Twenty million tons of water. 

That’s the amount of water released by the Great Johnstown Flood in May 1889.   The South Fork Dam at Little Conemaugh River failed – and twenty-two hundred souls perished.  While the worst flood was in 1889, Johnstown also flooded in 1894, 1907, 1924, 1936, and 1977.  The worst of these years was 1936, when flood damage reached the whole way from Johnstown to Pittsburgh.

Desstruction of Lower Johnstown, PA, USA, after the Great Flood 0f 1889. Wikipedia.

By coincidence, my grandmother’s community in Licking Creek (or “Lickin’ Crick”, as they would say) also flooded in 1936.  Unusually warm weather made the heavy snows melt – quickly – and western Pennsylvania paid the price.  As the rivers and creeks overflowed their banks, they swept through suburbs and farmsteads, sweeping away even the topsoil.    

summer cliffs 
are cheerful after March floods –  
lilies on the rocks 

My grandmother was eight years old when she watched the creek creep further and further out of its bank. Her parents were subsistence farmers eking out a living during the Great Depression.  They had no crops to lose just yet – but they couldn’t afford to lose the chickens.  They watched nervously as water inched higher and higher – closer and closer to the chicken coop.  When the water trickled into the coop they had no choice but to rescue the chickens. 

Grandma slogged into the hen house with the leghorns.   The chickens would stand on one leg, trying to stay warm and dry.  As they grew tired they would shift from one leg to the other.  Almost eighty years later, Grandma still remembers those miserable chickens.

the creek keeps rising –
hens shake muddy water
from their cold feet

White Leghorn. USDA via Wikimedia.

First image: Destruction of Lower Johnstown, PA, USA, after the Great Flood of 1889. Wikipedia.

Second Image: White Leghorn. USDA via Wikimedia.


25 thoughts on “Lickin’ Crick (Haibun)

  1. Pingback: Mutt and Everett (Haibun) | Blog It or Lose It!

  2. This haibun must have been posted just a little before my time – I do like how the haiku add flashes of detail, as if the camera suddenly zooms in…

    You must be able to put together a nice set of “family history” haibun by now, I think? 🙂


    • Yes, I think it was before we met. I used to write a *lot* of haibun for the Ligo prompt. Would love to see it running again. The chickens flicking the water from their feet? The way she tells it, it really makes me laugh!


  3. Interesting where the flood plains lie. We’ve got a park up the street that is in what’s called a one hundred year flood plain so houses can’t be build there.

    Our crick has only gotten really high once, during a storm too. Our lot is longer than some of our neighbors down stream and the force of the water just raged on the land and you couldn’t see the bend in the creek.

    A few years back the wonderful government changed our flood zone and now the front of our curb side mail box in is the new flood zone, (so our home is too – we don’t have a basement) where it used to only be about fifty feet from the creek. And it honestly doesn’t need to be there either. I think the government just wanted the houses on this side of the creek to pay for flood insurance. But the only way we would get flooded would be if the water run off drains in the area couldn’t handle the rain water. And flood insurance doesn’t cover that!

    There is a smell after the water recedes, especially if it takes a while to do so. Wonderful memory to have penned and captured.

    Thanks for including the link. ~Jules


    • Hoping you’re faring well during this most recent storm. Isn’t it odd that we’ve had SO MANY severe thunderstorms this past week?
      You may be right about the flood zone re-mapping.
      So glad you liked the haibun! 🙂


  4. An interesting bit of history! Poor chickens. You’ve brought to mind a vague memory I have of when my family was caught in one of the many floodings of the Kaskakian river before it was dammed in the 60s. Illinois still floods badly and often. I can only imagine the horror of living in a world turned to mud and destruction. In the 30s things were certainlybad enough without a force of nature adding her choice words. Great story … I do so love history!


    • Her stories are amazingly rich in their history — but she’s a history buff too — so she recognizes the importance.
      I’ve been so fortunate not to have to deal with flooding like that — fingers crossed. Especially since I’m sitting here writing during yet *another* torrential rainstorm!

      Happy that you enjoyed this! 😀


      • You’re very lucky to have someone like her. History is one of the few things we have that gives us a little perspective of where we’ve been if not about where we’re going. Good for her! This has been such a wet summer! It rained here yesterday too, and the temps are closer to autumn than to summer. But shoot, who’s complaining … once the temps do rise, everyone will be complaining about the heat 🙂
        A few years ago we had a two year drought, even the lake went down a couple of inches!

        A nice piece of history, I really enjoyed the piece.


  5. That was fascinating and had a strong sense of reality- seeing chickens standing on one leg in a flood when a child does sound like something you would remember all your life. Your haiku really captures that feeling.


  6. Pingback: At Peace in the Crowd (Haiku) | Blog It or Lose It!

  7. Great post Jen, we forget the hardships suffered by our forebears. We have had our share of floods too over the years. The 1955 flood is considered our worst as it come within 2inches of getting into our house, most of my Town was inundated, people died it was a big flood. Thankfully we have been lucky since, together with better flood mitigation practices.


    • I’m so glad that the floods haven’t been such a danger — it’s terrifying to think of that much water!!!!

      Grandma and her family really just barely scraped a living together … and she also had polio … we really don’t consider how lucky we are! (She regained her ability to walk — with a lot of work — she was very lucky indeed.)


        • Reads well Jen and I couldn’t help but smile at the image of the chickens changing legs. In Australia we refer to chickens as chooks. As a kid we had chooks and a chook house.


        • Chooks? I’ll have to remember that!

          Curious — grandma says that the day lilies ended up high on the hills, in rocky places where they normally wouldn’t grow – because they were swept there by the floods. When she said it, it made sense – because there are day lilies even now growing in places they have no earthly reason to grow. They grow as abundantly as weeds in some places. Did anything like that happen during your town’s flood?


        • Exactly, in bad floods there would dead animals floating by, snakes looking for land, it could get very scary at times. I had a great uncle killed during the 1955 floods. His death was captured on film, was in all the papers. He fell from a helicopter trying to winch him to safety, his body was swept away and never found.


        • All that happened before I can remember….my dad used to go to the morgue with my cousin to see if the bodies they found were my uncle but he was never found.
          Well floods are surreal experiences just recognising the landscape in all it’s flatness as water does find it’s own height.


        • It is how it is and now years later my dad has died, my cousin has also died, it becomes an aspect of our family history with very few of the people from those days still with us……times flies doesn’t it…


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