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Community came together in aftermath of 1913 flood

Grover Museum Director Alex Krach, far right, reads a letter written by Maurice Gore, a Shelbyville resident who witnessed the 1913 flood. Gore and his wife, Laura Lambert Gore, were not directly affected by the flood but toured the city to see the aftermath. In the letter, written over the course of five days to Laura’s parents, Joseph and Mary Lambert, Maurice Gore describes the flood and the affects it had on Shelbyville residents.From left are local historian Ron Hamilton,City of Shelbyville MS4 Department Director Derrick Byers and Director of Shelby County Emergency Management Ryan Hansome.

By ROSS FLINT - rflint@shelbynews.com

In the immediate aftermath of the 1913 flood, 20 percent of Shelbyville’s population were left homeless. More than 2,000 residents found refuge at local churches, lodges and for some, at City Hall.

The damage from the flood, which occurred in the middle of the night on March 25, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Yet no lives were lost in Shelbyville.

Around two dozen residents heard stories Wednesday night about the flood during the second presentation of the Community Treasure Series at the Strand Theatre in downtown Shelbyville. The lecture was also broadcast live on Facebook.

The Strand is partnering with the Grover Museum each month this year to give a lecture on a topic on local history.

Grover Director Alex Krach led the discussion, and he was joined by local historian Ron Hamilton, City of Shelbyville MS4 Department Director Derrick Byers and Ryan Hansome, director of Shelby County Emergency Management.

“The city of Shelbyville and Shelby County have never seen anything that matched the catastrophic deluge that hit this area in the spring of 1913,” Hamilton said. “It was a flood of biblical proportions and it caused extensive damage.”

The months leading up to the historic event didn’t help.

January saw more than six inches of rain fall and February was also wet, he said. March saw 8.5 inches of snow and another nearly 10 inches of rain “on ground that was saturated.”

The levels of water at both the Big Blue and Little Blue rivers rose quickly that night and alarms went off around town warning residents.

Before sunrise, hundreds of residents volunteered to take sand bags to the North Harrison Street bridge and to the levee, he said. They were passed by women and children coming from the north who were carrying their possessions and headed to higher ground.

“All normal activity stopped that morning,” he said.

Horses, wagons and carts were commandeered to help strengthen the levees north of Shelbyville and by mid-morning, the rising waters reached the first alley east of Public Square. The city was flooded east of Pike Street with a rapid current flowing across South Harrison Street. Vine Street was under three feet of muddy water.

The city lost gas, water, electricity and telephone service as a result of the flood. Trains were unable to come in or out for a week because part of the tracks were washed out.

Those outside of the city could come no closer from the north than Fairland, or any closer from the southeast than St. Paul.

“Shelbyville could get no help from Indianapolis because the state capital had its own problems with levees,” Hamilton said.

Carter Henry Harrison Jr., the mayor of Chicago, offered his city’s help, but Shelbyville officials declined, saying they could take care of it themselves.

It took a community-wide effort to recover from the beginning.

When families returned to their homes, they found damage from the mud and floating debris.

Shelby County did not have the programs and agencies it now has, Hamilton said, but the residents stepped up.

“It was really up to the people to help and they did,” he said, noting the homeless were given soup and clothing. “It really brought out the very best in our community. The epic flood of 1913 would eventually fade into memory. But it provided the sort of stories that legends are made.”

Byers said he has not seen anything of this magnitude in his job. The closest came around Christmastime in 2013, when the river reached 18.3 feet. The river measured 20.2 feet during the 1913 flood.

Shelbyville’s levee was not the same size as it is today, he said, and in fact, following the flood, the city council approved to raise the levee by two feet, he said.

Hansome said the city’s siren system is more advanced today and both the city and county have more of them. And they use technology to warn residents and seek help from volunteers.

He encouraged residents to have enough food and water that lasts a few days in the event of a natural emergency. In the event of being in immediate danger, the city has several shelter locations including the high school, Salvation Army and Red Cross.

The next Community Treasure Series lecture is scheduled for 7 p.m. on April 3 on Sheriff McCorkle.