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The deadly flood of 1938, part 1

One downpour caused havoc in Havre


Last updated 6/19/2013 at 9:51am

Courtesy photo

Workers survey flood damage to railcars beneath the viaduct in Havre.

(This is the first of two stories on the flood of 1938. Thursday's paper will have Part 2, the stories of deaths caused by the disaster.)

June 22, 1938. It was a typical summer day in north-central Montana. As evening approached, this seemingly normal day would take a sudden and tragic turn, resulting in what was then the worst flood in Havre history and what can happen at the hands of Mother Nature without much of a moment’s notice.

In the late afternoon or early evening, a cloud burst let loose in the Bear Paw Mountains and made its way to Havre. It hit Havre at about 6:15 p.m. Within a half hour, 1.20 inches of rain fell, with about 1.75 inches by the end of the hour. Coupled by the accumulation in the Bear Paws coming down Bull Hook Creek, not to mention the hills surrounding Havre, it didn’t take long for businesses and homes to flood. The water did not discriminate.

Homeowners, government buildings and businesses alike suffered flooding. The Hill County Courthouse basement flooded to the window sills. Sheriff Roscoe Timmons waded through the water attempting to save documents. Offices at the time in the basement of the Courthouse were the welfare office and employment services. Across the street at the federal building, now known as the Old Post Office, the entire basement was flooded. Reclamation drafting and seed loan offices along with storage were located in the basement of the Old Post Office at the time. City Hall, then located at the northeast corner of First Street and Fourth Avenue, had three feet of water in its basement, and the fire engine was busy pumping out the water.

Havre Furniture Company, which had already suffered bad news in April of that year due to the Havre Commercial Company burning, was also flooded. They had been planning a formal grand opening, which did happen a few days later, but the flood certainly put a hold on that celebration.

The F. A. Buttrey Company stacked sandbags around the building, thus avoiding a large amount of flooding. Employees of the H. Earl Clack Company worked hard and kept all but six inches of water out of the basement. Nearby, the Montana Power Company and Montana-Dakota Utilities also reported little water, as did Eddy’s Bakery, then located where the Fuglevand Building containing Chris Young Law Office and State Farm Insurance is today. However, Gamble’s, Owl Drug, the college library-then located in the basement of the Presbyterian Church-suffered extensive damage in their basements.

The Havre Daily News basement also flooded, so much so that the newspaper was late getting out. The paper printed an ad apologizing for the delay along with thanking the Havre Fire Department and city engineer for their assistance in pumping the water out of the basement.

The United Shows Carnival, set up east of Havre, suffered tremendous damage to their rides and tents, with all contents being damaged.

The Great Northern Railroad was not spared. Floating cars lodged themselves under the viaduct, and two miles of track were severely damaged near Laredo. In addition, there was ten miles of highway under water between Laredo and Box Elder, as well as a bridge being washed out, making travel south impossible.

Phones went out west of Havre, but with hard work and perseverance, service was restored to most homes in four days.

Motorists who attempted to brave the waters quickly found their vehicles stalled and floating down the streets as a ship would the sea.

Many cars were dragged down the streets by the torrents of water. Advertisements from Runkel Motors and Milk River Motor Company in the following days encouraged drivers not to start their flooded engines for insurance purposes, and 706 Auto Electric announced that “Electric Motors Should Be Thoroughly Baked and Dried Before Using. We Are Equipped With Electric Baking Oven. Phone 706.”

Many homeowners reported flooded basements. Fears of a typhoid outbreak prompted city and county health authorities along with the State Board of Health to issue guidelines on how to clean and disinfect their basements and how to deal with foods that had been flooded. Part of the proclamation read:

“All affected householders are required to strictly observe the following precautions and regulations:

• Destroy all flood-submerged packages or bottled goods. This includes all screw-top type of glass goods and jelly glasses.

• Wash all tinned goods in a disinfectant solution*. Allow five minutes for the solution to act on each can, then dry thoroughly.

• Scrub all walls and floors that have been flooded. Follow this with a scrubbing or spray of disinfectant solution.*

* A serviceable disinfectant solution is prepared as follows: Add three (3) ounces of chlorine product (Viz., Purex, Chlorox, Diversol, B-K, etc.) to each gallon of water.

For those having dirt basements flooded: Wash the walls and floor, apply powdered quicklime and allow it to remain on for several days.

Homes damaged may be inspected to see that the above requirements have been fulfilled. Failure to comply will necessitate abandonment of the house until safely cleansed.”

To make sure all were complying, the City Engineer’s office conducted inspections going door to door checking all basements. It was also strongly recommended that people get vaccinated to ward off any typhoid fever epidemic.

Although there was good reason to fear a typhoid epidemic due to backed up sewers, the city stated that the municipal water supply had not been damaged.

The Red Cross was quick to respond. Gov. Roy Ayers sent a representative from the State Welfare Office to assist. The WPA office in Havre, along with the city crews, started clean up as soon as possible, which not only consisted of the lodged cars but also a lot of tumbleweeds, fencing materials, and other debris. Ayers assigned an extra highway patrolman to assist where necessary.

Courtesy photo

The rides at the United Shows Carnival, set up east of Havre, were devastated by the flood waters.

Help came in other ways. The Minnesota Civic and Commerce Association were visiting and staged a benefit Goodwill Tour for flood victims. They would later have a fundraiser, contributing more to the funds already raised to help in any way they could.

With recovery efforts under way, it rained quite a bit again on July 3, with the banks of Bull Hook again swelling but receding within a few hours. Warnings to parents to keep their children away from Bull Hook were issued.

Those admonishments to keep children away from Bull Hook were not made lightly. For while the damage to homes, government buildings and businesses were great, something more precious was lost during the Flood of 1938 — 75 years ago this year.

(Thursday: Part 2 — The Real Tragedy of the Flood.)


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