Some more pictures from my recent scanning adventures.
These were all taken by my grandfather about a week after the St. Patrick’s Day Flood in Pittsburgh back in 1936.
My then 16-year-old Grandfather, Ray, went about by himself and shot these photos on his Brownie camera a week after the disaster. He lived in Sharpsburg, and like many of those that lived in one of the many Pittsburgh river communities, his house was decimated by the flood.
I used to spend a lot of time with my grandparents when they were still alive. My brothers and I usually spent time either at their apartment or when they came to our house every week (almost always on Thursdays, without fail). When we went to their apartment one of my favorite activities, besides watching the Ed Sullivan infomercials for the occasional full performances they would play, was to sit with my grandparents and go through some of the old photo albums they had.
These flood photos were always so captivating and were only made more legendary by the fact my normally very reserved, quiet grandfather had the gall in the 30’s to climb about the wreckage of one of Pittsburgh’s greatest disasters just to shoot some mementos. This was all just a week after his entire life had been decimated by the flood (thankfully, no family members were lost). One of my favorites is the above church interior photo, where the pews were so soaked with the Allegheny River, that they all curved and bent.
The story that always went along with the photos was that during the flood, Grandpap’s house was located where what is currently Rt. 28 currently runs through Sharpsburg. Needless to say, there house was almost completely submerged. He, his parents, and his brother Olly, sat on their roof like many other families did and waited for someone in a rowboat to come and pick them up. At least, that’s the story he told me.
The story I never knew was one I learned right after he died. At the wake, my grandfather’s cousin was there. While nearly his age, somewhere around 90, she was still extremely sharp and had an amazing memory. the story she laid on me straight up blew me away.
While we were trading Grandpap stories back and forth, she remembered the story about the flood and the photos. She said the most heartbreaking part of the flood was that Grandpap lost his banjo in the flood. This took me off guard, while Grandpap had a guitar he would occasionally strum and a harmonica he would occasionally bring out and play a few notes on, he never mentioned having ever played the banjo.
Prior to the flood, Grandpap dropped out of High School somewhere around the age of 14 (maybe 15) to help the family out and work. He sold cars with my Great-Grandfather Floyd and it would be a number of years before he would join a church choir with the express mission of meeting my future grandmother. One of the weird little pockets of his life I always wondered what he did with his time.
Well, according to Cousin Jean, he spent that time on the stoop, playing his banjo. Jean said that that banjo was one of his most prized possessions and he spent a lot of his time between selling cars and helping around the house sitting outside, strumming and singing. The flood took that banjo. It washed away and he never replaced it. I would never have the opportunity to ask him why. But for a period of his life, Ray Hughes was a banjo-playing man. At least that’s the story Cousin Jean told me.
This makes the these pictures and the stories that much more precious to me. It represents for me that as much as you know someone there will always be surprises. Little pockets of their life where loves you never knew of…photography…music…were one time a major part of their lives. I can draw a line now between my loves and his.
Pictures and stories hold for me a little bit of true magic. That the quiet guy with the familiar chuckle was once a stoop-sitting, banjo-playing man.