The Flood of 1870: Bridging the gap between memories and measurements

Last year at this time, we were taking pictures and blogging about the Flood of 2013. This year, so far, finds us nicely dry and warming up after a cold, snowy winter.

But what attracted our attention this week when it was time to choose a subject for this post?

Yes, flooding.

But this time, we’re going back to the year 1870 to explore what flooding was like before flood walls and levee green space helped keep Davenport homes and businesses dry.

The flood of April 1870 was caused most likely by a quicker than normal melting of snow and ice farther up river. There’s no indication in the newspaper accounts of either ice jams or heavy rains being a problem. But by April 20,  both the Davenport Democrat and the Daily Gazette were reporting rising water of the Mississippi River —the only question would be how much damage would be done.

The Democrat reported that the rising water levels were nowhere near the levels of the great floods of 1828 and 1859, which were not measured by feet and inches, but by the memories of old time settlers.

The water continued to rise over the next few days. On the 21st, the ferry dock near the foot of Main Street was surrounded by water and houses on the river bank from Davenport to the East Village had water seeping into their cellars and creeping through their front doors.

By April 22nd, the water was filling all the homes along the Davenport levee.

Businesses were not spared either, as many mills and factories sat along the banks. The mills of Lindsey & Phelps, L.C. Dessaint, J.F. Barnard had water covering their ground floors. Boilers and machinery were destroyed. The Schricker & Mueller lumber yard was underwater, while the M. Donahue machinery shop was a total loss as water entered into sheds where equipment was stored.

The next day fared no better as the river had risen another six inches in 24 hours. A new flood gauge was installed on an Arsenal Bridge pier showing the water was 16 feet above normal river stage. It had reached Front Street (today’s River Drive) and covered the tracks for the horse-drawn trolley up to ten inches in some spots.

The trolley continued— the operator stating that nothing would change until water actually got into the cars.

By the 23rd, newspapers reported that flood waters were at least eight inches above the high water mark for the flood of 1859. This would have been based on memories from those who experienced it, as no official record of the early flood had been kept.

The horse-drawn street cars continued to operate through eighteen inches of water in spots. All of the businesses along Front Street closed due to flooding. A positive note was reported by the Daily Gazette that the river had only risen four more inches in 24 hours.

Both good and bad news came from the Gazette on April 25, 1870. The trolley was running, though through about two feet of water, and the river level seemed to be stable and no longer rising.   The bad news was a reported break in the levee on the Rock Island side. The lower portion of the city of Rock Island had flooded with damage to homes and businesses.

By April 28th, the water had begun to recede, leaving extensive damage on both sides of the river. Measured at 17.0 feet, the April flood of 1870 would remain in the top ten of local floods until 1920, when it was bumped off the list by one-tenth of a foot.

Though long forgotten, the Flood of 1870 and the resulting newspaper accounts did bridge the gap between past floods only measured by landmarks and memories and a new system of gauges and record keeping that began officially in 1874.

One last note: the Daily Gazette reported on April 28th that George L. Davenport had been taken, by boat, on April 26th to inspect his old family home on the Rock Island Arsenal. He found markings made on a building by his father, Colonel George Davenport, to mark the high water line of the great flood of 1828.

It turns out that the flood of 1828 beat the flood of 1870 by fourteen inches.

(posted by Amy D.)


Sources used:

(The Daily Gazette, April 22, 1870)

(Daily Gazette, April 23, 1870)

(Daily Gazette, April 25, 1870)

(Davenport Democrat, April 22, 1870)

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