by Erin Doane, Curator
What would you do if you saw flood waters rapidly
rising in the street in front of your downtown business? Would you barricade
the door and hope it was enough to keep the deluge out? Would you rush to carry
as many things as possible to higher ground? Or would you organize a flotilla
of boats to keep patrons coming and going even as the water washed into the
building? The last one is what Jerry Collins, owner of Jerry’s Sideboard on
Water Street in Elmira, did on March 1, 1902.
|Men in boats in front of Elmira Saddlery Co. and Jerry’s Sideboard, East Water Street, March 1, 1902
The great flood of 1902 began innocuously enough on the evening of February 27 when it began raining. The steady rainfall continued overnight and through the next day. In addition to the rain, temperatures were getting warmer and melting the large buildup of snow and ice left by a cold, stormy winter. By the afternoon of February 28, the Hoffman Creek had overflowed its banks and the newspaper was warning that more flooding was likely.
|100 block, East Water Street, Flood of 1902
At 8 0’clock the next morning, water started flowing into the basements of buildings on the north side of Water Street. Just a few hours later, the street was covered in nearly a foot of water. The flood waters continued to rise at nearly two feet an hour until the river finally crested at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. The southside of the city was entirely flooded, as was everything on the northside east of Madison Avenue. Hundreds of homes and businesses were under water. The city’s gas mains were shut off, electric plants had failed, and trolley and train service was suspended. Household furniture, clothing, dead chickens, and live rats clinging to cakes of ice flowed down the river.
|Elmira Gazette and Free Press headlines, March 1, 1902
One would think that at this point in the middle of catastrophic flooding, all businesses would be shut down, but that was not the case on the afternoon of March 1. While it was true that very few merchants were up and running in the flood zone, boot and shoe stores and hardware stores, in particular, were open and doing brisk business. From as early as 9 o’clock that morning, pedestrians filled any downtown street that remained dry and boats carried people over submerged streets even though members of the police and fire departments had stretched safety lines to keep people out of the flooded areas. Downtown Elmira was said to have resembled a circus day or a gala holiday with so many people out and about. Camera fiends were out in force as well taking hundreds of photographs (of which CCHS has a few dozen).
|East Water Street, Elmira, March 1, 1902
Jerry Collins saw the sudden influx of people during the flood as a business opportunity. He established a ferry line to bring patrons to his bar, Jerry’s Sideboard, at 204 East Water Street. There were several inches of water covering the bar’s floor, but that didn’t seem to bother those seeking refreshment. Collins, the “Adonis” of local bartenders, had worked at the Hotel Rathbun for years and had just opened his own bar in 1901. His popularity as a bartender may have been why people decided to continue patronizing his establishment despite the natural disaster taking place all around them.
|Jerry Collins (circled) with a group of men in front of his bar, March 1, 1902
It does seem like bars and taverns in general were particularly popular gathering spots on March 1 and 2. The Elmira police reported receiving 28 calls on those days during the height of the flooding and its immediate aftermath. Some of the calls were seeking relief for flood sufferers, but the majority were reports of intoxicated people who needed to be taken home or to police headquarters.
|Men with high boots having great sport in the water during the flood of 1902
While the flood of 1902 was a major disaster that destroyed countless homes and businesses, it did not take any lives. Everyone directly involved in the flooding survived to recover and rebuild, including Jerry Collins. He continued to run his bar for another year before moving out of the area in 1903.