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Tragedy on the Lehigh: Adams Island flood of 1942 took life of local woman

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 29 2011 04:53:04 PM CST
Updated On: Jan 02 2012 04:34:24 PM CST

The Lehigh Valley relationship with its namesake river is not what it once was.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

The Lehigh Valley relationship with its namesake river is not what it once was. For most people heading out of Allentown or going into Bethlehem, it seems a blur. And for those who can actually see it most of the time, it appears to be a large but placid stream.

But in its early days the seemingly quiet waterway was known for its unpredictability. A “freshet,” as these flash floods were called, would sweep all before it. At least as far back as 1783, they are recorded to have destroyed farms, carried away livestock and drowned humans. But probably the most memorable if not the most destructive of these events occurred as recently as 1942, and its chief target of opportunity was Adams Island.

The island was not always one. It was created by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, builders of the Lehigh Canal. To save some time the engineers in the 1820s made a peninsula into an island.

Over the years after that, it had many names and was a popular picnic spot. In 1900 leading citizens of the city, among them Harry Trexler and his brother Frank, created, with Max Hess Sr., the Allentown Swimming and Boating Club. Adam Borski, an employee of Hess’s, was the club’s most active member and it is said to be for him the island is currently named.

By 1942 Adams Island had become a popular place for a summer residence. If not fancy, it provided a modest retreat in the pre-air conditioner era from the heat of the city. Among those who owned a cabin there were Gertrude Blaeser and her brother Aloysius.

Blaeser, a trained nurse, was 55-years-old in 1942. She had given her cabin the title “The Cheer Up.” and loved to decorate the place.  On May 23, 1942 Blaeser was already at her cabin fixing it up for the coming season. A veteran of the Lehigh she knew of its dangers but apparently felt she could handle them.

Bethlehem Steel flooding What Blaeser did not know was that by being on Adams Island that day, she had unknowingly placed herself in the path of one of the most violent flash floods the Lehigh had ever known. That night the river would crest at 20 feet, 10 feet above flood stage. “May 23, 1942,” noted the next day’s Morning Call “is a date destined to live long in the memory of hundreds of thousands of residents of the Lehigh Valley who yesterday witnessed the greatest flood on the Lehigh River since June 1862.”

But this was still hours in the future when Blaeser’s brother who had been with her that evening decided to go downtown to catch a movie. While he was gone a violent rainstorm burst over the region.

By 1am on May 24th other residents noted that water from the river began to enter their homes. Seeing the rising waters Blaeser apparently decided to do something that she may have done in other floods. Taking off her house dress, she put on a bathing suit. Then putting her dress back on she went to get a large rope.

Once she put it around her waist Blaeser began to climb the tallest tree on the property that she could find.  Placing herself on the highest branch she could reach Blaeser tied the rope around the tree and apparently hoped to wait out the storm.

flooding Blaeser was not the only resident of Adams Island to take to the tree tops that evening. The Evening Chronicle reported that Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Pitrosky, their son Peter, an 18 month old baby, and John Helfrich were also nearby. Since they were all Adams Island residents they seemed to have known each other. To keep up their spirits and just to see how they were doing, they would shout back and forth to each other.

If Blaeser and the other temporary tree dwellers had hoped the storm would abate, they were disappointed. The waters of the Lehigh had turned into a surging, roaring, mud-saturated stream with a force that the Mississippi might have envied. And that it was all taking place in the darkest part of the night must have added to the horror.

At one point in the height of flood the Pitroskys called out to Blaeser asking how she was. “The water is up to my knees, but I am alright,” was the response they got.

South Bethlehem But as the night wore on the other islanders began to wonder once more about Blaeser’s fate.  Their call to her brought a distressing reply. “The water is up to my neck,” were the last words heard from Gertrude Blaeser.

Sometime after that, exactly how long is not clear but the others remembered it being shortly after Blaeser’s reply, a wall of water swept over Adams Island. The surge was so strong that it lifted three cottages, The Cheer Up among them, from their foundations. Blaeser’s summer retreat, which only hours before she had been so carefully cleaning and sprucing up, joined the hurling pile of smashed objects charging down river.

Gradually the storm ceased and the Lehigh’s waters began to lower. A local troop of Boy Scouts arrived on Adams Island the next morning. Helfrich and the Pitroskys, including baby Peter were safe. But try as they could there was not a trace of the unfortunate Gertrude Blaeser.

That grim task was left to her brother Aloysius. The newspapers reported only that he found her body.  They did not say where it was found.