In early 1950, Vincennes residents braced for what was expected to be one of the worst floods in the city’s history. Heavy rain over the Wabash basin and the western White River led to predictions that the Wabash River at Vincennes would reach 28 feet, very close to what the flood wall built in 1932-33 could handle. The minor flood stage was 16 feet.
Parts of the wall were damaged in a massive flood in 1943, when the river rose to 28.99 feet, and were not properly repaired.
On the morning of January 5, the Wabash at Vincennes stood at 19.98 feet. Sandbagging has begun at Kimmell Park, a job done by the Vincennes Street Detachment and Battery C of the 163rd Field Artillery, Indiana National Guard.
On Saturday evening, January 7, the river at Vincennes crested at 25.67 feet. A total of 32,000 sandbags were placed reinforcing weak points in the wall before supplies ran out, and more bags were sent for. That afternoon, about 800 soldiers from the 67th Field Artillery, Third Armored Division, from Fort Knox, Kentucky, arrived to help fight the floods. The men were housed at Clark Junior High, Vincennes Coliseum and Gibault Auditorium. On the same day, the Embarras River dam broke northeast of Lawrenceville, flooding large parts of Lawrence County.
On Sunday afternoon, as was typical during the flood, residents were outside watching the river. Streets were especially blocked at Second and Main streets. That night, the river stood at 26.19 feet, followed by temporary drops as levees gave way upstream.
Both the Red Cross and the Salvation Army participated in supplying the soldiers working at the river wall. The Red Cross alone has already distributed more than 4,000 sandwiches, 140 dozen donuts and about 500 gallons of coffee.
The outlook began to improve in the week of Monday, January 9. The records were up and down, but it was believed that unless there was more rain, the city would be out of danger. On Thursday, January 12, the chief meteorologist of the US Weather Bureau in Indianapolis issued a revised forecast of a 27.5-foot ridge in Vincennes. At noon that day, the reading was 27.13 feet. Troopers, the street department and volunteers continued to place sandbags as the flood wall showed some leakage. By Saturday afternoon, 76,000 sandbags had been placed, far more than were used in the 1943 flood, and the river level was fluctuating.
That all changed on Sunday, January 15, when heavy rains once again flooded the Wabash Valley. That afternoon, some streets in Vincennes were flooded because the sewers were overwhelmed. Forecasts for the crest of the river were changed from 28½ to 29 feet. As of 7 a.m. Monday, the river at Vincennes was at 28 feet. US Army Corps. of Engineers, of Louisville, assisted in the construction of mud pits on top of the flood wall.
As the situation worsened, Mayor Betz requested the release of 75 high school students to help with the sandbags, a quota that was quickly filled. Soldiers, civilians and students (even more were released from class to help) worked feverishly Tuesday in the cold, unpleasant January weather.
Soldiers spent the night building mud boxes. A sandbag wall, described as a “second line of defense”, was also built 45 feet from the flood wall, but at the height of the mud boxes. The flood wall was leaking, with standing water on the city side of the wall, so the purpose of the sandbags was to equalize the pressure and prevent the wall from giving way.
Near Ebner Ice & Cold Storage Co. a sandbag wall was also erected where serious seepage was occurring, and sandbagging was underway south of Main Street to the Clark Memorial as local people anxiously awaited the forecast for another ridge.
To be continued next week.
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.