On June 11, the 2010 Ypsilanti Crossroads Summer Festival featured a rousing opening set from roots and blue grass band Dragon Wagon.
Dragon Wagon was joined on...read more
From his wagon seat, Bracy looked over his horse team’s backs at the Huron River, lumpy with piano-sized slabs of ice.
It foamed over the bridge to Lowell, the little settlement in southwest Superior Township.
He had to get his wagon-load of groceries delivered to the Lowell paper mill workers. Bracy’s boss, Alpheus McPherson, ran one of the five little groceries competing in Depot Town and needed the payment. The water didn’t look too deep. If he took the horses slow he should make it.
Bracy started over.
He heard ice clunk against the wagon wheels as they entered the water. The horses were nervous. Halfway across, one horse slipped slightly. It whinneyed as the wagon veered off the water-covered road.
The horses plunged into the water, pulling the wagon along. Kegs and crates slid and banged in the wagon bed. Bracy gripped the seat with one hand and the reins with the other.
The wagon was being pushed downstream by the floodwaters. The horses swam frantically. If they went over the Peninsular Dam, it would be all over. But it looked as if they wouldn’t get that far.
Meanwhile, downstream on Frog Island, four men surveyed the flooded lumber yard there.
The heaving millrace, where the east side of the running track is today, had already dislodged and swept downstream hundreds of logs stored on the riverbank.
The men heard a groaning crack of splitting wood. The men turned to see the millrace bridge they’d just crossed tearing in half in the thundering current.
They were trapped.
A rope was thrown from the bank and men on each side of the surging millrace held it tight. Another man in a boat pulled hand-over-hand to reach the stranded men, ferrying them over one by one. Now there was only one man left on Frog Island.
But there was no one else to hold the rope for him.
The man wrapped the rope around his wrists and dove into the water as with a splash upstream, two of the logs piled on the eroded bank slid into the millrace. They were heading straight for him.
Ypsilanti has seen many deadly floods throughout the years.
On March 15, 1982, two canoeists capsized in fast currents and were marooned on the tiny island just south of the Tridge. Emergency crews had to throw them a rope from Cross Street Bridge. Teenagers Jeff Manlay, Jesse Bustillos and Jeff Trexler all survived.
The canoe was lost.
On June 24, 1968, a flood blew out the Dixboro dam, sending a massive wave downstream that drained the big ponds in Gallup Park.
“Geddes pond west of Dixboro Road doesn’t exist,” said the June 25 Ypsilanti Press. “[I]n its place is a debris-littered, clay river flat.”
On March 14, 1918, a flood collapsed the center of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, pinching several parked cars in jagged concrete jaws.
But the March 23, 1904 flood was among the worst.
“With a report like the muffled roar of a cannon and which was heard a long distance the old mill of the Peninsular Paper Company on the east side of the river went out last evening about 7 o’clock,” reported the March 23, 1904 Ypsilanti Daily Press, “and in a jiffy there was little left to mark the place where it had been for so many years. This was really the first thing that made the people realize the fearful force of the raging waters in the Huron River and those who had buildings along its banks hastened to the scene.” Peninsular paper mill manager Daniel Quirk Jr. worked all night, said the paper, to surround the mill with berms hastily made of piled ashes.
“As soon as it was light this morning many anxious citizens hastened to the river banks,” reported the Press, “expecting to find the water filled with wreckage and all dams and bridges swept away by the raging flood. The river last evening looked menacing indeed, and all night long terrific crashes kept the people in the neighborhood awake with ominous forebodings of destruction.”
Huge floes of ice had slammed against and wrecked Forest Street Bridge. The gas main attached to the bridge was torn. Homes in the East Side of the city were without power.
The foolhardy venturing onto the damaged Forest Avenue bridge could feel it wobble under their footsteps, said the paper. Soon guards were posted to keep people off.
Water had risen through the basement of the nearby underwear factory at the southwest corner of Forest Avenue and the river, but the brick building held firm. Materials piled in the basement became a wet, sodden mass.
The Michigan Avenue bridge had suffered. The damage wouldn’t be seen until days later, when hand-sized cracks appeared.
“Road commissioner Bill Lewis is working like a Trojan to save [the bridge] and believes he can do it,” said the March 31 Press.
After hasty repairs, teams were not allowed to drive over the bridge any faster than a walk.
Repairs to the bridges would drag on for years.
Meanwhile, the two men caught in the flood and described in the March 23, 1904 Press, had more immediate problems.
The wagon driver in the river felt his wagon snag on something—a submerged fence.
The wagon stopped, the water foaming against its upstream side. To save the horses, Bracy hung onto the harness and entered the water downstream of the horses. In the ice-filled water he unhitched them and led them onto the bank.
Someone had seen his plight and had come down with a boat. Together, they managed to load the groceries into the boat and bring them to shore. Some time later, the wagon was extricated.
Alpheus would get his grocery money.
At Frog Island, the men on shore swore and hauled on the man in the river, who was visible only as a white spray where the water crested against his head. The two logs in the river sailed towards him.
One last haul—the men pulled him out of the logs’ path by inches.
The man they saved was 61-year-old lumber company president Henry Scovill.
Scovill lived. He continued to work until age 86, says his obituary, when an auto ran into his horse and wagon as he was leaving his lumber yard.
The big floods in ’04, ’18, ’68, and ’82 were, on average, 26 years apart.
It’s been 28 years since the flood of ’82.
One hopes that when the next big flood comes, Ypsilantians will escape without injury, as they did in 1904.
Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives,” available in Ann Arbor at Nicola’s Books and in Ypsilanti at Cross Street Books, the Rocket, and Mix boutique. Bien will be giving a book signing at Mix, 128 Michigan Ave. in Ypsilanti, on March 27 from 2-4 p.m.; and talks and signings at Nicola’s in Ann Arbor’s Westgate Shopping Center on April 20 at 7 p.m. and at the Ypsilanti Archives, 220 N. Huron St., on April 24 from 1-3 p.m.