Great Flood of 1912 Took Its Toll on Holiday’s Cove

Editor’s note: The following article appeared in the Sept. 1, 1992, edition of the Weirton Daily Times. It is being reprinted to mark the centennial of the Harmon Creek Flood of 1912. Mary Campbell Bowman, a flood survivor, died in 1995 at age 91. John Davis, a Weirton native, resides today in Wellsburg with his wife, Lynn. He is executive vice president and general counsel at West Liberty University.

In the late evening of Sept. 1, 1912, a torrential rainstorm struck the Holliday’s Cove (today, part of Weirton) region causing Harmon Creek to overflow its banks and wreak death and destruction throughout the Cove and Colliers.

Mary Campbell Bowman, a Weirton resident born in 1904, survived the flood and recalled it vividly. Bowman, whose great, great, great-grandfather James Campbell came to this valley in 1772, shared her story in 1992 with local historian John Davis. The following account includes background material Davis unearthed in archival records of the disaster.

On Sunday, Sept. 1, 1912, Robert Elmer Campbell, his wife Bessie, and their children Kenneth and Mary attended evening worship services at Cove Presbyterian Church. The Campbells lived in a house at the present site of Millsop Community Center. Another son, Robert, was visiting his grandparents at the Campbell homestead near the top of Greenbrier Road.

The family passed the remainder of the evening sitting on their porch while the skies were ablaze with the reds and oranges of a brilliant summer sunset.

Just before nightfall, towering clouds began tumbling into the valley from the east. As darkness fell, bolts of lightning were seen up the Cove in the direction of Colliers.

Around midnight, the clouds opened, and a violent, driving rainstorm began. The force of the rainfall was such that it literally beat people to the ground. In Burgettstown, Pa., basements were quickly flooded. At Colliers, Harmon Creek flood waters reached to the second story of some homes, and 15 houses were swept away by the current.

Lightning flashes revealed the devastation. As residents scrambled to higher ground, they caught glimpses of their homes and belongings swirling downstream. In no time at all, the creek ran 30 feet deep. By 1:30 a.m., Harmon Creek overflowed its banks and crested at 40 feet.

In Holliday’s Cove, the raging flood waters swept into the residences of William Fleming, Henry Campbell and Harry Bilderback. (Readers may recall that, until January 1992, a white, saltbox-style house stood near the Cove Road/Weir Avenue intersection. That was the Bilderback house.) William Moulds’ meat market, William W. Smith’s bake shop and Virgil Jackson’s garage also were inundated by water.

At the William G. Knox house near the present site of the Salvation Army building, Mrs. Knox and her two children were trapped. They stood at an upstairs window and called for help. Charles Ferguson, a local plasterer, rescued them. He secured a rope to an embankment, waded and swam to the Knox house with the other end of the rope, and tied it to a gas pipe near the window.

Just moments after the family and Ferguson pulled themselves along the rope to safety, the house collapsed and was carried away in a rush of water.

In the lower Cove, most folks were still fast asleep. Harry Smith hurried across Main Street to awaken the Campbells. Outside a shuttered bedroom window, Mr. Smith picked up a tub and began pounding on it furiously. The din alarmed Mr. and Mrs. Campbell, and the family escaped – drenched, but safe – to the Smith home. There, little Mary, her brother Kenneth, and their parents spent a sleepless night in the company of other worried neighbors.

The following morning, area residents surveyed the damage around them. Sixteen lives had been lost, including 10 in Colliers. Cove resident Mrs. Clyde Warwick and her 2-year-old daughter were drowned. Their bodies were recovered from the Ohio River near New Martinsville on Wednesday afternoon.

When the cloudburst struck, an unidentified Colliers citizen telephoned Holliday’s Cove to warn residents there of the approaching flood. Otherwise, the death toll in the Cove would have been greater.

Mary and Kenneth Campbell hiked out Cove Road with their father in the morning after the storm. Everywhere they saw houses crushed into splinters. They saw a pig swimming in the swollen creek.

At the home of Ida and C.T. Hoover, Mary’s aunt and uncle, they found Aunt Ida dressed in her finest ensemble and toting a silk umbrella. Flood waters had overwhelmed the Hoover house and had crept up the stairway to within three steps of the second floor landing. Nevertheless, Aunt Ida had confronted the tragedy with her dignity intact. Mary’s brother Robert returned from the Campbell homestead later that day. Naturally, the 10-year-old was very disappointed to have missed all the commotion.

This was the region’s worst natural disaster since the May 31, 1889, Johnstown flood. Fourteen miles of Pan Handle Railroad track were washed away, and three railroad bridges were swept from their foundations. Concrete and stone bridge abutments likewise were displaced by the wall of water.

Throughout the region, rail service was disrupted. In Steubenville alone, 200 travelers (including members of several big league baseball teams) were stranded. Passenger rail service would not be restored until Thursday afternoon.

The new Phillips Steel and Tin Plate Company (later, Weirton Steel Company) tin mill was shut down because of water in the fly wheel pits. At Woodland (today, Aliquippa), Pa., lightning struck the Jones & Laughlin Steel power plant leaving the entire mill without lights. A man there was drowned.

In the days and weeks following the flood, debris and personal belongings choked the creek and nearby river. At Warwood, a piano and a pig were found bobbing in the river. A wooden trunk was recovered also and pried open. Inside it was $1,000, later claimed by immigrants who presented a key to the lock.

Local gas service was turned off. For a while, women prepared meals over open fires in backyards. Oil lamps were again in vogue.

The Weirton Area Museum and Cultural Center (www.weirtonmuseum. com) will present a program at 6 p.m. on Sept. 18 about the Flood of 1912 and other aspects of the history of Holliday’s Cove. The museum is located at 3149 Main St., Weirton.