Mail orders are $30 to: Allegheny-Kiski Valley Historical Society, 224 E. Seventh Ave., Tarentum, Pa. 15084.
Readers who have photos for scanning or memorabilia and memories to share about the St. Patrick’s Day Flood are welcome to contact the museum at 724-224-7666.