As mentioned in a previous article, our valley is well blessed with water. We are located between two rivers, the Neversink and Delaware. We also have three reservoirs that are located around the city of Port Jervis. Most of the year these bodies of water are indeed a blessing but sometimes the rivers behave badly, overflowing their banks and causing major flooding. Let’s take a look at why and when that happened.
The first recorded time that I could find, the river flowed over its banks was in 1875. It had been a particularly frigid winter and ice gradually formed on the river. In February of that year, the ice loosened and filled the river channel from Tri-States Rock to Millrift. Attempts to break the ice up failed and on March 16th of that year, there was very heavy rainfall. The rain caused the river to rise and thus the ice piled high enough to sweep away several bridges along its path. The ice-packed river soon spilled over its banks and ran through West End and Riverside. Part of the Germantown School was washed away as was part of the firehouse. The river made a 150-foot-wide path through that part of the village.
Unfortunately, the rivers were not done with their destructive ways. In the early 1900s, the city was thriving with the success of the Erie Railroad but disaster soon struck again. On October 10, 1903, ten inches of rain fell within forty hours and drove the Delaware over its banks. Again the West End and Riverside parts of the city were flooded. Spectators by the hundreds lined the river to watch the raging flood and Matamoras residents hurried across a swaying bridge before it could collapse. Suddenly, the bridge's abutment gave way and the bridge fell into the waters. There were four people on the bridge when it collapsed. One person was able to reach shore successfully but three others perished.
Once again in 1904, the Delaware went on a rampage. A huge ice gorge broke up in the afternoon of March 8th causing the water to flood the Riverside and all the low ground below Pike Street hill.
For a while, all seemed well with the rivers until the year 1955. No one could have imagined the disastrous effect of Hurricane Diane. This would be the greatest single disaster to hit our area to date. On August 18, 1955, the storm hit. It rained here for 48 hours and there was water everywhere. All of the little streams and bogs overflowed and roared toward the rivers. The Delaware and Neversink began to bulge at the seams and soon overflowed their banks. The rain continued and so did the flooding. Soon Port Jervis was an island unto itself. This flood brought destruction up and down the Delaware and Neversink River Valley. Hurricane Diane brought devastation throughout the northeastern part of the US. Roads in our area collapsed, bridges were washed out, power and telephone lines went down. Boats traveled on what was once streets. Most roads were either washed out or flooded. The same was happening on the other side of the rivers in Matamoras. Our area was isolated. The rain eventually stopped and the waters receded but what was left behind was a muddy mess. Homes were covered with mud inside and out. Then a rumor that the dam at Lake Wallenpaupack was giving way and a 30-foot wall of water was headed in our direction. Residents were loading their possessions in their cars and trucks and heading for Point Peter, the highest point they could think of. City officials were able to check on the rumor and fortunately, it was not true.
I personally lived through this storm. In 1955 I was 8 and lived in a home where the Neversink River bordered our property. I remember the rain coming down endlessly and so very hard. I remember sitting in a dark, dark house wondering if the river would reach us. We had lost power and both of my parents were not home. I was with my Grandmother. Mom had gone to work at the Hotel Minisink and Dad was a volunteer fireman, who we would not see for a while. We lived on East Main Street just below the railroad trestle and above the Neversink bridge. It was frightening. Eventually, the rain stopped but the sight of refrigerators, cars, household furniture floating down the river behind the house was unbelievable to me. It took weeks for people to return to their homes, most had suffered great losses.
The rivers were not done with our community yet. In the winter of 1981, there was another devastating flood. Called “ the Ice Gorge Flood “, it may have set a record for the height of the river. This flood, unlike the previous ones, first affected homes in Westfall where it flooded Kokolias Lane. Residents of Westfall and Matamoras were awakened by firemen and told to evacuate. Water rose rapidly, the ice severed a large gas pipe causing the gas main to burst. Phone service was soon lost also. Soon the ice chunks broke free and floated through the streets of Port Jervis in addition to the damage already caused on the Pennsylvania side. “The Acre” was hit hard again and so was the Tri-States and West End area. Ice chunks threatened buildings. The famous Flo-Jean restaurant sustained heavy damage on the river side of the building as the flood washed a truck into the building. Fortunately, the water subsidized quickly, and then it was time to address what had caused the flood. Some saw it as an “Act of God”, others saw it as human error and failure to adopt an early warning system. What happened? Well, the ice was breaking up upriver, which caused large chunks to jam at a curve and shallow section of the Delaware south of Tri-States. This of course caused the same effect as a dam would so the river backed up and flooded. There was much debate as to how to solve the problem of the ice jam and finally, the Army Corp of Engineers became involved. One thing that did come out of this disaster is an early warning system was established and the river is now monitored. If you ever hear the siren blow on the first Friday of every month, that is the warning system being tested.
Residents who have lived here all of their lives have learned to respect the river. We enjoy its benefits but also realize its dangers.
(Information and pictures were gathered from three sources: Port Jervis Diamond Jubilee Booklet, Where The Rivers Meet Booklet, and the Ice Gorge flood supplement to the Pike County Dispatch.)