While the Southeast Missourian has numerous photographs of the various floods that inundated Southeast Missouri over the years, none of those taken by longtime photographer G.D. Fronabarger from 1943 have survived.
That was a record-setting flood. It wrecked the previous mark set July 4, 1844, sending the river gauge at Cape Girardeau to 42.3 feet on May 27, according to the Southeast Missourian's edition published that day. The previous record was 42.19 feet.
You can read about that flood crest in a Fred Lynch blog here: Record river crest in 1943
In reviewing the stories from 1943 as I assembled Out of the Past columns, I found several written about the McClure, Illinois, area. Only one is by-lined, and it was written by Fronabarger. I suspect he wrote the other articles as well. I'm quite certain that he took the photographs that accompanied them. The photos appearing below were copied from Missourian microfilm.
A front-page article published May 20, 1943, probably helped to calm the fears of those living in the McClure area.
ILLINOIS AREA IS PROTECTED
Across the river in vicinity of McClure, it was said today, little trouble is expected from Mississippi River floodwaters, since the riverside dikes protecting that level portion of Illinois are high and in good condition.
Opposite Cape Girardeau and near McClure and Gale the levee was rebuilt and made entirely adequate last year. Some of the same levee near Ware was rebuilt in 1931. Another section, also north of McClure, has not been revamped in recent years but is in good repair, although not as high as the newer sectors. Should no seep spots set up, it is expected the dike will easily withstand a stage of 40 feet. Should the levee become damaged, forces would have to be sent to sandbag it, it was pointed out.
Has Hill Levee.
The McClure area, like most riverside level land, is protected by back or hill levees. These, all in good repair, serve to turn small stream water out of the lowlands.
The Illinois Central Railroad today purchased 1,000 sand bags at Cairo, Illinois, and sent them to the riverside levee at a point north of the Big Muddy River. That is 18 miles north of McClure and about four miles from Ware. There is some seepage there, and Illinois Central crews of about 40 men were sent from Gale for the sandbagging operations. Should the levee break, which is hardly expected, it would not effect the McClure vicinity since high levees are on either side of the Big Muddy.
A week later, the situation at McClure had turned dangerous.
The stories that follow appealed to me for their first-person accounts of the trials the Illinois residents were enduring.
Published May 27, 1943:
RIVER HIT McCLURE AREA IN FULL FURY
Rich Illinois Farm Lands Inundated Completely; Excellent Crop Prospects Wiped Out by Flood.
There's nothing more the rampaging Mississippi River can do to the rich Illinois farm lands across from Cape Girardeau. Aboard a boat which Wednesday afternoon wound its way up the river side of the big levee, only the crown of which now sticks above the yellow flood, a reporter found a near Noah's land.
Water, water everywhere, and altogether too much of it, and it's much too wet. Arriving at the east end of the traffic bridge, the reporter found a concentration of persons, mostly curious, but many of them actually making up the searching parties going out through the murky flood to find residents trapped when the Wolf Lake levee broke and flooded 57,000 acres of Illinois farm land. There were a number of Army amphibious jeeps that waddled into the water like ducks and took off for whatever places their drivers were directed to go.
Capt. Clarke Simmonds, commander of Harris Field and Jack Hunter, grounds superintendent, arrive at the east end of the traffic bridge in an Army amphibious jeep after (a) cruise trip into the area after refugees.
In one jeep, Capt. Clark Simmonds, commanding officer at Harris Field, Army flight training center (at Cape Girardeau), and Jack Hunter, field maintenance supervisor, went out through the swirling water and came back with Tom McClure, foremost citizen of McClure, Illinois. Mr. McClure was taken from his dwelling, which is located on high ground, but when the owner was rescued it had more than two feet of water in it.
A Walk Along the Levee.
While walking for more than a mile up the levee several interesting things were encountered. In the first place the only visible land in the whole basin is the levee crown. The river at Cape Girardeau is now from six to seven feet wide and all of the lowland east of the levee is a watery terrain dotted only with trees and the tops of buildings. There's from five to more than 20 feet of water over all of the 88 square miles.
A mile north of the bridge the levee crown is covered with all kinds of farm machinery, pulled there out of the flood's reach. It provides a sort of ironic spectacle -- good machinery which has done a good job only to have it ruined. It's almost like the builder who has erected a fine building, then had to get off to one side and watch it burn. There were numerous chickens on the levee and in some places they could be sitting atop the roofs. At this point the reporter boarded a boat, and with a group of employees of the McGeorge Construction Co., engaged in river construction work, went about five miles upstream and over to the McClure levee. There only a small portion of the old dike is out of water, or was Wednesday afternoon before the major part of the flood reached the basin.
Idle farm machinery stacked along the lvees is a grim reminder of needed farm production halted by the flood.
Mules in Barn Loft.
A few people, some children, a score of dogs and one large sow were on the levee near the Villa, only a part of which was sticking out of the water. George Stonecipher, who's been "in these here bottoms for a heap a spell," sat gloomily looking eastwards towards a barn. In he loft of this barn are his two mules and a flock of chickens.
"How'd I get them mules up in the loft? O, I led 'em up through the corn crib," he replied to an inquiry. Then, as if to really convey just a small part of the heavy weight this flood has thrown on his shoulders and those of his neighbors, he remarked, "Shore hope this water gets out of here fast. We can still do a little work. I had mighty fine 'taters -- they were blooming, but that's all gone now."
Seated close by on the levee were two young women, Virginia Prewitt and Corrine Stoneington, and a boy, Lawrence Baugher. Their folks had lost all of their 1943 prospects to the flood. Virginia sat looking at a roof which covered water and the remainder of her family's dwelling. "Guess I won't have to go back to it. I've been accepted in the Marines Auxiliary and am just waiting call," she remarked.
Corrine, sitting hunched up on a board, put in "Looks like we've lost all our homes. Those houses won't be fit for much."
The trio got up and started away down the levee for Cape Girardeau six miles away. "It isn't so far," they chimed. "We walked up here this morning."
On the levee at McClure, Vifrginia Prewitt, Corrine Stoneinger and Lawrence Baugher, in the foreground, take in the flood waters which have invaded their homes. Men in boats (are) a common sight.
Some Other Sights.
The bloated hulk of a big Hereford steer, drowned in the flood, lay against a waterlogged fence nearby. On he basin beside a black cat, his nine lives apparently in grave danger, paced the green roof of a dwelling. A dog stuck his muzzle out of a second floor window and howled his disdain. Men in a boat rescued both cat and dog. A dozen other dogs staged the hottest dog fight this reporter had ever seen when one of them caught a rabbit. They must have been hungry.
McClure residents had made an effort to scaffold up their possessions. The only thing wrong was the scaffolds didn't go above the roofs. There's all kinds of household possessions floating around in houses and in the four stores there, everything is afloat. A big ice box is floating in Harvey Poe's cafe, and in the Marchildon store there is an assortment of groceries on the water. Some of these days there may be a blind sale of groceries -- find out what's in the can after you open it. The labels have all been washed off. Ear. Barton's groceries are floating off, and his store is nearly afloat. One house is lodged against another; it reportedly floated down to McClure from Reynoldsville.
Chickens find a dry spot.
Published May 28, 1943:
McCLURE HARD HIT AFTER NEW BREAK
Breach in Clear Creek Dike Protecting Town Allows Flood to Knock Out Buildings.
By G.D. FRONABARGER
Missourian Staff Correspondent.
McCLURE, Ill. -- A mighty torrent from the Mississippi River's record flood, unleashed by a break in the Clear Creek Drainage District levee at the north end of town Thursday, tore down on this community of 500 people, swept away more than 50 buildings during the day and is now gradually reducing the town to an almost virtual shambles.
Save for the dozen residents who had decided to brave out the flood from the second floor of the Marchildon Store, there was no news for the outside world of this break until a power boat bearing this correspondent and a number of other persons, including some McClure residents, returned to the town Thursday and had the experience of dodging crumbling, flood-tossed buildings, rescuing a stranded native from a tree top just as his precarious perch was about to be swept from under him, and avoiding swift currents which at times threatened to dump the entire party in the rampaging waters.
Standing in the background (is) the Villa, another night club at McClure, where a serious levee break occurred Thursday and swept away about 50 buildings. The dwelling in the foreground, one side of which has already been taken out by the angry waters, is slowly disintegrating. Only the top floor of the Villa is visible.
Where Crevasse Occurred.
The break occurred just south of the Villa night club, and directly over Highways No. 3 and 146, the waters poured. Belief is expressed by those acquainted with the location that the flood will completely wash out the highway there for quite a strip. The same group of men, including Leo L. Sanders, construction superintendent for the W.P. McGeorge Construction Co., in whose boat the trip was made, Cal Cook and Luther Smith of McClure, H.L. Coffman of Cape Girardeau and two newsmen from Cape Girardeau and Chicago, was on the levee Wednesday afternoon at the point which went out Thursday and had an opportunity to get a preview of the damage which a break could cause.
A Trip Into Area.
The party left Cape Girardeau in a heavy power boat early in the day, loading in at the Illinois approach to the traffic bridge. We went downstream 2 1/2 miles to where the levee was blasted Wednesday north of Gale, Illinois. There we unloaded onto the bank and Sanders and Smith took the boat into the face of the torrent throwing through the 1,000-foot gap and into the Illinois flood basin. We had unloaded all but the two operators to lighten the boat's load in going through the current.
(This) photo shows the widely known Colony Club, a night spot, near the intersection of Highways 3 and 146 three miles east of Cape Girardeau. The place is closed.
Through miles of water we went to McClure. The telephone line to McClure from Cape Girardeau for the most part is completely submerged, the water being over many poles and up to the crossarms of others. At the intersection of Highways 146 and 3 the only thing familiar about the place is the roof of the Colony Club, the night club spot, sticking up above the 15 feet of water. An auxiliary building, housing another sport, has been turned around and piled up against the side of the main building. Two of the three houses on the old Dr. John D. Porterfield farm, managed by Cal Cook and H.L Coffman, have been swept away. Most every farm in the entire area has lost a barn or a house or both.
Follow Phone Poles.
Following the highway into McClure by keeping a weather eye on the telephone poles -- those sticking out of the water, the boat approached the McClure community high school, most of the first floor of which is under water. Suspicions that something was wrong up above came with the rapidly increasing current. About four blocks north of the high school we dodged a roof top containing two brick chimneys which came floating buy. A lot of debris suddenly appeared in the form of doors, strips of weatherboarding, windows and a varied assortment of timbers. It seemed to us we had heard a crash and a splintering of wood, and almost immediately there was a shout for help.
Heading around a clump of tall trees and in the direction of the shout we came upon a scene which resembled a cyclone's path. A tall tree had been felled by the flood and clinging to the small part of still above water was 69-year-old John Glaab of McClure. Smashed up against the side of a nearby tree was a dwelling. It was parts of this dwelling we had dodged.
The above pictures show John Glaab, 69, of McClure, Illinois, a few minutes after he had climbed to the top of a flood-felled tree in McClure. A floating house struck his boat, hurling him into the torrent. In the upper picture Glaab is seen standing in the tree top to the right of the house which had smashed itself against another tree. In the lower picture, Glaab is shown as a rescue boat, containing the photographer drew close to him.. Glaab was taken off the tree and left safely in the second floor of a store building.
Rescue Is Made.
Sanders thre3ww his boat into full pwer and by skillful maneuvering headed it directly into the current and carefully approached the tree. The current was so swift that if the boat were caught sideways it would have been smashed into the tree and spilled the passengers. A life-jacket was thrown to Glaab with instructions to don it and fasten it securely. As we drew alongside the tree he was directed to jump and was caught by two of the boat's passengers.
The aged man simply sat down and mopped his head. His tree perch was swept away a few minutes later.
Smith, who knew the aged man, queried: "Uncle John what on earth were you doing out there and how did you get in that tree?"
Well," came the answer, "I have been staying over in the second floor of the Marchildon Store with the other fellows who're sticking it out and, not having anything to do, decided to get in my skiff and cruise around a little. I didn't know this break had come. A house came down the street I was rowing on and hit me on the blind side, knocking me out of the boat. That's the house there, smashed up against that tree. I grabbed for something and just happened to land in that tree top. I had been there about 15 minutes. Shore was lucky you fellows came along."
Wanted Boat Back.
Glaab wanted to know if we could recover his skiff. He was told he was lucky to get out with his life, to which he replied, "well, it shore is a good boat, and I hate to lose it."
Our boat was almost swamped when we ploughed down the flood through McClure's main street, the boat bumping into buildings several times while bucking the strong cross current. One man was stranded in a light skiff. Row as hard as he could, he could not gain an inch. We pulled him into the boat and a few minutes later the current tore the skiff from its rope line attached to our boat. That afternoon we found the skiff south of McClure.
A few residents of (McClure) are "holding out" in the second floor of the Marchildon Store, built on one of the highest places in the town.
About a dozen men and boys are waiting out the flood on the second floor of the Marchildon Store, a frame building. All around, even in the main part of town, porches are being taken off buildings by the current and glass windows were smashed.
Barn Breaks to Bits.
In the direct path of the break was a big barn, which the current moved several blocks and deposited in the middle of the Clear Creek channel up against some trees, then tore it, stick by stick, to pieces. An entire row of fairly new dwellings went down with the current.
We observed the wall of a tile house leave and saw the furniture sitting in the garret. The dwelling was slowly disintegrating. The Villa was being smashed by floating timbers and the widening break was soon to place it in the path of the current's full fury. Dwellings, small business places and smaller outbuildings were tumbling around in the water like egg shells.
The main part of the current struck the new section of McClure along the highway, while it was gradually moving toward the main section of the town as the breach in the levee widened eastward. One of McClure's residents who is staying at the store expressed belief there won't be a single solid building left in the community. The high school is far enough away from the break, however, that the current dissipates considerably before it reaches that building.
Gale Found in Tree.
During the rounds with the boat, we took one dog off a railroad flat car, took drinking water to a group of men on the cars and gave them instructions how to get out of the place in light boats. A three-legged dog, in the loft of a barn on the Tom McClure farm, came swimming to our boat when called. Six cats were seen in another barn loft. One dog was taken out of a tree and the water at that point must have been 15 and 20 feet deep. How he got there is a mystery.
A short floating log held a big swamp rabbit and an o'possum. A great many rabbits were seen in trees and on drift. A groundhog chattered disdainfully from a floating stump. Luther Smith of our party let out a yell as we started to cruise under the high limbs of a pecan tree and swung his oar. A large copperhead snake landed several feet from the boat and in the water, and all of the fight appeared to have gone out of him. Many other large snakes and turtles were seen.
(This photo shows) a farm house that was moved a mile from its former location to the edge of a woodland where it bogged down in 20 feet of water.
Leaving McClure the route took the boat down over once fertile farms. We stopped at several dwellings and looked into their second floors and into barn lofts to determine if there were any persons stranded. Virtually all one-story houses were completely submerged and most of them were swept away and water was in the second floors of the two-story houses.
A Visit to Gale.
Our course took us to Gale, which is inundated, but doesn't face a plight similar to that of McClure. The levee has been dynamited at the north side of Gale. A heavy torrent is rushing through the breach. The War Emergency Pipe Line pumping station there is under water except for a part of the roofs of the buildings. Huge oil tanks have been pumped full of water to keep them on the ground. The other levee break, blasted Wednesday afternoon north of Gale has cleaned out a strip a quarter-mile wide. A forest in the path of the crevasse was flattened, not a tree left standing.
The terrific current produced by the crevasses at the south end of the flooded area resulted because the water had impounded back of the levee higher than the water on the outside or river side of the levees. The reverse is true at the north end of the flooded Illinois area. Water on the river side of the levee is higher than that on the inside and a levee break pours a torrent into the basin. During the trip a number of oil barrels, such as contractors like to have around their equipment bases, were caught and brought along.
When residents of the area go back to their homes they won't face a very bright prospect. Most of them will have to rebuild altogether. Cal Cook, who rode out the 1927 flood, said if this water goes out rapidly farmers will still be able to get in some sort of crop to provide livestock feed for the coming winter. What livestock, and there apparently wasn't much of it, that was left behind drowned. We saw several hogs and some cattle washed up in drift.