The Susquehanna Overflows it’s Banks ~ 2011 vs 1889

It’s a bad flood. Central Pennsylvania was hit hard. The rain didn’t stop and it wasn’t just rain, it was a torrential rain! Estimates are over 12″ of rain with river banks overflowing and basements flooded. Twenty seven feet above flood stage!  Some are comparing it with the 1889 flood, a record that may be broken by the current flood. Boy we have it bad!

. . . or do we?

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of transcribing my great-great grandmother’s diary. It covered just a few years, and 1889 was one of them.

Ephraim and Catharine Auxer Niess lived at 117 Dock Street in Harrisburg. Ephraim could walk to work at Bailey Iron Works and the Susquehanna River was their neighbor. The area today is known as Shipoke, and a trendy neighborhood. It was a working class neighborhood at that time. Today there is no longer a Dock Street. Dock Street is now the Dock Street Bridge and their home was razed for that bridge. As you travel west on I 83, crossing the Susquehanna, you travel over the area where Catharine once had her garden and  Ephraim and Catharine raised their family.

You have the background, now I’ll give you Catharine’s view of the 1889 flood from her diary. Any of my comments will be in italics. Everything I write will be Catharine’s words and style.

Catharine Niess on the right in her "mourning clothes" c. 1912

May 31st – The weather is very unpleasant, has been pouring down rain all day last night and yesterday and still raining very fast this month all through was wet there is fear of a heavy flood. The grain is flattened on the ground, little do we know what is before us. . . Preserve, me, O God: For in thee do I put my trust.

June 1st – We have had a wonderful flood (wonderful does not have the same meaning that it does today!) a lake at Johnstown gave way and drowned over 13,000 people, bridges gave way, and went down with trains. Oh! it was wonderful, it rained powerful the streams swelled every place it reached our city. done great damages only a few lives lost. May 31st (Friday) the flood at Johnstown, on Saturday the waters began to rise very high here, the Paxton creek back of us rose higher than it ever had been, the Susquehanna river in the front came up so high until it swept many things away what was left was in a frightful condition. it left very heavy mud a great many are getting sick. it is feared that we may have a great deal of sickness, but the Lord knoweth best. On Saturday night the waters began to come over the door sils (sic) front and back. Then we were surrounded. We have taken almost everything to the second story, by eleven o’clock we all had to go up and were obliged to stay there until Monday. On Sunday noon the waters began to fall very slowly. Every body seemed glad they had several sand flats in the street. At night they had torches so they could see the boom logs coming, and guide them straight through so they would do no damage to the buildings. Poor men they wished for the day. It was frightful scene, but nothing to compare with Johnstown. Many other towns were swept away with that flood. Water is very powerful and will take it course. Gods ways are not our ways and his ways are past finding out.

June 12th – Am very tired today. We washed a very large wash. Mrs. Blessing helped. Since the flood we have a great deal to do and so much company. On Monday we had six for dinner. The floors are still bare. Orders were given not to lay carpets this week. It seems very unpleasant, but we must bear up with it all. It is all right.

July 9th – I will now make another attempt to write in my Journal. Since the flood my time was so taken up, and besides we had so much rain that were unable to do our out side cleaning and sellers. (sic)Edwin (my great grandfather) white washed the seller to day, the weather has become more settled is very warm, and the farmers are very glad. They can scarcely get hands enough to get the grain away so much rain has caused it to ripen very fast and much of it falls out. A great deal of hay had turned black and it is unfit for use. The heavy rains has caused another flood at Johnstown, not so bad as the first, it was dreadful. A great many came to our city that were saved there. A family of five, husband, wife and three children. It is awful to hear tell when the water came, it came up as fast that it very soon drove them to the roof of the house. Next the house began to move off, they broke a hole through the roof and got on the outside from there to another roof and that way they struggled for life for sixteen hours, and were almost frozen and starved. Some others were 24 hours in the water almost to the neck. Several woman (sic)are here that the rest of the family were lost they are almost insane. Mrs. Blessing was here to day. We washed and ironed. . . . We have not laid our parlor carpet but all the rest. It takes the walls so long to dry.

Ephraim and Catharine Auxer Niess in the backyard of their Dock St Home, Harrisburg, Penna

To compare our life today with what Catharine went through over 100 years ago keeps me grounded. Whenever I feel sorry for myself, I pick up Catharine’s story and I’m thankful for the blessings I have. I’m also thankful for Catharine and her diary. It’s not only an insight into life in the late 1800’s but an insight into Catharine. She was a strong woman with a strong faith.

Thank you, Catharine, for taking time to record your life. My life is easy compared to yours!


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