I was a smooth 10-years-old on September 13, 1971 when the flood of the century hit Chester City destroying the downtown business district and obliterating the housing development known as Eyre Park.
Downtown Chester, aka ‘Overtown,’ never came close to fully recovering. What was once a bustling shopping district struggling to hang on almost instantly became a ghost town after the flood. Shop owners grabbed whatever insurance money that could get and either moved somewhere else or went out of business all together.
I remember hearing people say the merchants took their insurance money and built the Springfield Mall which opened its doors in 1974, the same year the Granite Run Mall opened (the Tri-State Mall beat them both when it opened in 1967).
The community of Eyre Park was populated with 209 homes clustered inside the banks of Chester Creek which wound around the circumference of three sides of the neighborhood. The homes were protected only by a dike that many complained was ignored by city officials when the Army Corps of Engineers suggested improvements several years before the flood.
After about 4-days of up to 12-inches of rain, the dike holding back Chester Creek either broke or wasn’t tall enough to hold back the water and Eyre Park flooded in minutes. With only one way out of the development to 9th Street and most cars underwater before families could even begin to load up their possessions, the devastation turned into a tragedy as up to 10 people drowned.
Although the Governor declared an immediate state of emergency, there was no Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA – created in 1979) in place to coordinate the response to this disaster. The city, county, and state resources were overwhelmed with the responsibility to provide families with emergency housing and supplies while determining if any of the homes were safe enough for folks to move back in. Eventually, all the homes were razed and the property owners became the first disaster victims in U.S. history to receive pre-flood value for their properties.
Chester was racially segregated in 1971 and well over 95% of Eyre Park home owners were white. The early 70s in Chester was the apex of ‘white flight’ out the city. I’m willing to go on a limb and take a wild guess that the vast majority Eyre Park’s white families took their settlement money and moved out of Chester to the newer sections of Delaware County.
Fortunately for the Chester High School building that sits right on the edge of Eyre Park, it was in a very early construction phase when the flood came through and was completed for classes to start in September 1974. Right on the banks of Eyre Park was the Central YMCA where I attended a wonderful summer camp for several years as a kid. It got hammered by flood waters but managed to limp along in limited operation for several years before finally being torn down in the 80s, I believe. In its place was built a golf driving range in 2009 by the First Tee organization promising to teach golf to city youth but that became an absolute waste of $150,000 community block grant dollars as there was never any programing dollars spent to get the driving range operational after it was built. I whacked a few balls on the range 2 or 3 times, but it’s no fun picking up your own golf balls at a driving range. The netting for the so-called driving range was taken down this year to make room for the new walking path around Eyre Park.
In 1978, I recall Eyre Park as the place Chester High School basketball coach Cliff Wilson would start our morning practices at 6:30am running laps around the 0.6 mile road that encircled the missing housing development on those cold November mornings. Now, in the place of the old Eyre Park homes, you’ll find a football practice field, a softball field, some new plantings enclosed by a split rail fence, a new walking path, a parking lot, and open space. With a few trees planted in strategic locations, and maybe a bandshell, it could easily become Chester’s Central Park.
To memorialize the tragedy that occurred in Eyre Park in 1971, a large granite stone was placed at its entrance back in 1975. It’s mostly ignored and I bet very few people could tell you the words etched in the stone even though thousands of Chester High School students have walked by it every school day for over 40-years.
If there’s an event we should Never Forget in Chester, it’s the flood of 1971 and the lives lost in Eyre Park. It forever changed our city.