The Great Flood of 1850


We now know that Hopkin Thomas and his partner, John Ollis began erection of a machine shop and foundry in Tamaqua in 1848. The location was in the industrial district just below the tracks of the Little Schuylkill R. R. and to the right of Vine St. in the contemporary map shown below.


Tamaqua’s industrial area – as noted below, the river originally ran where the tracks are now located.


Current (2010) satellite photo of industrial area north of Broad Street. Click for enlargement.



By 1850, the business should have been stable.  As was noted earlier, a possibility exists that the business was surveyed in the special census of manufacturers in 1850 which recorded  with the number of people employed in each business, the type of power (water, steam, etc.) used in the manufacturing process, and other items – including the name of the business.  Thus far a copy of that census has not been reviewed.


In any event, it was reported in the testimonial to Hopkin published in the Catasauqua Dispatch that the business failed and that Hopkin lost a large sum of money. The failure would seem to have occurred in about 1850.  Based on the accounts of the Great Flood of 1850, it is most likely that Hopkin and his partner lost their investment when the flood wiped out the Tamaqua industrial area.


The flood has been described to a limited extent in several regional histories. Serfass’s Iron Steps contains the most best description and is reproduced here:


To realize what happened in Tamaqua in 1850, one must first understand that the town had just completed a major project that altered nature -- changing the course of the Little Schuylkill River from its natural path through downtown to a new location about 2 blocks east. The natural riverbed was in the heart of the downtown, about where the railroad tracks divide the town today. The reason for this undertaking is unclear, perhaps the river's natural course interfered with the laying of the railroad tracks. Or maybe the river occupied prime real estate in the burgeoning downtown business area. Whatever the reason, the river's path was intercepted north of town and diverted eastward in a large crescent shape to the southern tip of town, where it was allowed to return to its natural path. (Today, the river still follows this man-made path through town.)


It began as a gentle rain in Tamaqua on Sunday evening, September 1, 1850, and gradually turned into a nonstop downpour, By daylight, the trestles leading into the mines at Newkirk, just beyond the west end of town, became clogged with dirt and debris that built up so high that a massive natural dam formed on the Wabash Creek. After several hours, the dam gave way and water rushed into the valley toward Tamaqua, combining with yet another flood racing down from the north mountains as the swollen Little Schuylkill River, over its banks, roared toward town determined to return to its natural course, its path of least resistance. Two floods converged on Tamaqua in one horrific crash, destroying much of what had been built on the flatlands. For a brief time, the Little Schuylkill River had indeed returned to its natural path, and in doing so, bitterly destroyed almost everything man had erected along the way. The water's depth was beyond imagination.


One of the historical sketches indicates, "The generally accepted theory is that the flood was caused by a great water spout which burst over the valleys. In the gorge on Burning Mountain a tree 60 feet up the side marks the height of the sudden flood-everything on the flats was swept away. Dwellings, foundations and workshops were taken away by the waters. A double frame house in which 22 persons had taken shelter, was torn asunder and all were drowned The Rev. Oberfeld was caught by the water while in the act of rescuing a child and was drowned."


Accounts reveal that 62 people lost their lives during the disaster. The tracks of the Little Schuylkill Railroad were completely obliterated and the town was isolated from the outside world for six days. On September 2 and 3, everybody turned out to retrieve the dead. One procession brought in 11 bodies at one time. Mourners simply wandered the streets in disbelief, as it seemed that death had claimed a life in every home.


Many businesses never reopened and approximately 40 homes were completely swept away by the flood waters.  Bridges and roads ceased to exist. People were rescued from trees. One story even tells of a gallant man galloping his horse by the water's edge trying to save struggling victims, only to be swept away himself by the erratic current.


As for the minister who died rescuing a child, there remains a stark, solemn monument in St. John's Lutheran Cemetery on Patterson Street in Tamaqua. The tallest white, thin grave marker in the cemetery's old section at one time provided an account of the rescue in English on the markers east side and in the German language on the west. Today, the inscription on the English side has surrendered to nature, but on the German side, you still can discern the words of the heroic attempt of "Rev. Peter Z. Oberfelter" (the German spelling), who gave his life to save a drowning child. The tombstone, six feet high, rests high and dry on Dutch Hill, overlooking the valley.


Sadly, the Great Flood of 1850 remains Tamaqua’s most historic single event and most noted tragedy.


One would think that a disaster of this magnitude would have been thoroughly documented by someone living in the area, but no news article has been uncovered. What were the “many businesses that never reopened”? There is no record.


The only contemporary news article that covered the tragedy that has been uncovered was that published in The Miner’s Journal And Pottsville General Advertiser on September 7. The text of section dealing with Tamaqua is as follows:


TAMAQUA. The flood reached this place about 4 o’clock A.M. Part of the town is situated on a flats in the valley of the Little Schuylkill; this was swept clean of every building, and from the suddenness of the waters rise and the hour of the occurrence, the loss of life is very great. The damage to individual property is also greater than at any other place we had heard from; about 50 lives it is supposed were lost. Up to Wednesday evening 36 bodies had been recovered. The following is a list of names of those drowned so far as we have ascertained: Wife of Thomas Foster, two girls and boy; Mrs. Edmunds, one boy, one girl, and two grand-daughters; Mrs. David Jones and child; Mrs. Gresing and child; Mr. Geo. Welsh, one boy and two girls; Mrs. Ytringham, two girls and two boys; Mrs. Heron, and four children; Catherine Williams; Mary. McCartney a young girl from Beaver Meadows; a young girl fourteen years of age, daughter of Daniel Oxrider; Rev. P. Z. Oberfelt, pastor of the German Lutheran congregation; Mary Williams.


Without further information on the specifics of this disastrous event we speculate that it was the Great Flood of 1850 that led to Hopkin’s business failure in Tamaqua.



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Rev. November 2010