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The Flood of 1979: A Look Back

Heavy rains devastate small towns

August 12, 2009
The recent heavy summer rains that soaked the area and caused flash floods in Marengo one week and in Lanesville, New Albany and Louisville the following week caught many residents and motorists off guard. Some said they never had experienced anything like it during the summer months when dry conditions usually prevail.

But it was similar summer downpours that devastated English 30 years ago and set the stage for the town to move to higher ground a few years later.

On Thursday, June 7, 1979, a heavy rain set in and, over the next 36 hours, 9-1/2 inches of rain fell in the English-Marengo area. Then, early on the following Saturday morning, more than four inches of rain fell in less than three hours. The creeks and streams, already full from the heavy downpours the two previous evenings, came out of their banks and began to fill the streets of both towns. In English, it was believed to be the worst since the flood of 1959. In Marengo, many believed it was the worst ever.

Along Brandywine Creek in Marengo, the water reached its highest level in history. And it was the first time English had seen water on Main Street since a creek-widening project was completed in 1961.

Poe Lumber Co. in Marengo was hit by a huge wall of water at about seven o'clock that Saturday morning. Truck-loads of lumber and building materials were carried away by the water. Minutes later, water climbed over the bridge at the south end of the business district, and within five minutes it was in every business in the downtown area except Beals' Department Store and Marengo State Bank. Whiskey Run Creek came out of its banks and flooded the "old town" minutes later, and water was eight feet deep over the bridge where the two creeks met.

In English, Camp Fork Creek and Little Blue River overflowed their banks and, at about 6:30 a.m., water entered several homes along East Fifth Street and flowed into almost every business on the east side of Main Street. Jewell's Market, Griener's Jewelry, Craw-ford County Security Co., English State Bank, Hanger Equipment Co., Gilliland's Furniture Store, English Publishing Co., Burger Palace, the Presbyterian church and Standard Station were all flooded. The water crested less than an hour later and quickly receded, leaving mud and a mess for town residents, firemen and other volunteers to clean up.

The town rebounded — some businesses were reopened in a matter of hours, some days later — and the people of English made a noble effort to return to their normal activities and get on with their lives. Many long-time residents were veterans of several floods in years past and took the incident in stride. Less than a month later, the July 4th parade was considered a success. The Crawford County High School Band won in the Best Band category. Best Church Float went to Fairview General Baptist, Cub Scout Pack 126 won the Best Theme trophy and Everett Mason VFW Post 6160 won Best Overall Float. But there was a double-shot of grief just days away that would put a damper on the happiness and fun the town had managed to recapture.

On July 12, steady rain showers began soaking the central and southern parts of the state. After an extremely wet June, the rain saturated already soaked soil and the weather presented very little opportunity for the area to dry out.

On July 24, heavy rains, the remnants of Hurricane Claudette, began to pelt the area again. It rained for two days, and the creeks and streams became full. On the morning of July 26, the rain intensified and dumped what many believe to be about 10 inches of water between 5 a.m. and 1 p.m.

According to an article in The News-Messenger, the water "rose so fast in English and got so high that people didn't have time to do anything. Most of those who moved their furniture up high simply wasted their time, the water got it anyway."

Bob Gilliland, who owned the Western Auto Store, said he "stayed in the store until the floor started coming up and the shelves started to fall off the walls." After the plate glass window caved in and television sets, refrigerators and other appliances started floating into the streets, he said it became "quite painful to watch."

Water quickly rose to almost 10 feet deep on Main and East Fifth streets. The business district was almost wiped out, and more than half of the town's residents were flooded from their homes.

"We got everyone out who wanted to come out," said Larry Lone, who, according to the article, was in one of the rescue boats. "Many wouldn't leave, so we left them and went on to others. The currents were so swift in places that we had trouble getting through, and East Fifth Street was so full of stuff floating out of the stores that there were places we couldn't get through it. There was so much oil and gasoline on top of the water that there was a fire danger, and everything was so slippery it was hard to hold on."

The same businesses that were hit by the June flood were flooded again. And this time, more businesses were added to the destruction and the losses were much greater. The Railroad Tavern, Hanger Equipment Co., Western Auto Store, Town Grill, Marge's Beauty Salon, Recreation Hall, English Publishing Co., Tucker Jewelry, English Hardware, McLain Gulf Service, Carl Mitchell Barber Shop, Dairyland Food Mart, Greiner's Jewelry, Crawford County Security Co., John Thomp-son Standard Station, Burger Palace, Leda's Dress Shop. Judd's Drug Store, Sam Benz and Son, Howerton Real Estate, the law offices of Jack Riddle and Luckett and Lawrence, the firehouse, the Presbyterian and Christian churches and Denbo Funeral Home suffered huge losses. Many were considered a total loss.

The Crawford County Library lost more than 30,000 of its 33,500 books.

"We had six books above the water line," Librarian Jewell Sears said in the article in The News-Messenger. "About all we have left are the 3,500 books that we had loaned out."

An estimated 125 homes were flooded by the deluge, with depths ranging from a few inches at the higher spots to up to the eaves in the western end of town. Several mobile homes were moved by the water and destroyed. Only a handful of the flooded homes were insured. Many businesses also were uninsured.

The clubhouse of the VFW was moved intact more than a quarter of a mile from its location near the Medical Clinic and deposited at the home of Bill Webster.

Water was five to seven feet deep in many of the businesses, and many merchants brought in trucks and hauled the soaked merchandise away. Almost all the windows on the main street crumbled under the pressure of the water, and merchandise floated down the streets into the creeks.

"It was just overwhelming and shocking," said Karen Hanger, whose parents, John (Ish) and Sara Combs operated English Publishing, a company that published The Crawford County Democrat and The New-Messenger, a newspaper once owned by her great-grandfather. "Some people lost their business and their homes.

"I remember trying to clean up the mess — all the muddy, slimy papers that had to be thrown in a dumpster. The smell was horrible. I remember going into the building and seeing desks piled on top of other desks and mud everywhere, covering everything.

"We operated out of my great-aunt's house for a couple of weeks. We worked on cleaning up the building and publishing the newspaper at the same time," she said. "There was so much devastation. But a lot of good-hearted people came and helped."

In Marengo, Whiskey Run Creek in the old town crested more than four feet higher than the record set in 1964. In the newer part of town, the water in the business district reached more than a foot above the record set on June 9. Hardest hit businesses included Poe Lumber Co., Fancher Farm and Home Supply, Bestway Market, Marengo Rec-reation Center, Dillman-Green Funeral Home, Kilner's Old Town Store, Beulah's Restaurant, Cora's Flower Shop, Ed's Barber Shop, Oasis Liquors, The Donut Shop, Poe's Insurance Agency, S&S Furniture, Marengo Laun-dromat, Crecelius Welding and Wible's Garage. The Rialto Theater, Derr's Market, Benjamin's TV Appliances, Marengo Va-riety Store, Vac Shack, Miller's Apparel Shop, Edwina's Beauty Shop, Marengo Tavern, Marengo Post Office, the Wesleyan church and the Crawford County License Branch were flooded also but to a lesser extent. The water also reached several homes that had never flooded before and actually got into a total of about 55 homes. Several people had to be rescued from the Rec-reation Center.

The flood of 1979 brought about the beginning of conversations about moving the town to higher ground, but many still refused to consider the idea. It would take one more major flood, in 1990, to propel the government forward with a plan to move the town.

Mike Benham of Craw-ford County Security said, between 1989 and June 10, 1990, there were 13 periods of high water in the downtown area.

"A lot of people stayed after the flood of 1979," Benham said. "Some were stubborn and didn't want to give up, but the town began losing businesses. There was mud, mold and mildew to contend with. People got tired of getting out of bed at 2 a.m., 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. because the water was coming up. It seemed like it never happened during daylight hours.

"I think the flood of 1979 was the straw that broke the camel's back," he said. "Then, after the flood of 1990, it really started happening; the town was going to move. It took over 10 years to actually get moved.

"But I miss the old town. I miss being able to walk down the street to the bank or to the restaurant or some of the other businesses, and it was only a short run to the firehouse," Benham said.

"But there was really no choice. We were never going to be able to control the flooding. And, you know, since 1990, there have been only two flood events down there."

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    Hindsight is always 20/20
    August 25, 2009 | 11:18 AM

    I served as minister of English Christian Church from from 1972 into 1977. During that time, the church conducted a building program that resulted in tearing down the 88-year-old frame structure and replacing it with a new 5,000 square foot brick and frame building with all facilities on one level. Dedication of the new building took place in September of 1975. The great flood of '79 was a little less than four years away.

    In the course of the planning, the church leadership did consider purchasing a seven acre parcel of land on high ground on east SR 64,
    near the current location of Denbo Funeral Home. Out of concern for several members who lived in walking distance of the downtown
    site, that property was not bought and English Christian remained near the north end of Water Street.
    By way of 20/20 hindsight, one might envision English Christian Church as a haven, resource and anchor in that time of great calamity. Instead, it too was a victim.
    On the other hand, one may observe that these developments served as a launching pad for Crawford County's quite successful Hillview Christian Church, between English and Marengo.
    It's amazing to consider how the Lord uses events!
    And now, my wife and I are involved in serving South Side Christian Church in Munster, Indiana, which was inundated by flash flooding in September of 2008, caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ike. September 12th will be the one-year anniversary of that calamity, and we still are worshipping in an alternate location while attempting to complete repairs to our facilities.
    We agree - FLOODS ARE NO FUN!
    Mike Gillespie, Senior Minister
    South Side Christian Church
    Munster, Indiana

    Mike Gillespie, Minister, now serving in Munster
Barbara Shaw
Schuler Bauer
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