July 26, 1874: A few days ago we visited the short section of Spring Garden Avenue that runs just west of Chestnut Street on the North Side. It’s a narrow residential street lined with those two- and three-story red brick houses you often see in older sections of the city. On this morning the neighborhood was quiet, except for the rumble of cars traveling along nearby Chestnut Street, which remains cobblestone.
It’s difficult to imagine that this street was once the scene of such horror that it became the center of national attention. Reporters from newspapers in the east stood here to learn about a tragedy. Artists sketched the scene for illustrated magazines, and at least one photographer was at work.
The year was 1874. This portion of Spring Garden Avenue was known as O’Hara Street, and it was at the center of a densely packed portion of Allegheny City. The event that lured newsmen to the street began around 8 o’clock on Sunday evening, July 26. Heavy raindrops splattered on wood plank roads as families settled down in their homes for the evening. Then the rain grew heavy, alarmingly so. Soon it was a torrent unlike any in recent memory. A thick darkness fell over the city. Newspapers called it “impenetrable,” except by frequent blasts of lightning.
Streams that flowed down from the hills above O’Hara Street began to fill with water. On a hillside near one of those streams lived a man named G.W. Day. As he peered out a window, a lightning flash revealed in an instant something terrifying: A wall of water was bearing down on his house. Day had no time to react. Fortunately, the flood had yet to gather deadly force.
Fed by water rushing down hillsides, the flood grew in strength and volume. Outbuildings and fences were swept away, trees uprooted and road planks tossed into the air by the fast-moving water.
Those in the flood’s path had little warning. Homes were inundated, pushed from foundations, overturned or, in some cases, completely torn part. Survivors groped for safety in the darkness.
John Shearing and his wife carried their sleeping 4-year-old sons out of the family’s house and onto a bank above the rushing waters. The storm aroused one of the boys. He awoke and rolled over the bank and into the raging flood. His body was recovered the next day.
The Leopold family’s three-story frame house was destroyed. Mrs. Leopold and her four children drowned. In addition, the flood killed five children from another family living on the third floor. The home of a cooper named Simon Dreyer was lifted up and set on its side. The family inside escaped serious injury.
John Fisher, a butcher, ran to a stable to save his horse. As the water rose, he sought safety in a hay-loft. Reaching down, he grabbed his horse’s bridle and held the animal’s head above the water, thus saving its life. Elsewhere, a woman named Mrs. Upperman looked out her window and, in a flash of lightning, glimpsed two boys floating by her house. She called for help, but the boys were carried away in the darkness.
O’Hara, Concord and Chestnut streets were described by newspapers as the “bosom of destruction.” Houses here were rudely pushed against one another. Some collapsed. In these streets, children were torn from the grasps of their parents and then disappeared in waters roiling with the corpses of cows and pigs and sheep and pieces of furniture, broken carriages, light poles and other debris.
“Some of the most substantial brick dwellings were undermined in full,” reported the Pittsburgh Post. “Frame houses were moved off their foundations, upset and in some instances, where they refused to move, twisted into the most fantastical shapes.”
The receding water left a coating of mud, filth and rubbish in streets. Bruised and torn corpses littered the area. Many were damaged beyond recognition. A dead girl was ensnared in the branches of a peach tree. Henry Mattern died with his arms clasping one of his two children. A few yards away, his dead wife clutched the other child. On Perry Street, searchers found the body of policeman Henry Hess, one hand clinging to a fire plug, the other grasping a stick. Corpses were carted away to nearby funeral homes, where they were cleaned and placed in rows.
A boy approximately 5 years old wandered alone near Chestnut and Ohio streets. He spoke only German. His name was Schubert, he said, and he was washed from a second story window during the flood. He had not seen any members of his family since then. “A number of ladies in the vicinity took him in charge,” the Post reported.
On Tuesday, church bells tolled and funeral processions passed though the streets. The cleanup and healing had begun.
In decades to come, a man named Heinz would build a company and a fortune just a few blocks away. Allegheny City would become part of Pittsburgh. Modern roadways would cut into the neighborhood. O’Hara Street would become Spring Garden Avenue. The flood of 1874 remains only as a memory, one of many reminders that we are a city shaped, molded and sometimes scarred by water.