On Sunday, January 15, 1950, the Wabash River flood that had dominated life in Vincennes since the beginning of the year reached a critical stage. Early forecasts called for a 28-foot ridge at Vincennes. These forecasts were then revised downwards when levees breached upstream. Heavy rains over the Wabash Valley sent water levels higher again that Sunday, creating a desperate situation.
Members of the National Guard, the Vincennes Street Department, ordinary citizens and Vincennes High School boys sandbagged. Soldiers from Fort Knox, Kentucky, were building mud boxes atop a flood wall expected to withstand a 28-foot crest. If the wall did not hold, large parts of the city would be flooded.
On Tuesday, Jan. 17, Vincennes Mayor William Betz asked for 1,000 volunteers to help with sandbagging and received an overwhelming response. Businesses and factories offered to help by sending workers. The Pomeroy Manufacturing Company, Hamilton Glass, and the Blackford Window Glass Company were among the many factories that sent workers. The women also did their part. It turned out that girls from the Indiana Bell Telephone Company were holding the sandbags as they were filled. About 2,000 volunteers answered the call that day. Indiana Governor Henry Schricker was in town that afternoon. Schricker looked around the waterfront and shook hands with the workers.
The next day, Governor Schricker ordered the Jasper National Guard unit to Vincennes to help fight the flood. Over a hundred men arrived that night. That day, forecasters also predicted the river crest would be slightly above 29 feet. The mud boxes on the flood wall were raised a foot and then enlarged another six inches. A secondary wall of sandbags reached a length of 600 feet and was built where the wall was less massive.
In total, about 350,000 sandbags were used to hold back the river.
At the same time, the river level fluctuated again due to the breach of the dikes on the Illinois side.
The crest at Vincennes finally came at 7 a.m. on Wednesday, January 18, when the river reached 28.60 feet. The wall held and in the coming hours the river began to drop rapidly. As of noon Thursday, it was 26.98 feet. The National Guard was in command that afternoon, and 950 troops from Fort Knox left the city on Friday.
There was no further forecast for rain and the Wabash continued to fall. It was 26.43 feet at 1 p.m. Friday.
The situation in Illinois was very different, major floods caused untold damage. Businesses across the Lincoln Memorial Bridge were under water. City of St. Francisville was completely cut off, as were other communities in Illinois.
While the 1950 flood was terrible, the Wabash at Vincennes reached a slightly higher level during the 1943 flood, though only by a few inches. A crest of 28.99 feet was reached on May 23 that year.
Brian Spangle can be reached at [email protected] His most recent book, “The Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published in 2020 by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.