Sunday, September 10, 2000

Did your great-grandparents and their children suffer through one of the great floods that ravaged Wyoming Valley over the decades?

Particularly if you are a younger genealogist, or if you have never lived in Wyoming Valley, have you found yourself puzzled sometimes by ancestors' references to evacuations or to homes they lived in ``before the flood''?

Many, many families have passed down stories from the deluges of 1902, 1936 and 1972. These disasters have become folklore throughout the Wilkes-Barre area, as much as the 1906 earthquake was to San Francisco or the 1871 fire was to Chicago.

Fortunately, the area's 20th-century floods have been well documented in pictures and text through the books they spawned. Take a look at these books and examine their photos. It is highly possible that you will find good information about the trials an ancestor suffered - and maybe even a photo of that ancestor's neighborhood inundated by water or lying in ruins.

The century was just two years under way when the spring thaw sent the water in the Susquehanna River to its highest level in 37 years, flooding the streets of Wilkes-Barre and nearby towns. And it wasn't much longer before the Wilkes-Barre Record published ``Wyoming Valley Flood Scenes,'' a hardcover book of photos of that March 1902 event with an introduction by staff member and future editor Eugene T. Giering.

A researcher looking at the grainy, gray pictures will find everything from a mud-encrusted carriage in which a Luzerne man tried desperately to get home, to a block of Wilkes-Barre's South River Street that looks little changed today.

Until the 1972 disaster sparked by tropical storm Agnes, people referred to the flood of 1936 simply as ``the flood.'' This time the March thaw pushed river levels to their highest point ever and brought - believe it or not - a pair of floods that struck the Valley in a quick one-two punch.

Published and edited by Herbert E. Atkins, the sharp, clear photographs of ``The Wyoming Valley Floods of 1936'' cover numerous towns from the first water in the streets through the evacuation of thousands in small boats to the lengthy cleanup efforts.

The text of this spiral-bound book offers a gripping moment-by-moment account of the onset of the flooding and describes the impact on each community. A map at the end shows the extent the water reached in all affected towns.

But it was the record-setting flood of June 1972 sparked by tropical storm Agnes that did the most damage - and produced the most documentation. As much as 20 feet of water was recorded in some streets, and the entire face of the community was changed.

Undeterred by danger, professional and amateur photographers sailed right out on the water as it was still rising, taking thousands of pictures (most of them black-and-white). Some went up in planes and produced spectacular aerial views. Hardly a neighborhood was left unphotographed.

Their work produced a slew of books. Among them are:

``The Great Flood of 1972,'' by Paul W. Warnagiris and John J. Rygiel. It offers many good photos, with a history of flooding in the area back to the 18th century, very good for researchers into earlier periods.

``The Wrath of Agnes,'' by Carl J. Romanelli and William M. Griffith. This paperbound book offers plenty of text and is subdivided by towns and themes, such as post-flood cleanup. It is full of stark, haunting images, such as those of the ravaged Forty Fort Cemetery.

``Trouble with Agnes,'' by David Krantz. Produced in full color, it also captures the ``yellow fog'' phenomenon that dominated the area when the flood mud dried and turned into choking dust.

``A Portrait of Agnes,'' by James Kozemchak and Jane C. Bolger. This smaller, paperbound book, is subdivided by town and location. It offers a good quick read.

The 1972 flood is far from forgotten. Times Leader published Agnes anniversary books of text and photos in 1982 and again in 1992. A color map showing how far the water reached was sold in bookstores through the 1980s.

Where do you find the flood books? Local libraries throughout Wyoming Valley are good bets these days, as is the Luzerne County Historical Society. The attics of friends and relatives will likely hold some as well.

It doesn't matter if you are a younger or older genealogist or if you live in the community or do your genealogy from afar. At some point you will encounter references to the great floods, and you will profit from having done your history homework.

Searching: Anyone with information about Joseph Engel, a local young man killed by a train - probably in the mid-1940s - is asked to contact this column. Addresses are below.

Local History Moment: Ever wonder what kind of salaries people earned in past times? Here are some from 1960, just 40 years ago. Mayor of Wilkes-Barre, $7,000; average factory worker in Northeastern Pennsylvania, $91 a week; U.S. senator, $20,000; lowest-paid teacher in Wilkes-Barre schools, $3,400; federal minimum wage, $1 an hour.

News Notes: I will offer my ``Getting Started in Genealogy'' program at Boscov's Department Store in Wilkes-Barre next month. The free session is set for 1 to 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 1. It will be repeated at the same time on Oct. 15. The sessions are held in the fourth-floor auditorium.

A registration coupon ran in the Times Leader on Wednesday. If you missed it, call the store at (570) 823-4141. I will give a brief introductory talk on basic procedures, offer some handouts and then open up the session to questions. Bring a notepad and be ready to join in a round-table discussion with your fellow genealogists.

The Northeast Pennsylvania Genealogical Society will hold its first meeting of the season at 7 p.m. on Sept. 26 in the meeting room of the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Plains Township, near Wyoming Valley Mall. The speaker will be Jeff Frank, librarian of the Luzerne County Historical Society. You don't have to be a member to attend. Stop by and meet some local genealogists who will be happy to help you with your questions.

Want to see something of how people lived a century and more ago? You'll enjoy the Swetland Homestead Harvest Festival, set for Saturday and Sunday at the home - owned by the Luzerne County Historical Society - at 885 Wyoming Ave., Wyoming. It features period craft demonstrations, a Civil War encampment and musical entertainment.

Have you solved some tough genealogical problems in your research? Do you have some tips you'd like to share with others? Would you like to report a success story? Drop me a line here at the paper. I'll get in touch with you and help you bring the benefits of your experience to others.

Tom Mooney, The Times Leader, 15 N. Main St., Wilkes-Barre, Pa. 18711. Email is tmooney@leader.net