The Great Flood of 1936

The winter of 1936 was a famous one in Pennsylvania history. It brought ice to the rivers, then later followed with record rainfall all over the state. All that water had nowhere to go, except for the streets and basements of thousands of homes and buildings. But earlier that winter, things had started out on a more positive note. 

The 1936 Ice Carnival

February 1936 was an especially cold one. It would happen every four or five years or so. And likewise, every four or five years when the Susquehanna would freeze solid, Goldsboro would throw an Ice Carnival.

The Harrisburg Evening News - Feb 24, 1936

These ice carnivals were famous at the time, and featured car races on the ice, motorcycle races and all kinds of entertainment. Thousands of spectators would walk and drive out on the ice to watch the spectacle. 

Cars and people on the frozen Susquehanna by Goldsboro

If your’e wondering how thick that ice must have been to be strong enough for all those people and cars, the answer is 24 inches in the middle of the river, and up to four feet by the shoreline, basically freezing all the way to the river bottom! They would monitor the ice thickness during the cold, and if it got thick enough then they would hold the races. 

The York Dispatch - Feb 11, 1936

They would even give airplane rides, taking off and landing on the ice. 

Alice Conley posing in front of the airplane giving rides

There was a catch with all that ice… it would have to melt at some point. And depending on how it melted and flowed downstream, it could cause some problems. 

Ice melt, then rain

Ice was nothing new on the Susquehanna. But when the river would freeze solid, then start to break up, that usually got people a little worried because of disasters that had happened in the past. They would watch the river very closely. 

York Daily Record - Mar 3, 1936

One of the issues was that as the ice breaks up, it could float down river and could pile on top of one another, creating what were called ice gorges. These huge ice chunks were like concrete, and with the force of the river pushing on these giant slabs they could cause some real damage to bridges or buildings along the riverbanks. Early in March they began to watch for the February ice to break up. 

York Daily Record - Mar 3, 1936

Another issue is that as the ice breaks up, sometimes it could jam up and create a natural dam. When that would happen, the Susquehanna could get backed up with water, then the water would rise and spill over the banks. 

Ice breaking up by Goldsboro

With an increase in temperatures, the ice began to break up. But with these temperature rises, the next storms that came through Pennsylvania didn’t bring snow with them, they brought rain… a lot of rain. By mid March there had already been rain in the north part of the state, upstream, and in central PA by Harrisburg. Small and mid-sized creeks were already filling up and beginning to overflow. 

The Harrisburg Evening News - Mar 11, 1936

Friday the 13th

The rain didn’t stop. Any remaining snowpack was melting and flowing down the creeks and into the rivers. The Susquehanna kept rising, and by Friday the 13th had begun to challenge high water marks from previous floods, like 1889 and 1904. 

York Daily Record - Fri, Mar 13, 1936

The 1904 ice gorge and flood was a famous one. The ice sheets had damaged the buildings on Shelley’s Island, and destroyed the brand new York Haven Power Plant.

Men standing on piles of ice in Goldsboro - 1904

The ice also made dams across the river, making the water rise and get backed up into the small creeks. 

This next photo from 1904 shows Fishing Creek overflowing into present day Lee Fishel Park in Goldsboro. In the left side of the photo you can see two men in a boat along the fence line. Then just above them you can see the metal bridge going over Fishing Creek. Today this bridge is the one made of concrete and is near Antonio’s Restaurant

Overflowing Fishing Creek, looking towards South Goldsboro - 1904

With the flood of 1904 only being 30 years before, there were plenty of people still around to remember it and all the damage it caused. But in 1936, it was worse.

York Daily Record - Fri, Mar 13, 1936

The river level was rising very quickly. According to the USGS, the Susquehanna at Harrisburg is considered at action stage at 11 feet. Then it is a minor flood at 17 feet. On the morning of March 12 the river was at 15.6 feet. Then by 9:30pm that evening, the river was at 20.1 feet. According to the same USGS chart, the Susquehanna at Harrisburg is considered at moderate flood stage once it clears 20 feet.

York Daily Record - Fri, Mar 13, 1936

Downstream in Goldsboro, all the houses and cottages along the Susquehanna were  flooded.

Cottage along the Susquehanna in Goldsboro

These river cottages were part of what brought tourists to Goldsboro, and now they were under threat of serious damage, or being destroyed. 

York Daily Record - Fri, Mar 13, 1936

The Rain Kept coming

If Friday the 13th was bad, what was worse is the rain didn’t stop. In Harrisburg, when the Susquehanna clears 23 feet it is considered a major flood. The previous week got up to around 20 feet on Friday the 13th. Now, they were predicting it to clear 30 feet. 

Harrisburg Telegraph - Mar 19, 1936

Harrisburg took on a lot of water. Many of the bridges were underwater on the banks, and islands like City Island were also flooded

Walnut Street Bridge looking towards Harrisburg March 1936 - Pennsylvania Digital Archives

It didn’t get quite as high as the newspaper predicted. The official high water mark in Harrisburg was 29.23 feet on March 19, 1936, and all that water continued to flow downstream. 

York Daily Record - Mar 18, 1936

The Yellow Breeches in New Cumberland had overflowed, with nowhere to go since the Susquehanna was already beyond full.

Market Street, south from New Cumberland Square, looking toward Yellow Breeches Creek - New Cumberland Library

Different parts of the river are deeper and wider, so they have their different measurements that determine their flood stages. However, at this point, the entire Susquehanna River was at major flood stage, no matter how you measured. 

York Daily Record - Mar 18, 1936

All of the Goldsboro cottages along the Susquehanna had flooded, again. All these beautiful summer homes and fishing lodges were now home to the fishes themselves. 

Cottage along the Susquehanna in Goldsboro

Every house along the railroad tracks close to the river flooded. There was just no stopping it. 

Remember the photo above from 1904 showing Fishing Creek flooded by the park? It looked almost exactly the same in 1936, except with more water. This next photo shows a similar view as the earlier view from 1904. You can see the same white house as in the 1904 photo. 

Lee Fishel Park of Goldsboro underwater from Fishing Creek, looking toward South Goldsboro

At the end of South York Street, near where it intersects 1st Ave, is right by the bridge going over Fishing Creek. The creek had backed up and flooded these houses. These three houses in this next photo are still standing today. 

Three houses on S York St., near the Fishing Creek bridge

In the same spot, a photo taken from a different family shows a couple men in their boat. It would have been the easiest way to get around at this point since the streets were all flooded in this part of town by Fishing Creek. 

Two men floating up South York Street in Goldsboro

All along the river, and Fishing Creek, the water had nowhere to go. It took a while for the waters to recede and basements to dry out. This wider view below shows from the railroad tracks near Water St, and shows where Antonio’s Restaurant would be today, all flooded and muddy. 

Looking west from the railroad tracks up Fishing Creek in Goldsboro

One for the History books

Although this article was mainly focused on Goldsboro and the section of the Susquehanna River, the fact is that many of the rivers and creeks in the entire state had flooded. 

Statewide map of Pennsylvania flooded rivers - 1936

Cities from Pittsburgh, to Wilkes-Barre, to Philadelphia all had flooding. Johnstown which famously had major flooding and devastation in 1889 also was hit hard again in 1936. And of course the capitol of Harrisburg seemed to be completely underwater as well. 

The flood of 1936 went down as a record-breaker on the Susquehanna, and that record wouldn’t be broken for another 36 years, until the next state-wide weather related disaster: Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972.

1972 - The same three houses on S. York St. flooding again

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