FERNDALE: The day the Que didn't break

“The dam broke; where's the corn we had for lunch?”

Editor's note: The following originally was published in the March 2000 edition of The Ferndale Historical Society Chronicle.


My home was at 400 Summit Ave. on top of the hill in Ferndale. At that time, we had a double width set of concrete steps down the embankment leading from the front porch to the sidewalk and street below They have since been removed.
The day following the March 17, 1936, flood, my aunt and uncle from Southmont came to see the damage done by the flood. Mother and my sisters, June and Margie, went down to lower Ferndale with them, but I stayed home alone.
My brothers, Tom and Fred, had gone downtown to Market Street to help clean up Tom's girlfriend's house. Her home was a few doors, away from Joseph Johns Junior High School and was badly damaged, but she had been evacuated safely.
When I heard the fire siren, somehow I knew what it meant. I became concerned and feared I might lose my whole family because they were all in the areas that would be flooded. However, very shortly, my sister June came in and said nonchalantly,. “The dam broke; where's the corn we had for lunch?” as she opened the refrigerator door. Soon mother and the others came in, too, much to my relief.


The flood of 1936 left Station Street in Ferndale in shambles. When the fire sirensounded and word of a dam break reached the suburban Johnstown community, most residents headed up the hillside to what was then called upper Ferndale

Then, as we watched from our front porch, people began streaming up the hill. Some were nearly frantic, but all wanting to get to higher ground. In fact, many were so frightened they went all the way to Franklin Street and even a part of Berkley Road, as it was named then (Goucher Street). People were carrying very strange things - probably thinking to save something as they hurriedly left. One man was clad only in long underwear and had a bird cage in one hand and a Bible in the other.
One very heavy woman was being pushed and pulled up the hill by several young men and she was very near collapse.
They brought her into our house and we thought she had a heart attack. However, after resting and knowing she was safe from the floodwaters, she began feeling better. Mr. Snyder (Edwin, 534 Ferndale Ave.), one of the former high school teachers, and his family were in my mother's bedroom because his daughter Florence was panic stricken and very upset.
Pee Wee Wright and the other fellows who helped the heavy woman up the hill were on the front porch when they saw a man running down the hill headed toward lower Ferndale.
PeeWee recognized him as the husband of the woman they had helped up the hill and was now in our house. They called to him, telling him his wife was here. It turned out that he was working as a lineman in Dale when he got the report that the dam broke. He started running home to help his wife when the fellows saw him - a happy coincidence.
My two brothers who had gone downtown somehow took off in different directions when they heard the report that the dam broke. Fred went up Main Street and Frankstown Road while Tom headed for the Big Road to Westmont. A photographer from Fox Movietone was taking pictures from the back of a pickup truck of the people running toward him up the hill. When we saw those pictures later in a newsreel, there was Tom running so fast he passed the truck with ease.
We had many people take shelter with us, and after some time when their fear of the dam's breaking subsided, they went back to their homes.
We were very lucky in that we had electricity while the house next door and from there down the hill, did not.
I'm not sure when my brothers got home, and I don't remember all the people who stopped with us, but these were my most vivid memories of the day that I'll never forget - “The day the dam didn't break!”

Roselyn Kimmel of Upper Yoder Township is a member of the Ferndale Historical Society.

'Cheezy' was missing, causing double panic

Editor's note: The following originally was published in the March 2000 edition of The Fern-dale Historical Society Chronicle. The Schweitzer house referred to in the piece was at 550 Ferndale Ave. and the Boerstier house was at 549 Vickroy Ave. Both houses backed onto then Peach Alley


One of the things I remember about the “dam burst” scare in 1936 involved “Cheezy” Schweitzer, as we used to call Harold. When the sirens sounded the alarm and the rumor spread that the dam had burst, Dad calmly gathered food, clothes and blankets and then went to the cellar and turned off the gas, water and checked the furnace. We all then calmly went to the garage to get into the car for the ride to what was then called upper Ferndale.
Mrs. Schweitzer couldn't find Harold. She was frantic. She stood in Peach Alley and called and called for him. That's the last I remember of that scene as we drove away. Maybe Cheezy can recall what happened after that, but I suspect that he wasn't even aware of the panic that he had caused his mother that day (Harold said they drove to his Uncle Charlie Pillet's house on Hystone).
Later, when Dad was asked why he didn't panic as others did, he replied, “I knew that the fire company had people watching the dam; and if they reported that it had broken, it would take about a half-hour before it got to Ferndale. That was plenty of time to get up the hill.”
I believe we drove out Vickroy Avenue (maybe it was the alley) to Clay Street and there joined the procession of cars slowly making its way up to Summit Avenue.


The alley behind Ferndale Avenue in the flood's aftermath.

As we went up Clay Street past Slick's lot, where we used to sled ride, I saw a woman running up the muddy hill carrying a baby.
She lost one of her shoes, but in panic, she just kept on running with one shoe on and the other foot bare.
We parked in front of Metzger's house, which I believe was on the first cross street after George Townsend's house.
People were gathered on the porch listening to the radio for news of the dam burst. After a while, Dad walked up to Franklin Street and looked up the valley toward Benscreek to see if the water was coming. He came back and said that no water was coming.
After a considerable time lapse, he was convinced that the dam had not burst and we went back home.
There sitting on his back porch, as he usually did, was Mr. Coffey (U.S. Rep. Robert Coffey's dad). He had not moved at all.
When we asked Mr. Coffey why he hadn't “run for the hills" like everyone else did, he replied, “I'll run when I see the water coming.”
Considering the steep hill up Station Street, he was probably right.

Herbert Boerstler is a member of the Ferndale Historical Society. A retired lawyer, he now resides in Missouri City, Texas.

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