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125th Anniversary- Water and Fire!

The Titusville and Oil City Flood of June 4-5, 1892

2nd Most Flood Related Fatalities in Pennsylvania after the Johnstown Flood of 1889

Image of the devastation to Titusville after the flood and fires of June 4-5, 1892

Image 1. View of South Franklin Street in Titusville soon after the flood and fires of June 4-5, 1892. Photo courtesy of the Titusville Herald Oct. 7. 1897 and special courtesy from the the Crawford County Historical Society. 

Heavy rain fell over northwest Pennsylvania from May through early June of 1892. On Saturday June 4th  a warm front located just north of the region brought adequate moisture for thunderstorms with heavy rain.  This rainfall, over already saturated ground spelled disaster. Widespread flooding occurred across the region with severe damage to bridges, railroads, and communities. The hardest hit towns were Titusville and Oil City.

Reports suggest the rain first started to develop around noon in northwest Pennsylvania. Additional storms occurred around 4 pm and again from sunset through 10 pm.  Some reports estimated the rainfall in Spartansburg that day was close to 10 inches, though  no official rain gauges recorded the amounts. This heavy rainfall produced flash flooding in the region with creeks and streams overrunning their banks. Debris became clogged on area bridges, and many streets were inundated. The floods, though noteworthy, were not life threatening to those who remained in their homes. However shortly after midnight on June 5th an earthen dam in Spartansburg, about 7 miles above Titusville, collapsed.

The wall of water from the dam moved down the Oil Creek from Spartansburg into Titusville between 1 and 2 am Sunday morning, catching residence by surprise.  The flood water expanded all the way to Spring Street and as much as “half a mile wide” south of the town. The flood waters moved and damaged oil refiners, resulting in an oil coated creek.  As the creek inundated homes, it soon caught fire. The fire expanded over the inundation zone burning at least 25 homes and businesses before moving downstream.   The whole business district of Titusville was damaged or destroyed by the floods and subsequent fire. Spartansburg and Centerville, upstream of Titusville,  saw significant damage, but did not sustain the effects of the fire.

Image of one of several burned oil refineries in Titusville after the fire and floods of June 4-5, 1892.

 

The burning creek advanced southward into the next community, Oil City. By 6 am it struck. Alarms were raised all over town, with the creek cresting around 9 or 10 am. To make matters even worse, several tankers holding benzine were located along the banks of the creek. The whole upper end of Oil City, on both sides of the Oil Creek, were inundated.   The benzene became ignited and burned most of the second and third ward with 200-300 buildings.

Approximately 54 Oil City residents and 72 Titusville residents died either from the fire or the flood waters.  Elsewhere across the area flooding was severe. Transportation became cut off as bridges and railroads were damaged from Erie to Mercer Counties. The death toll estimated at 126 makes it the worst flood related disaster in Pennsylvania other than the catastrophic Johnstown flood of 1889. Similarly both disasters stemmed from dam breaks. 

Heavy rain fell over northwest Pennsylvania from May through early June of 1892. On Saturday June 4th  a warm front located just north of the region brought adequate moisture for thunderstorms with heavy rain.  This rainfall, over already saturated ground spelled disaster. Widespread flooding occurred across the region with severe damage to bridges, railroads, and communities. The hardest hit towns were Titusville and Oil City.

Image 2. Crescent Oil Works Oil Refinery remains in Titusville after the flood and fires of June 4-5, 1892.Photo courtesy of the Titusville Herald Oct. 7. 1897 and special courtesy from the the Crawford County Historical Society. 

 

Reports suggest the rain first started to develop around noon in northwest Pennsylvania. Additional storms occurred around 4 pm and again from sunset through 10 pm.  Some reports estimated the rainfall in Spartansburg that day was close to 10 inches, though  no official rain gauges recorded the amounts. This heavy rainfall produced flash flooding in the region with creeks and streams overrunning their banks. Debris became clogged on area bridges, and many streets were inundated. The floods, though noteworthy, were not life threatening to those who remained in their homes. However shortly after midnight on June 5th an earthen dam in Spartansburg, about 7 miles above Titusville, collapsed.

The wall of water from the dam moved down the Oil Creek from Spartansburg into Titusville between 1 and 2 am Sunday morning, catching residence by surprise.  The flood water expanded all the way to Spring Street and as much as “half a mile wide” south of the town. The flood waters moved and damaged oil refiners, resulting in an oil coated creek.  As the creek inundated homes, it soon caught fire. The fire expanded over the inundation zone burning at least 25 homes and businesses before moving downstream.   The whole business district of Titusville was damaged or destroyed by the floods and subsequent fire. Spartansburg and Centerville, upstream of Titusville,  saw significant damage, but did not sustain the effects of the fire.

The burning creek advanced southward into the next community, Oil City. By 6 am it struck. Alarms were raised all over town, with the creek cresting around 9 or 10 am. To make matters even worse, several tankers holding benzine were located along the banks of the creek. The whole upper end of Oil City, on both sides of the Oil Creek, were inundated.   The benzene became ignited and burned most of the second and third ward with 200-300 buildings.

Approximately 54 Oil City residents and 72 Titusville residents died either from the fire or the flood waters.  Elsewhere across the area flooding was severe. Transportation became cut off as bridges and railroads were damaged from Erie to Mercer Counties. The death toll estimated at 126 makes it the worst flood related disaster in Pennsylvania other than the catastrophic Johnstown flood of 1889. Similarly both disasters stemmed from dam breaks.  

 

Image of fires at Titusville oil refineries after floods on June 4-5, 1892.

Image 3. View of fires in Titusville on June 5, 1892. Flames are seen from two oil refineries on the West End. Photo courtesy of the Titusville Herald Oct. 7. 1897 and special courtesy from the the Crawford County Historical Society. 

Image of severely damaged train depot in Titusville after the flood and fires of June 5 1892.

Image 4. View of the train depot in Titusville after the flood and fires of June 4-5, 1892. The Dunkirk, Allegheny Valley and Pittsburg(h) Railroad's passenger depot on the northwest corner of Martin Street. (Note the "h" missing from Pittsburgh to represent the spelling at the time of the photograph). Photo courtesy of the Titusville Herald Oct. 7. 1897 and special courtesy from the the Crawford County Historical Society. 

 

    Historical Rainfall Records 1892

Erie PA

May 1 – June 4: 10.59” (May-9.70” June 1-4-2.54”)

Oil City PA

May 1 – June 4: 8.19”

 

Flood Predictions in 1892

In 1892 there were a total of 373 Weather Bureau Offices, 166 river stations, and 59 special rainfall stations across the United States. The state Weather Service was  based out of Philadelphia, PA. Flood and flash flood warnings did not exist at the time of this tragedy. Daily weather forecasts were generated out of Washington DC, and sent via telegraph to hundreds of locations across the country, most notably railway stations. Weather forecasts generally consisted of general terms like “fair” “rain” “snow” and “warmer/cooler than” for the next 24 hours. Citizens in northwest Pennsylvania had no way of knowing how severe the rainfall, and subsequent flooding would be.

Flood Predictions in 2017

In the last 125 years flood predictions and warnings have grown significantly. Technological advances such as Doppler and Dual Pol Radar, GOES Satellites, and the National Water Model all help warning forecasters with the National Weather Service identify and warn when flood threats develop. In addition to these advancements, there is a wide network of ground truth river and rain gauges that help forecasters monitor conditions continuously.  Should a similar disaster occur, the NWS will notify the public with a Flash Flood Emergency, emphasizing the great risk to life and property. It is the goal of the NWS along with all local, state, and federal Emergency Responders that another tragedy with this loss of life never occur again. To learn more about flooding in Pennsylvania visit http://www.floodsafety.noaa.gov/states/pa-flood.shtml and to learn about your flood risk visit FEMA’s Flood Map Service Center https://msc.fema.gov/portal .

 

Special Thanks to the Crawford County Historical Society