Before the completion of the Great Sacandaga Lake in the Adirondacks in 1930, the Hudson River was much more susceptible to flooding cities and towns along its banks. However, there are two natural events that flood control cannot prevent. One is a deluge of rain in the Catskills which occurred in 2011 with Hurricane Irene. That storm dumped torrents of water into the Schoharie Creek which eventually ended up in the Mohawk and Hudson rivers. The second is an ice jam which occurs naturally when the ice breaks up and tries to leave the river. This phenomenon is particularly dangerous for low lying areas in the river towns of Athens and Coxsackie.
Ice jams have happened several times over the years and one of the most memorable happened on March 13, 1896, almost 123 years ago. To recall that event I am turning to a book titled “Ye Olden Time” compiled from articles written by Robert Henry Van Bergen for the “Coxsackie News.”
Chapter 21 begins as follows: “February 17th was one of the coldest mornings on record and the ice in the river was made heavy. A cold week followed, then came the remarkable soft day of February 24th that caused quick suspension of the ice harvest. It immediately set in cold again and the great body of ice was solidly cemented until the rain set in last Friday night.
It continued to fall heavily until near Sunday morning, all the water running off the surface of the frozen ground as off a duck’s back. The result could be naturally expected. Quiet streams became raging torrents, emptying their volumes into the Hudson until it was full and overflowing, and the ice loosened from the flats and shores. Saturday night’s tide was high, Sunday morning’s higher, and when the hour for high tide came on Sunday night about 6 o’clock, all former records were broken by about six inches.”
The account continues as follows: “The immense body of ice (flowing down stream in the Hudson) ran against a snag of some kind near 4-Mile-Point light house and formed a gorge so high and deep as to completely dam the water in the river, and as a natural result the torrent running seaward met with a rebuff which it could not overcome and set back into the town. That gorge was simply immense, and in a few hours extended from the light house to Fitch’s dock (the Fitch estate was just south of the village).”
At this point the lower portion of the village was impassable on foot and only accessible by boat. Every cellar and basement was full to the floors, and some floors were covered.
The account from “Ye Olden Time” goes on to say: “One of the most deplorable results of the high water was seen on the islands above (just north of the village). When the ice started Sunday afternoon it struck the National or Burns ice house, tearing off the elevator fronts, aprons, etc. The barn was shoved off of its foundation and turned over. Five horses and a cow drowned.”
Following is an account of the devastation at Coxsackie Island where the Ridgewood Ice House stood: “The ice picked up the big boarding house, about 50X100, and moved it over 200 feet and jammed it against the ice house, a total wreck. The porch was knocked off the dwelling house occupied by Charles Morris, wife, 17-year-old daughter and child 4 years old…The house is completely wrecked and all the elevators and aprons are gone from the ice house.”
There was a bit of humor in all the mayhem. The paper reported the following about the scene at the National Bank of Coxsackie on Reed Street: “There we found the cashier, teller and bookkeeper at their posts of duty standing in seven inches of water waiting on customers, who sailed up to the teller’s desk in row boats. The only business transacted was looking after discounted paper, and paying checks as might be presented at the counter.”
More about the great flood next week.
Reach columnist David Dorpfeld at email@example.com or visit him on Facebook at “Greene County Historian.”