Late Wednesday afternoon, September 28, 1870, rain began to fall in the Shenandoah Valley. This marked the end of a season of drought. The fertile pastures and fields of the Valley had baked in the sun with little or no rain. No doubt, many fields were dusty, cracked surfaces that had produced little or nothing during the growing season.
All Wednesday night and Thursday, the rain fell at an alarming rate. The Shenandoah River had been far below its normal level, but the rains caused it to rise steadily throughout these two days. On Thursday afternoon the river began running out of its banks. Nevertheless, very few of the residents of the low-lying areas were in fear, as they had long-since grown accustomed to the river's rise and fall.
After nightfall, however, the river had risen so far that it became a raging torrent and continued to rise at the rate of two feet per hour. Occupants quickly deserted their homes without thought of saving anything of material value as the water rushed forth. Some sought temporary security on their upper floors, only to see the water rise to that level. This necessitated daring attempts at rescues and in some cases, death by drowning in the boiling river. Others gathered on hills as the rising water prevented them from getting to their houses.
At dawn on Friday, September 30, the eyes of the refugees fell upon a scene of devastation from the roaring flood. During the night, many of their houses had been swept away by the great tidal wave that had previously been the Shenandoah River. Many cries of anguish and despair were heard that Friday morning.
The rain continued to fall.
By five p.m. that same day, the previous forty-eight hours had seen slightly more than eight inches of rain fall in the Shenandoah Valley. The river was thirty feet above its normal level. In places it was a half-mile in width. Huge trees, mills, houses, bridges and every type of debris imaginable had been swept down the river's expanded course.
By the evening of Saturday, October 1, the river had fallen some twenty feet, but the scene was one of utter destruction. The storm had extended the entire length of the Shenandoah Valley, as did the devastation. Not one single bridge was standing over the entire length of the river. Only two mills were not swept away.
At Shenandoah Iron Works, houses, store, mill, furnace and stables were gone. Much of the Iron Works property was washed ashore several miles downstream, including the secretary's desk and many of the company's books and papers. The destruction of the Iron Works was a great economic loss to the surrounding area. Many of the residents had been employed there.
In the village of Slabtown, further downstream, only one house remained standing, but even that had been completely turned around on its foundation. At Newport, Foltz' Mill along with two thousand bushels of grain, had been swept away by the violent storm. Due to the speed of the rising waters, many people escaped with only the clothes on their back, leaving them essentially destitute.
The bridge at Massanutten was carried away. Railroad bridges at Front Royal and Strasburg were destroyed. Bridges on the Valley Turnpike at Mt. Jackson, Manor, New Market Depot, Mt. Crawford, Bridgewater, Mt. Sidney and White House were destroyed. Residents were cut off from the outside world as completely as they had been during the Civil War.
Estimates of the damage, from the New Market publication Shenandoah Valley of October 6, 1870, were that losses may have been as high as $5 million. This same publication listed fifty known deaths resulting from the flood, including 43 people at Harper's Ferry at the confluence of the Shenandoah and the Potomac Rivers.
In the aftermath of the flood, the river bottomland had been turned into a landscape of drifts of sand cut into banks of varying depths and widths by the raging river. It was stated that in the forty-eight hours of the flood, the destruction was equal to that in one year of "ordinary war".
One hundred twenty-eight years later, the flood of 1870 remains one of the worst tragedies in the written history of the Shenandoah Valley.
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