Floods of 1916: The February flood of water and ice

One hundred years ago, the Quad City region went through a double flood year. Not something they felt like celebrating, we feel sure.

To make things a little more unpleasant; the first flood occurred from about January 30 through February 7, 1916. Unlike summer flooding, which is usually caused by rain or delayed snow melt, this winter flood was caused by ice jams.

Just the thought makes us feel chilled.

Several factors led to the first flood of 1916. The Davenport Daily Times reported the month of January 1916 had a wider range of weather than normal. The warmest day of the month was January 5 with a temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit. By mid-January a cold snap left the area in below zero temperatures for several days. The end of the month rose to more normal temperatures of about freezing or a little above. (February 3, 1916. Pg. 4)

Precipitation also was unusual with 6.2 inches of snow falling during the month along with a 24 hour rainfall of 1.20 inches on January 20-21.

The late month rain plus the warmer weather led to a quicker than normal breakup of the ice covering the Mississippi between Bettendorf/Davenport and Buffalo. It quickly led to ice jams in the area which caused the water to rise to flood level while down river Muscatine had no flooding at all.

The first mention of flooding we found was in The Davenport Democrat and Leader on January 30, 1916. The article covered the flooding of Shantytown, also known as Fishertown, in western Davenport.

The article reported that the Mississippi River was already several feet above normal in this low-lying area. Large chunks of ice were floating near the homes along the river. The article reported that most of the bungalows in the area were built on “stilts” which elevated them above flood level. This allowed residents to stay in their homes even though the river and ice chunks flowed beneath them. Those with homes on the ground had been forced to leave as water (and ice) entered their residences.

By February 2nd The Davenport Daily Times was reporting the Mississippi River in our area was at flood stage of 15 feet. This was the highest the river had been since April 18, 1897. The lower areas of west Davenport were flooded, roads covered, water was nearing railroad tracks, and hundreds of residents had to leave their homes for higher (and warmer) ground. (Page 5)

The Davenport Commercial Club, representing the concerns of businesses in the area, were requesting Mayor Alfred C. Mueller speak with the United States Engineering Office located in Rock Island (another city suffering from the flooding) to arrange for the ice jams to be dynamited. Many businesses along the river were beginning to flood and the threat of damage by large chunks of ice was causing even greater concern. (The Davenport Democrat and Leader, February 2, 1916. Page 12)

The request to dynamite the ice jams was sent to Washington, D.C. that same day from the Engineering Office. Word was received the very next day that permission was granted to use dynamite as needed. By the time the news was received, a drop in the river level had been noted. By late afternoon, The Davenport Daily Times reported, the river at Davenport was measured at 13.8 feet. Dynamiting was put on hold. (The Davenport Daily Times, February 3, 1916. Page 7)

The river appeared to be stable for the next day or two until ice jams began to form between Bettendorf and Davenport. As the water level rose upriver, the Bettendorf Company was forced to close down as workers built an emergency sandbag wall to try to keep the water and ice out of the factory buildings. (The Davenport Daily Times, February 5, 1916. Page 5)

Once again families had to flee their homes along the river, but this time in Bettendorf, as the water level rose to flood stage. All this as the water level in Davenport continued to fall. Talk began again of dynamiting the ice jams.

Once again, dynamiting was postponed as the river began to slowly recede back into its banks. By February 7th the river, while still high, was below flood stage in both Davenport and Bettendorf.

By February 10th the Mississippi River seemed to be staying inside its banks in most areas. While some flooding still continued for a little while longer in west Davenport, the streetcars, which had not been able to run since the end of January in that portion of town, once again began to make runs to the Fishertown area. (The Davenport Daily Times, February 10, 1916. Page 7)

As the late winter/early spring weather held steady with no extremes things appeared to settle down once again along our section of the Mississippi River. Little did the residents of Fishertown and other low-lying areas know that they would face the rising river again in less than four months’ time.

(posted by Amy D.)

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