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City tragedy hits century anniversary

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A century ago, on this date, much of Bartholomew County was under water.

The community was faced with a scene that would be replicated 95 years later with much more devastating results. But until the flood of 2008, it was the Flood of 1913 by which all high-water levels were measured.

The headline at the top of the front page of the March 25, 1913, issue of The Evening Republican would be eerily familiar decades later: “Columbus Isolated by Worst Flood Reported Since Freshet of 1898.”

The floodwaters hit a peak the morning of March 25, 1913, when the flood crest of the East Fork of the White River was measured at 17.9 feet. But even by then, the community of Columbus was not only isolated from the areas around it, but basic elements of day-to-day life had been shut down.

There was no way to keep equipment running in the face of a record-breaking 7 inches of rain that fell in a 24-hour period beginning at 7 a.m. March 24. Mayor Charles Barnaby ordered the city’s water works to be shut down when employees were forced to erect scaffolding to keep equipment in operating order after the floor of the building was covered with water 30 inches deep.

The effects were evident everywhere.

  • Telephone service was cut off as were all telegraph operations.
  • Rail service into and out of the city was halted as long lines of track were washed away.
  • Businesses shut down, although some remained open and even placed advertisements in the newspaper March 25, the day after the rains had begun falling, to give notice to their customers that they were still in operation, flood or no flood.

Columbus and Bartholomew County were spared the human tragedies that fell in other areas around Indiana. More than 90 people were reported drowned statewide. Although there were a number of close calls, there were no fatalities from the high water in Columbus.

There were some close calls, however, including one that was highly unusual.

According to a story in The Evening Republican, rescuers extricated a man named Vern Hatton from a tree in the vicinity of Flat Rock cave north of Hope on the second day of the rains. To the surprise of his rescuers, Hatton was completely naked. Hanging from the tree limbs, Hatton early on had fears of being dislodged by the currents and eventually pulled under water by the weight of his clothes. Preferring his life over modesty, the man disrobed and waited for a rescue.

Some community landmarks were lost, including one that has a direct tie to the current landscape of the Newbern area — the wooden covered bridge that once spanned Clifty Creek at what is now County Road 850N.

The covered bridge was washed away in the flood. It was quickly replaced by a steel truss bridge, which still stands but is due to be replaced later this year.

The recent decision by county commissioners to replace the steel bridge was on the mind of Bill Steinkamp, a contractor in the Newbern area, when he was visiting last week with neighbor and customer Art Hadley at the latter’s home.

“We began talking about the bridge situation, and I remarked that it would be wonderful if someone could find a photo of the old covered bridge so that we would eventually have a record of all three bridges,” Steinkamp said. “Art smiled, told me to wait a minute, left and returned to hand me a snapshot of the old covered bridge. It had been taken just before the bridge was washed away in the 1913 flood.”

For the time, the financial damage of the 1913 flood was devastating. Officials estimated the total cost in losses at $500,000, a figure that even with inflation factored in would be dwarfed by the estimated half-billion dollars in losses from the 2008 flood.

While the 2008 flood did erase most of the records set in 1913, the early 20th century disaster would go unmatched. Between 1913 and 2008, there were at least nine major floods that disrupted day-to-day life in Bartholomew County.

Each fell short of the granddaddy of them all — the 1913 flood.

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