The Great Floods of 1931 at Gaoyou

By Steve Harnsberger

This page last updated 09/25/07

The Reconstruction

General Wang Chinese General Wang Shuxiang

Three volunteers, previously unknown in Jiangsu, spearheaded the Gaoyou reconstruction.

The first, Chinese Buddhist Hermit Lin, who upon learning of the floods, descended from his mountain monk’s retreat and sacrificed everything he owned including selling his own home to raise $200,000. Lin’s great donation enabled the Gaoyou restoration project.. Lin wrote of the donation, “How can I save myself if I do not help save others?”font

The second, American Presbyterian Missionary Thomas Harnsberger of Taizhou, instigated the project on behalf of the Shanghai based, China Foreign Famine Relief Commission. Harnsberger inspired the plan, managed the finances and distribution of 2000 tons of American wheat to stop the famine in Jiangsu.

The third, a brilliant Chinese General and Engineer by the name of Wang Shuxiang, supervised the dike reconstruction operation, leading 20,000 laborers and 70 foremen in rebuilding the vital dikes. Reconstruction was carried out entirely by hand at 6 different breach locations; these “pounded earth” levees were 120 foot wide, 30 feet high with a 30 foot crown. They stand firm to this day.

Gaoyou Dike Rebuilding

Dike workers hurling the 200 lb lime stones for compacting the dirt dikes. Click for larger image

Gaoyou Dike Rebuilding

Sampans transport the soil to Gaoyou Dikes on the Grand Canal. Click for larger image.

When the project was completed in 1932, the National Flood Relief Commission Report would identify Gaoyou as the site of one of the finest reconstruction projects in the country. Delivered on time, under budget and free from the prevailing government thievery, corruption and waste, the Gaoyou dike reconstruction project demonstrated what could be accomplished through the strength of the collective human spirit in overcoming a disaster of unimaginable proportions. Wang and Harnsberger managed 20,000 workers, paid every day, and fought back the threats of extortion and violence from the local warlord General Ma. Over 2000 tons of relief wheat from the USA was sold to supplement the $200,000 great donation from the Buddhist Hermit Lin. Family traditions tells that following the completion of the dikes, that Thomas refunded relief money to the Relief Commission and that the gracious Jiangsu people referred to the two men thereafter as the “saviors of Jiangsu.”

Gaoyou Dike rebuilding

Stone facing the Grand Canal dikes took place later in 1933. Click for larger Image.

Gaoyou Dike Completed

The completed 500 Meter Long Grand Canal Dike at Gaoyou. Built entirely by human effort, without power tools, or heavy equipment. Click for larger image

Charles & Anne Lindbergh Charles & Anne Lindbergh

Charles and Anne Lindbergh

Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne played a pivotal role in the 1931 China Flood, performing aerial surveys of the Northern Jiangsu flood area. On Sept. 19, 1931, Charles and Anne Lindbergh arrived in Nanjing, completing the first ever human flight to the Orient. From their Lockheed mono plane the “Sirius”, they witnessed a scene from above like no other: the disastrous flooding of Northern Jiangsu. Lindbergh immediately volunteered their services to survey the flood and on Sept. 21st, flew over 8000 sq. miles of the Jiangsu flooded area. Anne described their flight north up the Grand Canal in her first book “North to the Orient” where they flew directly over the Gaoyou levee breaks (without identifying them) and took some of the earliest ever aerial disaster photos, revealing the unfathomable scope of the devastation. These photos were discovered in the home of a 93 year old woman Damaris Peck, who father was the US Chancellor to the Nationalists and whose family hosted the Lindbergh's in their Nanjing home. Later, on his third survey flight Charles was nearly overcome by mobs as a horde of sampans encroached upon his plane in Hsingwa. They thought he brought food, when the cargo was only several boxes of medicine. Lindbergh was forced to pull a revolver and shoot towards the sky to regain control and took off hurriedly in flight to escape.

Charles & Anne Lindbergh in Nanjing Charles & Anne Lindbergh arrive in Nanjing 9/20/31 in front of Nanjing Wall
Lindbergh's Plane in Nanjing Lindbergh’s Plane at the Nanjing Wall
Lindbergh's Plane Lindbergh plane goes into Yangtze.
10/2/31 Photo - John Aengus Burke

In the end, on Oct. 2nd, the Yangtze flood of 1931 would also be the demise of the Lindbergh's, plane, swamping it outside Hankou in its mad currents, and sending it under the Yangtze’s muddy swirls.


Click here for a September 22nd, 1931 New York Times article about the Lindbergh's work documenting the floods.

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