The Great Flood of Budapest

Carving depicting Miklos Wesselenyi during The Great Flood of Budapest


The Danube is the heart of Budapest. As it divides the city into two halves (Buda & Pest), it adds significantly to the allure and grandeur of the “Pearl of the Danube,” as Budapest is often called. But the river was not always friendly. You could see why if you went to the river bank around the New Year. The water reached the roads closest to the river. The famous memorial “Shoes on the Danube,” which commemorates Jews killed here in the winter of 1944, was completely covered by water!

The Shoes on the Danube memorial completely covered with water

The Shoes on the Danube memorial was completely covered with water

The high water is nothing compared to what happened at the end of the 1830s. As you stroll through the lesser-known streets of central Budapest, you may come across stone markers placed at various heights. These serve as reminders of the historic flood, called The Great Flood of Budapest, that engulfed the city in mid-March 1838. It is truly remarkable to witness these inscriptions, each indicating the highest point reached by the floodwaters, around 2.5 meters deep. This devastating event prompted significant urban development efforts that continue to shape the city to this day. The great flood of Budapest, which started on March 13th, 1838, left a huge mark on the city, extending far beyond these unassuming stone memorials.

One of the markers showing the level of water on March 15, 1838: The Great Flood of Budapest

One of the markers showing the level of water on March 15, 1838

Devastating natural calamity

In March 1838, a devastating natural calamity unfolded as the Danube River swelled beyond its limits, inundating the entire Pest side with meters of water. This catastrophic flood resulted in the loss of numerous Hungarian lives, leaving over 50,000 individuals without a place to call home. According to records, 2485 (2281 in Pest) houses collapsed, and 1089 buildings were severely damaged.

During the harsh winter, the freezing temperatures caused the Danube River to solidify up to Vienna. However, as the first signs of spring appeared, the frozen river started to break apart, resulting in rising water levels. Unfortunately, Budapest’s riverbanks were not adequately designed to withstand such flooding, and the riverbed between Buda and Pest was shallow, leading to the accumulation of ice floes in the downtown area of the Danube. Consequently, the flow of water downstream was obstructed.

Under the cover of nightfall, the frigid river surged, causing the small-scale dams to break and the embankments to be breached. In response to this crisis, Archduke Joseph, Palatine of Hungary, appointed Janos Lonyay as the royal flood commissioner. They immediately embarked on a mission to address the dire situation at hand.

A map carved in stone shows the devastation in 1838.

A map carved in stone shows the devastation in 1838.

To aid the affected population, they distributed complimentary maps that delineated the flooded areas. Many citizens sought refuge in the confines of City Park, located beyond the borders of the flooded regions. Others sought solace within a small hilltop chapel, which would later stand as the revered St. Stephan’s Basilica. Deeply grateful for their rescue, these survivors initiated a movement to gather donations for the construction of a grand basilica. Hence, the historic flood of 1838 remains intricately linked to the birth of Budapest’s largest church.

“Boatman of the Flood”

Baron Miklos Wesselenyi, known as the “Boatman of the Flood,” chronicled the events in his diary. As he stood alongside locals, observing the ice disaster, they mistakenly believed it had subsided around 5 pm. Seeking entertainment, Baron Wesselenyi attended a theater performance, unaware that the city was already engulfed in rapidly rising waters. The tolling of bells signaled the urgency for the people of Pest to abandon their belongings and seek refuge on rooftops or any elevated areas to escape the icy deluge.

Baron Miklos Wesselenyi saved many lives during the Great Flood of Budapest

Baron Miklos Wesselenyi saved many lives during the Great Flood of Budapest

Displaying great heroism, Baron Wesselenyi embarked on a courageous mission, rescuing numerous citizens using his boat. He diligently gathered survivors from collapsed houses and transported them to secure and dry locations such as the upper floors and attics of sturdier buildings.

The city underwent a significant transformation due to The Great Flood of Budapest, leading to the creation of new buildings and neighborhoods. It also catalyzed improved water management initiatives, including measures to control the Danube River, reinforce its banks, and implement a more efficient drainage system. Consequently, the city experienced a rebirth, emerging stronger and better equipped to handle potential natural disasters.