Ah, St. Patrick’s Day. Shamrocks. Green beer. Parades. Rubber boots. For Floyd Hughes, my late grandfather, St. Patrick’s Day always reminded him of rubber boots.
In March 1936, Pup-Pup, as his grandchild and great-grandchildren called him, was a 21-year-old shipping clerk for Eastman Kodak in Pittsburgh. A husband and father with a 9-month-old daughter, he lived on Spring Hill and took a streetcar to work everyday Downtown. He began his career at the 606 Wood St. location seven years earlier at the tender age of 14, working as a delivery boy.
The grandson of Irish immigrants, Pup-Pup celebrated the holiday in traditional ways, but that year Pittsburgh’s three rivers had something else in mind for the streets Pittsburgh instead of the customary parade.
At a time before flood control and Weather Channel meteorology, Pittsburgh was in a precarious situation. A rapid spring thaw sent the rivers flowing over their banks. The waters rose and, one by one, swallowed the streets until the river began creeping up to the building where Pup-Pup worked on Wood Street.
The rear of the Eastman Kodak offices shared Arbuckle Alley with the Duquesne Club. As the water rose rapidly, many of the workers and patrons of the exclusive club were left stranded inside.
Pup-Pup and other co-workers, who happened to have boots, donned them and began carrying the people inside the Duquesne Club to the higher ground of the Presbyterian Church on Sixth Avenue.
When all were safely evacuated, he could no longer return to work, as the building was now engulfed. With the office under 2 feet of water and his wallet inside his locker, he then headed to the gas company where his cousin worked. When he arrived there, he was told that everyone had headed over to Dutch Henry’s Tavern on Diamond Street.
There, he borrowed money from his cousin and her boyfriend. As the phone lines were now down, he sent a telegram to my grandmother, Gert, informing her that he was fine. He and his friends walked to Pennsylvania Station, where he hoped to catch a train to the North Side, but the Fort Wayne Station on Federal Street was also under water.
The party then took a train to Crafton, where he spent the night at the home of his cousin’s boyfriend. He remembers celebrating St. Patrick’s Day by “sitting in the dark cooking coffee over a candle.”
The next morning he hitched a ride to the West End Bridge, and from there, walked all the way to Spring Hill.
When he arrived home, exhausted, and covered in mud, my grandmother and her mother, my great-grandmother Ledergerber, refused to let him into the house for fear he’d carry a disease to the new baby.
As he was removing his filthy boots on the front porch, the telegram boy arrived with the message he’d sent the day before.
Pup-Pup spent the next few days at work tossing flood-damaged merchandise and blasting the marble floors of the office on Wood Street with fire hoses.
Although St. Patrick’s Day 1936 may have been marred by water, mud, and inconvenience, you could “bet your boots” that out of all the 94 years he’d lived to celebrate the holiday, it was the one that was most vivid in his memory.
by Janice Lane Palko