Flood of 1957: Richland Creek swallowed downtown Belleville

Floodwaters from Richland Creek cover the 700 block of West Main Street in Belleville on June 15, 1957. The flooding was responsible for more than $3 million of damage in Belleville.
Floodwaters from Richland Creek cover the 700 block of West Main Street in Belleville on June 15, 1957. The flooding was responsible for more than $3 million of damage in Belleville.

Bob Gentsch reported for work at Stag Brewery about 11 p.m. June 14, 1957, just like any other night. By the time his shift ended the next morning, much of downtown Belleville was underwater.

An overnight rainfall of up to 13.75 inches had turned Richland Creek into a violently raging river. It damaged more than 250 homes and businesses, flooded city streets and required an estimated 300 people to be evacuated.

Gentsch tried several routes before making it home to the east end of Belleville. When the rain stopped, he ventured out to survey the destruction.

"I drove down North Illinois, and there were couches and beds floating in Richland Creek," said Gentsch, now 79, of Belleville. "It was hard to believe."

Gentsch may have been looking at the inventory of Samson Furniture Co. Water had breached a wall and rushed through its store at 700 W. Main St.

Other debris included wooden power poles from the Illinois Power Co. plant on South Sixth Street. They battered T.J. Gundlach Machine Co., collapsing part of a frame building and clipping the corner of a brick building.

Metro-east flooding killed 10 people on Saturday, June 15, 1957, and sent hundreds to stay in temporary shelters. It caused more than $3 million of damage in Belleville alone and left many survivors traumatized.

"Vincent Schuhart (was rescued) after he clung to a tree on a bank of Richland Creek for three hours," the Belleville News-Democrat reported. "Schuhart's car was swept downstream by the swift current of the creek as it overflowed North Belt Line East."

Belleville policeman Jerry Fehlker and two other men were treated for shock at St. Elizabeth's Hospital after spending several hours in floodwaters.

They had been trying to reach a handicapped man at 401 W. Monroe St. when their 20-foot boat hit an obstruction, filled with water and got snagged in a railroad switch.

"We had some guardian angels looking over us that day," said Fehlker, now 77, of Belleville. "There were power poles and all kinds of debris going by us. ... If we hadn't got hung up where we did, chances are all three of us would have drowned."

Others weren't so lucky. The 10 people who died included Belleville residents James E. "Joe" Fletcher, 54, a bridge superintendent; Rudolph Reuschel Jr., 28, a body shop polisher with three small children; and Robert Lee Chaffin, 25, a laborer.

The others killed were Ralph A. Rehberger, 67, a dairy farmer from Lebanon; William Lee Smith, 31, a laborer, and E. Jerome Dullea, 57, an insurance agent, both of East St. Louis; Joseph Dickerson, 26, a timber worker from McClure; Harry Hackmann, 51, of Centreville Township and his son, Harry Hackmann Jr., 6; and Elmer Handcock, 25, a truck driver from Kentucky.

Fletcher disappeared after moving heavy equipment at work. Reuschel was last seen helping start a stalled car. Smith and Dickerson drowned while trying to drive north on South Illinois Street.

"Spectators warned them that they could not get through, but Dickerson removed the fan belt from the car and said he would make it," St. Clair County chief jailer Joseph H. Koch told the News-Democrat.

"The car started to stall and Dickerson put it in reverse. While backing up, he ran off the pavement and into five feet of water."

Richland Creek generally runs south through Belleville, dividing the city in half. Before 1957, it had overflowed its banks and caused major flooding nine times since 1908.

Officials thought a series of bridge replacements completed by the city, state and railroad companies after a 1946 flood had solved the chronic problem. They were wrong.

"The smug feeling that Richland Creek had finally been tamed is gone," a News-Democrat editorial stated on June 17, 1957. "Saturday's rampage was the worst ever -- by far the costliest in human life and loss of possessions. It happened suddenly and swiftly and entirely by surprise."

The National Weather Service has been keeping Belleville rainfall records since 1944. The one-year maximum is 56.62 inches in 1957. The one-month maximum is 17.16 inches in June of 1957.

The official one-day maximum is 8.15 inches on June 15, 1957, but the News-Democrat reported 13.75 inches fell at its office from 9 p.m. June 14 to 9 a.m. June 15.

The downpour not only led to flooding in Richland Creek's watershed and other low-lying areas, it also caused dams to break at St. Clair Lake near 17th and Morgan and Willow Lake off North Belt West.

"(The flood) was about as bad as anything I've ever seen," Fehlker said, "when you consider we had three to four feet of water going over Main Street."

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