How our houseboat endured the St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936

Published online: Mar 17, 2010 News Naomi J. Crain - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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Each year on March 17, I remember my mother's birthday and think of her at 25, left alone on a houseboat with three small children in the St. Patrick's Day flood of 1936.

It was the middle of the Great Depression. My parents, Wyckoff and Naomi Crain, my brothers, Frank and Graydon, and I lived on a houseboat on the Allegheny River at Aspinwall, upstream from the old Highland Park Bridge and Wicket Dam.

Dad, known on the river as Spike, worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. His job kept him away for days at a time, checking the navigational lights on the rivers. Ambitious and hard-working, he had also started a river contracting and towing business. It became, in time, a huge concern called Crain Bros. Inc.

Mom and Dad, 18 and 19 years of age, had met on the steamboat "Crucible," he working as a deckhand and she as a chambermaid. They fell in love and began their marriage living on Dad's 20-foot workboat, the "Sturdy M," as part of the wide flotilla of houseboats that were moored on the Allegheny River beginning above the Ninth Street Bridge and continuing on down onto the Ohio River.

During the winter of 1936, large quantities of snow had fallen. The relentless cold had formed ice in the streams and rivers some 20 inches thick. In the early weeks of March, warm weather and light rain caused rapid melting, sending huge ice cakes down the river. Ice gorges formed at various points upstream, creating dams and forcing the water to back up behind them. All tributaries were at record high levels. River commerce had stilled, and men worked around the clock securing boats and equipment against the threat of flood.

When Dad was called in to work, he and Mom assumed we would be safe on the boat. What better place to be in a flood? They were used to high water and flooding, but they had no way of knowing that this would be the worst flood in Pittsburgh history.

In the pouring rain on the morning of Tuesday, March 17, Dad attached long lines to the houseboat, dragged them up over the bank and tied them to the towering Carolina Poplar trees that paralleled the river. The houseboat would go up with the flood and down when the water receded.

Confident that his knots would hold, he drove off to do his job. It rained hard for 24 hours.

That evening and through the night, the river rose a foot an hour.

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