By: Michael S Sheaffer
As a kid I had heard the stories of my grandfather Harry G Sheaffer family living on an island in the middle of the Susquehanna river in Harrisburg, Pa in 1936. Growing up I had heard they were rescued after days stranded on the island on which they had made there home since around 1928 although they farmed it for many years before moving on the island. The island itself sits in the middle of the Susquehanna which is a mile wide. Old lore was my grandfather’s siblings would row to shore go to work and row back. If they worked opposite they would swim to shore to go to work, not sure if you could or would want to swim across the mighty Susquehanna during its peak season of water depth but my grandfather’s family has been known to enhance a story or two over time. Living in Harrisburg as a kid I often would see the island and wonder what life was like living there. I never knew much about the living arrangements on the island other than they rented it from the city of Harrisburg. As the years went on I often wondered about the stories I had heard and wondered how they actually were rescued. A few years ago I decided to research the timeline of the events surrounding the flood and rescue. I was fortunate enough to locate the actual newspaper articles that had showed what happened. To my amazement this was front page news for 2 days and showed several photographs of my family and it’s island home. All the questions I had wondered about growing up were answered in the article and it’s in-depth interviews of the family gave me a great amount of genealogy data to use.
The flood I always assumed was in the spring or early summer as that is the rainy season here in South Central Pennsylvania and when flooding is most likely. It actually occurred on January 9 from a quick warm up in temperatures that thawed the icy river. A quick thaw and fast rising river led to the family having to be rescued, which was covered thoroughly by the Harrisburg newspapers. Having lived in the Harrisburg area all my life I have myself been a witness to 3 major floods over the years. I lived 2 blocks off of the Susquehanna and the great Hurricane Agnes 1972 flood that devastated and stranded the city for days. then there was the 1975 not as devastating but itself caused a great disruption in services and finally in 2011 Tropical Storm Lee left its imprint on the city history as well.
With the newspaper closely following the plight of my grandfather’s family I was fortunate to see photographs included of the family which they were all identified and with ages. I was able to see in a photograph my grandfather who was 8 years old at the time, something I had never seen before. By seeing the photo of my grandfather I could see my oldest son had a resemblance to him at around the same age. The rescue in itself was a complete success as all were rescued with no injuries. The family would be forced however to leave the island and move within the city but it left a great story that was and is still being told. I have even pointed out the island to my own kids over the years recalling the story I was told and researched. The island itself would no longer be used for farming and now is fully overgrown with trees. I always have said I want to go on the island be able to trace where my family once lived.
Surprisingly this was not the first time the Sheaffer family had a narrow escape on the river.
On March 31st 1931 an article detailing Ralph Sheaffer with 2 sons and 2 sons in-laws detailed how they had narrowly escaped serious injury in which a flat boat they operated by cable broke loose, and if not for skillfully steering the boat to safety would they have likely been in danger if drifted aloft down the river.