From trying to remember my grandmother’s story and researching about a historical event which took place in 1911, I’ve attempted to piece together the story of my grandmother’s birth. At best, this would be a piece of historical fiction based on a true story and not a true biography because I am not 100% sure of all of the details. This story of a true disastrous event occurring so close to my grandmother’s birth is a part of my family’s history.
Timeframe: October 1911. Place: a small farm in Oakridge rural area south of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. My great grandfather Albert watched the hard rain pound the house and ground around him. It has been raining for weeks and flooding was a mounting concern. He had another worry, Bessie, his wife and my great grandmother, was pregnant with their first child; very pregnant. The rising Black River perhaps already cut him off of the main town of Black River Falls as he possibly wouldn’t consider traveling across that long iron canopied bridge stretching across the swollen waters. He devised a plan to head south; perhaps all the way to LaCrosse roughly 50 miles away. His mode of transportation was a horse drawn vehicle so it may have taken several days of hard driving in the rain across wet and slippery roads. In the drenching rain, Albert hitched his team to and helped Bessie to safely climb inside. They endured a dangerous and harrowing journey as they traveled southward to trying to stay ahead of the rushing river. Little did they realize at the time, they would be traveling along the crest of the Great Flood of 1911.
In the meantime the Black River was swelling; it originated in Taylor County and passed in a southwest direction through Clark, Jackson, and LaCrosse counties emptying into the Mississippi River. According to a New York Times article, it was believed that the concrete dams in place could hold back any amount of flooding water. On October 6th, at 4am, the first dam north of Hatfield gave way and racing water flowed around the dam and then continued along the river’s path. By 10:45am, the second dam closer to Hatfield broke sending even more rushing water towards Black River Falls. Word of warning was sent the residents of the doomed town that a raging flood raced in their direction. At first the villagers and business owners did not believe they were in immediate danger but much to everyone’s shock and dismay in about an hour’s time, the unimaginable wave of torrential water arrived with disastrous results.
The water came in great torrents and the Black River Falls power plant was first to be struck and damaged leaving everyone in darkness by nightfall. The huge wall of water took out the iron canopied bridge, businesses, and houses carrying them downstream as seen in photos posted by The Merchant General of Black River Falls. The flooding water cut through the banks carving out the ground and destroying three blocks worth of downtown business and residential buildings all along the river’s edge. According to a news report from Clark County, A number of lumber and sawmill businesses were swept away along with a shoe store, a jewelry retail store, an iron works business, a hotel, a sash factory, and hardware store. Also destroyed was the county poor house along with many homes. Barely enough warning was given for Black River residents to evacuate although without their possessions. They just kept backing away from the rushing water and climbing to higher ground. Black River Falls had become nearly an island cut off from the surrounding countryside. The raging flood also destroyed many farms in its wake and families were stranded on rooftops (New York Times, 1911). Although the loss of animals and property were enormous, no resident lost his or her live that fateful day (Rupnow, 2011). After nearly wiping out Black River Falls, the torrential river raced towards more communities down the river and LaCrosse was in its path.
Albert, my great grandfather and Bessie, my great grandmother, must have been terrified of the pounding, rushing water as they continued their harrowing journey. While Albert held the reigns and drove the horses, I can imagine my great grandmother praying for their safe arrival in LaCrosse. I’m sure she cried out in pain, knowing she was close to giving birth.
As predicted, the flooding, raging river propelled its way into LaCrosse damaging the city’s power plant. Somehow, through fear and determination and by God’s loving grace and protection, great grandfather Albert and my great grandmother Bessie reached Luther Hospital of LaCrosse. No doubt, a huge sense of relief showered over my great grandparents as caring doctors and nurses aided them.
On October 7,, 1911, one day after the Great Flood of 1911 struck and devastated Black River Falls, Wisconsin , a baby girl was born, a baby named Annetta; my grandmother. While she grew up on a small farm in Oakridge, the city of Black River Falls was rebuilt as residents determined to remain and rebuild their lives (Rupnow, 2011).
Many years later she moved to Black River Falls as a teenager to attend high school. She married and raised a family. She worked as a school bus driver and later as a store clerk. She may had other jobs that I am not aware of. Today Black River Falls continues to be thriving small town in rural Jackson County Wisconsin; it is also near where I lived and grew up years later. I spent many Sundays visiting my grandmother in her tiny apartment not far from the banks of the usually gentle flowing Black River.
Reference Links about the Great Flood of 1911 which struck Black River Falls Wisconsin:
From New York Times, 1911:
From Leader Telegram, 2011
Clark County History Bluff: