Story By David J. Morrison and Jeb Stuart
One of the most historic and dramatic episodes of the 20th century in Harrisburg was the Tropical Storm Agnes Flood of June 1972. While the flood’s high-water mark was unquestionably historic and dramatic, it is the history of the flood’s aftermath – an era of steady recovery and revitalization – that warrants a long look back fifty years hence.
In late June of 1972, Agnes followed a path directly up the Susquehanna River valley, causing the river cities of Harrisburg and Wilkes-Barre to endure the most extensive flood-related destruction, although damage across Pennsylvania, as well as New Jersey and New York, was significant.
Agnes was the costliest hurricane to hit the United States at the time, causing an estimated $2.1 billion in damage. The hurricane’s death toll was 128. The effects of Agnes were widespread, from the Caribbean to Canada, with much of the east coast of the United States affected. Pennsylvania endured the heaviest overall damage.
The storm, which traveled up the east coast from the Gulf of Mexico, unusually and unfortunately stalled directly over the Susquehanna, dropping more than a foot of rain over a several-day period. This brought the river’s depth at Harrisburg to 33.27 feet on June 24, a high-water mark that stands as the most significant rise of the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg since records of the river levels have been kept.
Flood waters on the Schuylkill, Brandywine, Lackawanna, and Allegheny Rivers as well caused extensive damage, in Reading, Chadds Ford, Scranton and Western Pennsylvania respectively. Across Pennsylvania, more than 68,000 homes and 3,000 businesses were destroyed. Due to the destroyed houses, at least 220,000 people were left homeless. The damage and death toll in Pennsylvania were higher than in any other state, with 50 fatalities and $2.3 billion in losses in the Keystone State alone.
Due to the significant and widespread effects, the name Agnes was retired by the National Hurricane Center in the spring of 1973, to never again be used for another Atlantic hurricane.
In Harrisburg, whole neighborhoods were inundated, from Shipoke to Uptown. Flood waters in the four-year-old Governor’s Residence (completed in 1968) were several feet deep on the ground floor, and an entire block of row homes in the next block of Second Street was destroyed by fire because firetrucks could not reach the neighborhood.
As the summer unfolded, the soggy contents of flooded homes were heaped on sidewalks. A reassuring sight was the spontaneous appearance of groups of Amish women who arrived with mops and pails to help clean up the muck. The City began identifying buildings too damaged to save, and demolition commenced. The task of “urban renewal” would be vast.
But it was the demolition of rows of homes particularly in the hard-hit Shipoke neighborhood that prompted the rethinking of what urban renewal should represent. Longtime residents did not want to lose their homes, and new “urban homesteaders” saw opportunity in flood-damaged houses that could be purchased for a few hundred dollars. This triggered a policy shift away from traditional urban renewal wherein entire blocks were razed in favor of a more sensitive and creative approach to community conservation and historic preservation, largely driven by grassroots activism.
As flood insurance was nonexistent at that time, recovery was advanced through efforts of the Small Business Administration to help homeowners recover losses to their properties. Federal flood recovery “urban renewal” districts were created; namely the Cameron-South Harrisburg Urban Renewal District in Shipoke and along the Cameron Street corridor and the Penn-Susquehanna Urban Renewal District in the city’s Midtown and Uptown areas.
The complete about-face in Harrisburg’s approach to urban renewal can be seen most markedly in the Shipoke and Midtown neighborhoods. Rather than wholesale demolition, the City’s work focused on upgrading streets, sidewalks, and related public infrastructure, while simultaneously facilitating and encouraging the preservation of existing neighborhoods and homes. Much of this was due to growing grassroots “back to the city” activism that quickly filled the void in civic thinking.
This newly awakened public spirit in the flood’s aftermath sparked the founding of the Historic Harrisburg Association in February 1973 by Shipoke and Midtown residents and others who quickly saw the benefit of organizing and speaking with one voice. Historic Harrisburg’s first Candlelight House Tour was presented in December 1973 both to showcase the benefits and attractions of historic city living and to raise funds, dual purposes that have continued in the 49 years since.
This led to initiatives from city government in 1973 to establish the first municipal historic districts followed by the overlay of National Register Historic Districts in 1974 and 1975. Shipoke became a focus of this renewal particularly as seen through the development of new townhouse construction interspersed with historically preserved housing stock.
Meanwhile, and shortly after the flood, the losses of significant downtown landmarks such as the Penn-Harris Hotel in 1973 and the majestic State Theater in 1974 helped to lead to the efforts of the Greater Harrisburg Movement to establish the Harristown Development Corporation that set forth a plan to redevelop the Central Business District.
The steady application of these early community development tools resulted in Harrisburg being recognized as a leader in historic preservation and urban revitalization, while making the city a residential and business location of choice, all owing to the foresight of community leaders awakened by the “watershed” impact of the flood waters of Agnes.
This month, the 50th Anniversary of the 1972 Agnes Flood is being commemorated as a “Celebration of Resolve” by focusing on the half century of historic preservation and urban revitalization that followed the flood rather than on the dramatic and destructive episode itself. Activities include:
• On Saturday, June 11, a new outdoor history marker commemorating this “Celebration of Resolve” will be unveiled in Riverfront Park in Shipoke in a 1 PM free public ceremony, with attendees encouraged to bring picnic lunches. The marker is jointly sponsored by Historic Harrisburg, the Shipoke Neighborhood Association, and the Midtown Action Council.
• On Sunday, June 12, from 1 to 5 PM, Historic Harrisburg will present its “Secret Gardens of Historic Harrisburg” garden tour featuring some 20 gardens in the Midtown and Shipoke neighborhoods.
• On Friday, June 17 (3rd in the Burg) the three organizations will host a public reception and exhibit “A Celebration of Resolve: 50 Years After Agnes” from 5 to 8 PM at the Historic Harrisburg Resource Center, 1230 N. Third Street.
• On Monday, June 17, a free illustrated lecture, “A Celebration of Resolve: 50 Years After Agnes” will be presented at the Historic Harrisburg Resource Center at 6 PM.
Information about all these activities may be found at www.historicharrisburg.org/events, or by calling Historic Harrisburg at 717.233.4646.
David Morrison and Jeb Stuart have a long record of collaborating on a wide array of local history programs, lectures, writings, exhibits and tours, mostly under the aegis of the Historic Harrisburg Association which has been “promoting historic preservation, urban revitalization, and smart growth since 1973.”