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June 10, 1903: A flood swamps East St. Louis, inspiring its levee system

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Look Back:  East St. Louis Flood, 1903

The St. Louis riverfront, looking south from the Eads Bridge. (Missouri History Museum)

EAST ST. LOUIS • The Mississippi River was rising almost one foot per day. Mayor Silas Cook organized patrols along the city's flood defenses, such as they were.

In 1903, East St. Louis and other industrial cities on the American Bottom relied on a network of railroad embankments to hold back the river. An outlying levee in Madison County ran from the Merchants Bridge near Venice eastward to the village of Mitchell.

The news upriver was sobering. The Missouri River had swamped sections of Kansas City, rising 8 feet into its old Union Depot. On June 2, it swept across St. Charles County's lowland and joined the Mississippi. St. Charles lost its power plant. West Alton went under.

The Mississippi rose to 34 feet at St. Louis on June 5, four feet above flood stage. Back then, levees were smaller and fewer. Flood stage had serious meaning.

The first city folk affected lived in houseboat colonies along the riverbanks. The largest, known as Little Oklahoma, was home to about 400 people two miles north of downtown St. Louis. They moved inland with the rising water and snagged driftwood for sale to lumber mills.

The Eads Bridge was a popular attraction for gawkers from higher, drier St. Louis. It also was a major escape route until the river swamped the east side's riverfront railyards.

The Madison County levee broke June 6. "It melted away like a pile of sand," said local flood-fighter Henry Brown.

Venice, Madison and parts of Granite City succumbed. Refugees crowded the upper floors of schools. Others waded to the Merchants Bridge for boxcar shuttles to St. Louis. Henry Edmonds, 80, of Madison, tried to herd his two cows to safety, but current swept away all three.

The Cahokia levee failed that night. The river pressed against the Illinois Central line protecting East St. Louis. More than 2,700 men sweated by torchlight to raise the embankment.

"If we can hold the Illinois Central, we have won the fight," Cook said. Just in case, he commandeered all carriages and wagons.

They lost early on June 10. Families splashed their way to factories or climbed onto roofs. Anna Rochell, 1110 Tudor Avenue, saved only her canary. The river crested at 38 feet, flooding the Relay Depot, the main railroad station.

Downtown, on marginally higher ground, was nearly surrounded by water. Relief workers established segregated refugee quarters — Camp Washington for whites, Camp Lincoln for blacks.

The 1903 flood is the 14th highest on record here. But it ranked second for its day and was East St. Louis' most damaging ever. It inspired construction of the city's first levees. Upgraded over the years, they held against the Great Flood of 1993.

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