1936 Waco Flood

Original Airdates: April 12, 13, 15 (2011)

This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Louis Mazé.

In September of 1936, much of Central Texas was enduring heavy rainstorms and flooding, with Waco especially hard-hit. Cresting at
41 feet, the Brazos River burst through a levee a mile above town, resulting in a torrent that put much of East Waco under water. Approximately two thousand residents were left homeless, and city manager W. C. Torrence ordered martial law in the flooded area.

Alva Stem, former director of Waco Parks and Recreation, recalls
the floodwaters in Cameron Park:

"The flood was up to one of the shelter houses just below Proctor Springs, and that was as close as we could get to the playground because the water was up above our heads by the shelter house. And I can remember us kids going down there and taking our bathing suits and swimming out to this shelter house, then climbing up on top of it and diving off into the floodwaters, like crazy kids would do. But we were good swimmers back in those days."

Waco native Frank Curre Jr. shares his memories of the '36 flood:

"And they boxed off our brand new Washington Street Bridge because it had pillars under it and they thought it would wash them out. They opened the Suspension Bridge because it was suspended from one side to the other. You could travel on that. Barns would come floating down your river, and they'd crash into the bridge and be chickens in that old barn, be hogs coming down, horses, cows. A great big fat hog come out; we wrestled him down. We asked the sheriff's deputy or policeman or something, we said, What do you want us to do with him? Said, ‘Take him home if you want him.' Well, that night, Mama and my step-daddy was putting up sausage. (laughter)"

Curre, with Dorothy Head Powell, describes East Waco:

"Where Elm Street is and Dallas Street, we had a streetlight over there on Dallas and Elm. The bottom of that streetlight was dipping in the water. And you know the two-story red brick—"

Powell: "East Terrace."

"That water come up to that balcony on that two-story house."

Woodrow Carlile recalls how the flood affected Edgefield, the neighborhood where he grew up:

"The water got into the yard and perhaps two feet high in the yard. But I believe our house was constructed to where the water could get under the house. Maybe our floors were three feet off the ground. I don't ever recall water in the house."

He remembers an odd sight at Edgefield Baptist Church:

"Our piano in the basement of the church was floating around."

Carlile used to stake his family's dairy cows near the river, and he tells about rescuing one with water up to his waist:

"I recall walking Sarah down Bosque Street away from the river toward Fifth Street with my tennis shoes around her neck, and I was barefooted. I thought more of my tennis shoes than I did my feet, evidently."

In the 1930s, after decades of devastating floods throughout Texas, the U.S. government began authorizing the construction of dams along Texas rivers to control excess rainfall. This led to the Whitney Reservoir, which was completed in 1951 on the Brazos River and has prevented in Waco floods like the one in 1936.

Living Stories is heard every Tuesday on 103 point 3 FM, Waco's NPR. For program transcripts or more information about the Institute for Oral History, visit us at baylor.edu/livingstories.

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