“Water, Water, Everywhere, nor any Drop to Drink”

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge penned this in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but I’m going to co-opt it for this blog about the 1937 flood of the Ohio River. You may be thinking, oh, no, not another article about Evansville and the flood … and you’d be right! I’m going to focus on other locations, and there won’t be much text, concentrating on telling the story visually with some explanations.

The Ohio River is 981 miles long, beginning in Pittsburgh, PA where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers meet, and it ends in Cairo, IL where it empties into the Mississippi River. In January 1937 there were torrential rains. There were about 14 inches of rain in Cincinnati, nearly 15 in Evansville, and almost 20 in Louisville. “Overall, total precipitation for January was four times its normal amount in the areas surrounding the river. In fact, there were only eight days in January when the Louisville station recorded no rain. These heavy rains, coupled with an already swollen river, caused a rapid rise in the river’s level.” Flooding was inevitable.

Everyone knows that water flows downstream, so the Ohio River thus flows northeast to southwest. The unusual thing about this flood is the way or order in which the various tributaries flooded and thus contributed to the flooding of the Ohio. The tributaries on the lower Ohio (i.e., those nearer the mouth of the river in Cairo, IL) flooded earlier than those near the headwaters in Pittsburgh dd, giving the odd appearance that the flood moved from the mouth (near Cairo, IL) to the headwaters (Pittsburgh, PA). This was not true, but that is how it appeared, and this is how we’re going to take a look at the pictures.

Let’s head back to 1937 and up the river!

Sometimes the aftermath of the flood had ironic consequences, such as this picture of a mule pulling a car! At other times, there was pathos – a family’s ruined belongings, possibly even family heirlooms, piled up by a shed.

Skipping Evansville, we now come to Henderson. While the low-lying areas around the town certainly suffered flooding devastation, the city itself held the distinction of being the only town along the river without water within its city limits. As of “Feb. 1, … Henderson was safe and dry. Utilities were working, refugees were being housed, food was well supplied and businesses continued to operate, some of them around the clock. “Our visitors are well-fed and well entertained,” The Gleaner reported the next day. “Thousands of toys have been given to the children, and games and magazines have been distributed to the adults. We are just one big family, thankful that our forefathers selected the highest point on the Ohio River for our homes.”” Just because the city itself wasn’t flooded didn’t mean it got off scot-free. The bridge across the river flooded and was unavailable for a period of time. Trains could not get through. Getting in and out of Henderson meant a circuitous route “via Zion, Niagara, Robards, Dixon, Slaughters, Hanson and Madisonville.” Water availability was lost twice and residents were ordered to boil all water. Finally, through the generosity of Hendersonians, there were 16 refugee camps within the city, but this brought its own challenges. “At least 2,649 refugees were housed here temporarily increasing Henderson’s population by about 22 percent so diseases such as typhoid fever, scarlet fever and influenza were a very real concern. At least 33,000 vaccinations were administered locally. Mandatory immunization for typhoid fever was done on all refugees, and vaccines were also provided by the U.S. Public Health Service for tetanus, diphtheria and smallpox. At least nine people with scarlet fever were quarantined, as of mid-February, and 7-year-old Reba Daugherty died of it.

The small town (2010 Census: 238) of Leavenworth, IN was laid out in 1818 on the banks of an oxbow bend in the Ohio River, below the bluff. The picture below is ample evidence for why the entire town, in 1938, moved to a location atop the bluff, although there are still some businesses in the lower town. I’m NOT a paid spokesperson for them and will not be compensated for this, but a trip to Leavenworth and a meal at the Overlook Inn are well worth your time. The food is good, and the views of that oxbow bend from atop the bluff are spectacular.

This photograph from New Albany, IN demonstrates just how “capricious” a flood can be. Note the homes in the foreground are not in water, but those in the background are, as evidenced by the house in the middle of the street that has come off its foundation. Furthermore, merely one block away from this view of Spring and Jay, the water at Spring Street and Silver Street just touched the bottom of the traffic signal there at the January 27 cresting of the flood water.

Moving on to the largest city in Kentucky, we find that on “the morning of January 24 the entire Ohio River was above flood stage. In Louisville, the river rose 6.3 feet from January 21-22. As a result, the river reached nearly 30 feet above flood stage. Louisville, where light and water services had failed, was the hardest hit city along the Ohio River. On January 27, the river reached its crest at 460 feet above sea level or 40 feet above its normal level, which is well over a 100-year event. Almost 70 percent of the city was under water, and 175,000 people were forced to leave their homes. The U.S. Weather Bureau reported that total flood damage for the entire state of Kentucky was $250 million, an incredible sum in 1937. The number of flood-related deaths rose to 190. The flood completely disrupted the life of Louisville, inundating 60% of the city and 65 square miles.

On Jan. 26, 1937 a fifth of the city of Cincinnati was under water and across the river conditions were worse, with about one-third of the river cities of Kenton and Campbell counties under water. Nearly one of every eight people in the Tristate were left homeless. … At Coney Island, carousel horses became unglued and floated away to later be found in Paducah, Kentucky, according to the amusement park’s recounting of the flood. In Cincinnati, residents were not just dealing with homelessness. High water forced the power plant offline and limited power was diverted from Dayton, Ohio. At least 10 gas tanks exploded and there were oil fires on the Ohio and in Mill Creek Valley…. Still, somewhat remarkably there were only two deaths in Cincinnati as a result of the flood.

In Point Pleasant, OH, Ulysses S. Grant's birthplace was nearly submerged by flood waters on January 26, 1937. Source: https://bit.ly/3o0jGoG
In Point Pleasant, OH, Ulysses S. Grant’s birthplace was nearly submerged by flood waters on January 26, 1937. Source: https://bit.ly/3o0jGoG

Getting near the end of our trip now … just a couple of pictures from West Virginia and finally Pittsburgh, PA where the river begins, and the flood ended.

The flooding on the Ohio River caused its tributaries to back up, causing flooding in places like Hazleton, IN and Patoka, IN that aren’t near the banks of the Ohio. Advances in engineering, etc. have given us a better handle on flood control, rendering another flood of this magnitude unlikely. Still, never say never to Mother Nature!

Artistic rendering of map of the Ohio-Mississippi Valley Flood Disaster of 1937, showing American Red Cross locations.  Not to scale. Source: UASC, MSS 272-1164.
Artistic rendering of map of the Ohio-Mississippi Valley Flood Disaster of 1937, showing American Red Cross locations (not to scale). Source: UASC, MSS 272-1164.

Resources Consulted

1937 Flood: U.S. Army Corps of Engineer Photographs, Huntington, WV, During the 1937 Ohio River Valley Flood, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Huntington, W. Va. District) dispatched Corps photographers to capture the extent of the damage in the Huntington area. These photos are a portion of the Marshall University Regional Photograph Collection, a continually expanding collection of photographs of individuals, groups, buildings, locations, and activities of the Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia region. The manuscript collection accession number for The Regional Photograph Collection is 1978/04.0227.

Beyer, Richard. “Hell and High Water: The Flood of 1937 in Southern Illinois.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, March 1938, Vol.31 (1), pgs. 5-21.

Boyett, Frank. “Floodless city: Henderson was a refuge during historic 1937 flood.” Henderson Gleaner, January 28, 2017. 

“A Business Survey of the Flood.” Barron’s, February 1, 1937, Vol. 17(5), p. 9.

Eleven Days of Rain: the Ohio River Valley Flood of 1937. January 12, 2020. Orangebeanindiana.com

Flooding History in Louisville. Louisville MSD

The Floods. ExploreNewAlbany.com

The Great Flood of 1937. National Weather Service (Louisville, KY office)

Historic Ohio River Flood of 1937. National Weather Service (Wilmington, OH office)

LaBarbara, Jane Metters. The Flood of 1937. Blog posting from West Virginia University Libraries, January 26th, 2015.

Noble, Greg. From The Vault: Great Ohio River flood of 1937 was biggest event in Tri-State history. WPCO, Cincinnati ABC affiliate, January 25, 2018.University of Pittsburgh Library Systems Digital Collection

This entry was posted in Evansville, Indiana, Indiana history, Local history, Natural Disasters. Bookmark the permalink.

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