A view of the washed-out Milford-Upper Black Eddy bridge after the devastating flood of 1903. For other pictures from the era, see the Web site for Bridgeton House.
ALSO IN 1903
|October 1903 was the month that rain nearly washed out the first-ever World Series. Frustrated fans had to sit out two rainouts before they could watch the Boston Pilgrims defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates in baseball's first great championship contest.
In Kitty Hawk, N.C., the weather grounded the Wright brothers' glider and kept them from assembling their still-untested airplane. "We spent whole day indoors, on account of rain and water above camp," wrote a frustrated Orville Wright in his diary entry for Oct. 11.
Up and down the East Coast, it was the same story: rain and plenty of it. For most, it was an inconvenience that lasted less than a week.
Along the Delaware River valley, it was a disaster.
Helplessly, towns like Trenton, Lambertville and Easton, Pa., watched as the river rose relentlessly, its usually calm and shallow waters spilling over its banks, reaching levels of 10 feet, 20 feet, 28 feet.
At least three men in the deluge's path drowned or died of shock. Scores were forced to flee their homes. Nine wooden bridges linking New Jersey and Pennsylvania were lifted off their stone piers and smashed to splinters.
Even after the waters had receded, 10 days after the rain began, the flood had one last, horrifying sequel when two trains collided on their way to repair washed-out bridges at Washington Crossing. Seventeen laborers were killed.
Coming after a slew of disasters in 1901 and 1902, the floods of 1903 left Trentonians stunned and awed by the extent of their sufferings.
"It was the spectacular event of recent years, possibly the greatest natural phenomenon which many ... had ever seen," local writer Francis B. Lee wrote after the flood. "A fortnight will see much of the damage discounted. As for the flood of 1903, it will become a matter of history."
The flood began on Oct. 7, when a tropical ocean storm dispersed along the Virginia Capes and produced a pounding rain all over the East Coast.
Rolling off the hillsides of northeast Pennsylvania, the rainwater swelled streams and came pouring into the Delaware from a hundred sources.
By Friday, Oct. 9, the raging river threatened to become a full-scale flood zone.
The waters shorted out the city's trolley system and inundated train tracks, cutting off rail traffic between New York and Philadelphia. Municipal water pumps shut down. The State House furnaces, swamped in mud, conked out.
In South Trenton and along the Assunpink Creek in the North, lawns became small ponds and low-lying roads turned into Venice-style canals.
By Saturday morning, the rain had stopped. Some contented themselves that the flood had largely spared the city. "It is likely that the worst has passed," the Trenton Times reported.
They were wrong.
Saturday afternoon, the rain resumed and an immense surge of water came pouring from the Lehigh River into the Delaware Valley.
The torrent swept aside everything in its path, uprooting trees, swamping farmhouses, drowning cattle and carrying mighty piles of driftwood downstream.
Creaking and groaning, the Yardley-Trenton bridge gave way and toppled into the drink, its sections twisting about like derailed train cars. Then, with a roar that could be heard a mile away, the debris came crashing into the Calhoun Street bridge, which stood.
Nine bridges in all were washed away, including the railroad span at Raven Rock in Hunterdon County. Local citizens, frightened over losing their only link to Pennsylvania, called on a boater to row to the other side and alert the railroad. He capsized and drowned.
The would-be messenger was one of three flood fatalities. South of Morrisville, a farm worker wading in the floodwaters stumbled and was carried away by the strong current. A city man died of heart failure, attributed to shock from his sudden evacuation from his Asbury Street house.
More than 100 people in South Trenton were so inundated that they had to be evacuated, usually by boats rowing up to their second-floor windows.
In Burlington City, a house was torn from its foundation and began to float away. A group of heroic neighbors tossed a rope to the family sitting on the roof and rescued all four.
Fourteen inches of rain had fallen in four days. By Monday, it was over.
Homeowners returned to find their basements and first floors coated with a stinking, yellowish muck. Roads had washed away. Throughout New Jersey — which was also soaked by flooding on the Passaic, Ramapo and Saddle rivers — damage was $7 million.
For Trenton, the tragedy had only begun.
The Pennsylvania Railroad, caught up in a frenzied rush to rebuild its destroyed bridges and get its valuable passenger and freight shipments moving again, called up all available manpower. Hundreds of laborers — most of them African-Americans and recent immigrants from Italy and Hungary living in Trenton — boarded trains and headed for the stricken bridge sites.
Fifty of them packed into a train that steamed out of the Warren Street station at 5:45 a.m. Oct. 17 and headed north on the Belvidere Railway, toward the ruined Washington Crossing bridge. The laborers were packed shoulder-to-shoulder in an old passenger coach; behind them was a tool car and a flat-bottomed, iron car.
The train came to a halt just south of its destination so the locomotive could disengage and pick up a string of cars packed with sand and gravel. The engineer, Augustus Conover, then gently backed his cargo to re-attach it to the three cars he had left behind.
This was dangerous procedure, as the crew knew that another work train, No. 1229, was creeping up just six minutes behind. Conover ordered his flagman, Jacob Saums, to warn the approaching train by placing a red kerosene lantern on a signal post several hundred feet ahead and waving a red flag.
But in the dense morning fog, train 1229 never saw the lantern. And by the time engineer Robert Reed did see Saums waving a flag, it was too late to brake his massive train — rumbling at a mere 10 mph, but hauling so much weight it took 600 yards to come to a dead stop.
"When I realized the situation I pulled the whistle cord, called to my fireman and yelled with all my might to the men ahead," Reed later said. "Then I jumped."
With the deafening clang of steel against steel, Reed's train bumped into the flat-bottomed car. That car telescoped the tool car, which in turn hurtled itself forward into the wooden passenger car.
The laborers were helpless as the twisted mass of metal and splintered wood buried them.
James Wilson, a train fireman, leaped to the rescue, clawing away at the blood-soaked ruin to reach the mutilated bodies beneath.
"From beneath the wreck, the most horrible shrieks issued," one reporter quoted Wilson as saying. "Those who had jumped in time were running wildly to and fro and a few were working frantically to disentangle the crushed forms of the injured."
But in their confusion, fright and failure to understand English, the surviving workers came to a tragic misunderstanding as they saw Wilson and other crewmen approach with cutting tools.
The crewmen were trying to cut the smashed-in passenger car apart and free the trapped men, but to the traumatized wreck victims, these would-be rescuers looked all too much like a group of killers. Enraged, the immigrant laborers gathered into a stone-throwing mob and chased away the railroad men.
As a result, it took more than an hour for another train filled with police to come by and assist the stricken laborers.
Only then could the authorities sort out the wreck's gruesome toll: 17 dead and 33 injured, many permanently crippled.
The toll of dead included name after name of young, married men who left behind wives and children, many still in the old country. They lived on Feeder Street and Rose Street, places that had been struck by the tornado of '02 and the flood of '03, and they survived it all — only to die on a fog-shrouded railroad in Washington Crossing.
|1903: Downpour of destruction|
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|
|* Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first heavier-than-air flight in history as they took their airplane on a series of short test runs on the beaches of Kitty Hawk, N.C. Incredibly, the outside world took little notice and the Wrights’ invention would not be widely publicized until 1908.
* "The Great Train Robbery,’’ an 11-minute motion picture, was filmed at various sites in North Jersey: Essex County, Orange Mountain and the tracks of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad. The fast-paced western, though crude by today’s standards, became a nationwide sensation is still considered the first true feature movie.
* Nine teenagers were killed when a locomotive struck the streetcar they were riding in Newark. In a decision that provoked outrage, New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice William Gummere of Trenton dismissed all charges against the streetcar company’s directors.
* President Theodore Roosevelt engineered the revolution that created a new, independent country of Panama. Result: the new government signed a treaty allowing the United States to build the Panama Canal. "I took the isthmus,’’ Roosvelt bragged afterward.
* A fire at the Iroquois Theater in Chicago killed more than 600 while screaming patrons tried to break through locked exits. It remains the worst theater fire in American history.