Delaware County, PA Flood, Aug 1843
The morning of August 5, 1843, at early dawn, gave indications of a rainy day. The wind was in the east or northeast, and the clouds were observed to have an appearance which indicated a fall of rain. The sun was barely visible at rising, and a short time afterwards the whole sky became overclouded. At about 7 o’clock, a. m., it commenced raining, and continued to rain moderately, with occasional remissions, but without any very perfect Intermission until noon or later. This was a general rain, which extended much beyond the limits of Delaware county in every direction. This general rain scarcely caused an appreciable rise in the streams; but it had the effect of fully saturating the surface of the ground with water to the depth of some inches, and in this way contributed to increase the flood in some degree beyond what it would have been, had the subsequent heavy rain fallen on the parched earth. No general description of this rain, which caused the great inundation, will exactly apply to any two neighborhoods, much less to the whole extent of the county. In the time of its commencement and termination—in the quantity of rain which fell—in the violence and direction of the wind, there was a remarkable want of correspondence between different parts of the county. It may be observed, however, that comparatively little rain fell along its southern and southeastern borders.
Cobb’s Creek, on the eastern margin of the county, and Brandywine on the west, were not flooded in any extraordinary degree. This conclusively shows that the greatest violence of the storm was expended on the district of country which is drained by Chester, Ridley, Crum, Darby, and the Gulf creeks, and one or two tributaries of the Brandywine. This district will include a part of Chester county, and a very small part of Montgomery; but including these, the whole extent of country that was inundated did not exceed in area the territory embraced within the county of Delaware. The extent of territory that was inundated was also much greater than that which was subjected to any very extraordinary fall of rain. The amount of rain which felt on that part of the county which borders on the river Delaware, and embraces the mouths and lower parts of the inundated creeks, was not sufficient to produce even an ordinary rise in the streams, and to this circumstance may in part be attributed the very unprepared state in which the inhabitants of this district were found for the mighty flood of waters which was approaching to overwhelm them. The very rapid rise in the water in the streams, without apparently any adequate cause, was also well calculated to increase the alarm in this district beyond what it would have been, had the quantity of water that fell there borne a comparison with that which fell in the upper parts of the county.
As a general rule, the heavy rain occurred later as we proceed from the sources of the streams towards their mouths. The quantity of rain which fell will decrease as we proceed in the same direction, particularly from the middle parts of the county downwards.
In those sections of the county where its greatest violence was expended the character of the storm more nearly accorded with that of a tropical hurricane than with anything which appertained to this region of country. The clouds wore an unusually dark and lowering appearance, of which the whole atmosphere seemed in some degree to partake, and this circumstance, no doubt, gave that peculiarly vivid appearance to the incessant flashes of lightning, which was observed by every one. The peals of thunder were loud and almost continuous. The clouds appeared to approach from different directions, and to concentrate at a point not very distant from the zenith of the beholder. In many places there was but very little wind, the rain falling in nearly perpendicular streams; at other places it blew a stiff breeze, first from the east or northeast, and suddenly shifting to the southwest, while at a few points it blew in sudden gusts with great violence, accompanied with whirlwinds, which twisted off and prostrated large trees, and swept everything before it.
So varied was the character of the storm at different places, that the committee of the Institute, in order to present a satisfactory account of it, was obliged to embody the remarks of the different observers throughout the county. Brief extracts will be made from these remarks.
In Concord township the heavy rain commenced at about a quarter before three o’clock, p.m. In the wind being E. S. E., but it veered so rapidly retrogade to the sun’s motion, that the clouds appeared to verse to a centre over the western section of Delaware county, from several points, of the compass at the same time—the rain falling in torrents resembling a water spout. At about a quarter before four o’clock the wind had nearly boxed the compass, and blew a gale from W. S. W., and about that hour, a tornado or whirlwind, passed across the southern part of Concord, about a quarter of a mile in width, prostrating forest and fruit trees, and scattering the fences in every direction In the neighborhood of Concord the rain continued about, three hours, and the quantity that fell in that vicinity, as nearly as could be ascertained, was about sixteen inches. It is not probable that a greater quantity of rain fell in any other part of the county.
In Newtown township the heavy rain commenced about two o’clock, and terminated about five o’clock, p. m, the wind, during the rain, being nearly N. W. There was a heavy blow of wind, but it was not violent. The quantity of rain that fell was between eleven and thirteen inches. At Newtown Square, in forty minutes, immediately before five o’clock, it was ascertained that five inches and a half of rain fell. As observed in the north part of Radnor, the heavy rain commenced about four o’clock, p. m., and ceased about six o’clock. At the commencement the wind blew from the S. or S. W. but changed to the S.E. about four and a half or five o’clock, from which direction came the heaviest rain.
At Crozerville the storm appeared to have concentrated, and spent itself with awful violence. The morning had been lowering with occasional showers of rain, the air cool for the season. After noon the sky was thickly overcast, and clouds floated slowly in various directions, the wind as noted by a vane, N. E. After two o’clock, thunder was heard at a distance, which soon became louder and more frequent. About three o’clock, under an unusually dark sky, rain commenced falling in torrents, accompanied with vivid lightning and almost continuous peals of thunder. The lightning was more vivid than ever had been witnessed by the observer in the day-time, nor had he ever before heard so much loud thunder at one time. The rain terminated a few minutes before six o’clock. Crozerville lies in a basin surrounded by steep acclivities. In every direction from these hills, sheets of water poured down, and mingling with the current below, presented, together with the rapid succession of forked lightning, a scene of awful sublimity.
In the northern part of Middletown the greatest violence of the storm lasted from three to five o’clock, p. m., the wind blowing from every quarter, but not with great violence.
In the northern part of Nether Providence, the heavy rain commenced between four and five o’clock, and continued till a quarter past six o’clock. The wind blew from various directions, and at five o’clock with great violence from the W. N. W. In the northwest of Springfield township the heavy rain commenced between two and three o’clock and continued till five. There was a strong current of air or whirlwind that passed over the high grounds near Beatty’s mills, that uprooted and broke off trees. Lower down, on Crum creek, “there appeared to be two storms of rain approaching one another, one from the S. E., the other from the N. W., which appeared to meet, and it could not be told for some minutes which would prevail, but eventually the one from the S.E. carried the sway,” the rain being greatly increased during the struggle. At another point in Springfield the heaviest rain fell between five and six o’clock, the wind being variable, and blowing at one time with great violence, prostrating trees and fences in its course.
In the middle part of Chester township the heaviest rain was late in the afternoon; there being no wind it fell in vertical streams. On the upper border of this township
there was some wind. In the township of Bethel, not far from the Delaware State liner a hurricane of great violence occurred between four and five o’clock in the afternoon. The wind blew in opposite directions, as was proven by uprooted trees. Two miles further north the wind was still more violent, tearing up a large quantity of heavy timber in a very small space. A valley of woodland, bounded by high hills, had nearly all its timber prostrated, not lengthwise with the valley, but across it, with the tops of the trees towards the N. E.
In the western part of Upper Darby the rain was very heavy, but the storm was not so violent as further N. W. The heavy rain, however, began about three o’clock, while in the more easterly parts of the same township but three-fourths of an inch of rain (accurately measured) fell during the day. In the neighborhood of Chester it rained moderately through the day, with one pretty heavy shower in the evening.
In Birmingham, heavy rains commenced about noon—the wind east or southeast. The clouds were dark and heavy, the lightning sharp, and the thunder very heavy, “accompanied with a rumbling noise in the air.” The wind was changeable, and blew with great violence. The rain ceased about four o’clock.
The most remarkable circumstances connected with the rise in the waters of the several streams, was its extreme suddenness. In this particular, the flood in question has but few parallels on record; occurring in a temperate climate, and being the result of rain alone. The description given by many persons of its approach in the lower district of the county, forcibly reminds one of the accounts he has read of the advance of the tides in the Bay of Fundy, and other places where they attain a great height. Some spoke of the water as coming down in a breast of several feet at a time; others described it as approaching in waves;’ but all agree, that at one period of the flood, there was an almost instantaneous rise in the water of from five to eight feet. The time at which this extreme rapidity in the rise of the water occurred, was (in most places) after the streams had become so much swollen as to nearly or quite fill their ordinary channels. The quantity of water required to produce such a phenomenon, was therefore immensely greater, as the valleys of the streams in most places have a transverse section of several hundred feet. The breaking of mill-dams, and the yielding of bridges, and other obstructions, contributed in a degree to produce such an extraordinary swell, but we must mainly look for the cause of this sudden rush of waters to the violence of the rain—if the term rain will apply to the torrents of water that fell in the northern and western sections of the county.
Cobb’s creek, on the eastern margin of the county, was not swollen much beyond an ordinary flood, although 5.82 inches of rain fell during the day at Haverford College, within the drainage of that stream.
Darby creek, in a narrow valley above Heys' factory attained a height of 17 feet the greatest height of Crum creek was about 20 feet, and that of Ridley creek 21 feet. At Dutton’s mill, Chester creek rose to the height of 33 feet 6 inches.
To notice all the interesting details that are given in the report on the flood, from which the foregoing extracts have been taken, would occupy too much space in this volume. The subject will be concluded by presenting a summary of the damages sustained by the freshet within the limits of the county, both public and private, together with a brief notice of the casualties that resulted in the loss of life, and the narrow escapes from imminent peril.
Thirty-two of the county bridges were either wholly destroyed or seriously injured. The following estimate of the damage sustained by the bridges on the several streams, was carefully made by competent persons:—On Darby Creek, $3,370; on Ithan Creek, $475; on Crum Creek, $6,875; on Ridley Creek, $5,400; on Chester Creek, $8,600; total, $24,700.
Continued on page 2