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Our Rich History: The floods of 1883 and 1884 in Newport — the ‘beautiful water’ escapes its banks

By Deborah Pitel
Special to NKyTribune

Part 24 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020”

The Ohio River was named by the Seneca from their word oheeyo, meaning “beautiful water.” Early pioneers were awed by the presence of the river, and President Thomas Jefferson called it “the most beautiful river on earth” (David Welky, The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Although beautiful, the Ohio River revealed a dangerous secret when she rose above her banks. The earliest record of flooding in the Cincinnati area was recorded in 1773 by three brothers, James, George and John Medfee, of Botetourt County, Virginia. The brothers were visiting the Ohio Valley for the purpose of seeking a place to buy land and settle (S. B. Nelson, History of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, Ohio. Cincinnati: S.B. Nelson & Co, 1894, p. 301). The manuscript reports of these three Virginia explorers suggest that the Ohio was “full, bluff to bluff” in June 1773 (Nelson, p. 92).

Newport Barracks, flood of 1884. Courtesy of Paul A. Tenkotte.)

The first Ohio River flood recorded by federal government records occurred on Feb. 22, 1859, when the river went 10.4 feet above the then-flood stage at Cincinnati of 45 feet. Between 1883 and 2019, there have been 22 major floods in the Cincinnati area with a crest above 60 feet, all occurring between the months of January and April. The highest flood ever recorded in the Ohio Valley was in 1937 when the river crested at 80 (79.99) feet on Jan. 26. Prior to the great flood of 1937, the crest of the 1884 flood on Feb. 14 had held the record at 71.1 feet. The third-highest flood occurred in 1913 when the Ohio River crested at 69.9 feet on April 1. (“Ohio River History—Cincinnati,” National Weather Service)

During these major floods, the West End of Newport was one of the most affected neighborhoods. Despite the devastation dealt to them through the flooding, the families and business owners of the West End were resilient and had the courage and strength to survive and rebuild.

In the late 19th century, the population of the United States was approximately 50 million, and the nation was experiencing an industrial boom. Throughout this time, life and economics in Newport revolved around the Ohio and Licking Rivers. These rivers served as a source of trade, transport and employment. Residents had long discovered how to use the river to their advantage for business, defense, and natural resources. When flooding occurred, commerce and life came to a screeching halt as people were forced to wait out the waters. Throughout those early years, the citizens of Newport had been through some minor floods, but nothing like they would experience in 1883 and 1884. A dreadful flood occurred in 1883 when the Ohio River reached 66.3 feet on Feb. 15, and many residents hoped that it would be only a once-in-a-lifetime event. Unfortunately, those beliefs were mistaken, and a much worse disaster was looming on the horizon.

January 1884 was a brutally cold month, and the frozen ground blocked any snow from penetrating the soil. The temperature warmed considerably in February, only to welcome heavy rain as the area received 6.82 inches of rain from Feb. 3-14 (A.H. Horton, and H. J. Jackson. The Ohio Valley Flood of March-April, 1913. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1913, p. 41). Conditions had become favorable for a flood—excessive rainfall with accumulated snow on the ground with continual warmer air invading from the South.

On February 5, 1884, the most disastrous flood in the Ohio Valley up to that point began and lasted for 12 days. Already by Feb. 7, 1,000 buildings in Newport were underwater, including 25 groceries and saloons, 2 rolling mills, a sawmill, and 2 foundries. Not only were many people homeless, but over 1,000 lost work when the manufacturing companies were forced to stop production (“Newport, Kentucky: One Thousand Homes Underwater,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Feb. 7, 1884).

Sensing this was going to be a disaster of unseen proportions, the Newport Chamber of Commerce created a flood relief committee and set up a relief store in the Newport courthouse to distribute food and supplies to the homeless. On February 11, 2,500 houses were underwater and 15,000 residents were homeless. The reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer tried to express the devastation in Newport on that day as he wrote, “The wail of suffering is heard all over Newport in spite of the vigorous efforts that have been made by the Relief Committee. The situation is alarming and no city or town along the Ohio River is suffering like Newport” (“At Newport: Twenty-five Hundred Houses Underwater,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Feb. 11, 1884).

During the flooding, more than 20,000 spectators traveled over the Covington and Newport Suspension Bridge into Newport to view the rising waters. The few dry streets of Newport were crowded with observers trying to get a glimpse of the devastation. Onlookers witnessed a sea of desolate waters, with partially flooded dwellings and manufactories. Residents fled into the streets, many of them with all they possessed loaded in a wagon, with husband, wife and children following along behind, desperately seeking safety (John L. Vance, The Great Flood of 1884 in the Ohio Valley. Gallipolis, OH: The Bulletin Office, 1884, p. 101).

Boat operators, seeing an opportunity to make a profit, began charging people to take them into the submerged district, and sightseers eagerly paid up to $3 per hour for a trip. One skiff owner told a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter that he had already made $40 taking “pleasure parties” through the flooded streets of Newport, and the day was not yet over. That same day, the reporter saw a man with a grappling hook fishing in the water. “What are you looking for, old man?” said the writer. “I am trying to find my house,” declared the man, “I left it here two or three days ago” (“At Newport: Twenty-five Hundred Houses Underwater,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Feb. 11, 1884).

This photo, probably taken from the roof of the Shinkle mansion on East Second Street in Covington, is looking across the Licking River at the Newport Barracks and Newport, flood of 1884. (Courtesy of NKyViews)

The water surpassed the mark of the prior 1883 flood on Feb. 12, when it met at the corner of Columbia and Bellevue streets. Houses that could be seen the day before were completely hidden from view, and nearly two-thirds of the buildings in Newport were submerged. The water also had a strong current that caused houses sitting on foundations to be lifted. Fearful owners tied their homes to trees or telegraph poles to keep them from floating away. As the water quickly approached, residents who had moved everything to the second stories of their home were also being forced to leave.

Many people fled to area schools and churches, which had been turned into emergency shelters. By this time, the public water service had been turned off, and relief provisions were being depleted. The relief store had served breakfast to 4,000 people on Feb. 12, but still had to turn 3,000 hungry citizens back into the streets. Relief workers worried about a food shortage in Newport, as it cost about $800 a day to operate the relief store, and donations were desperately needed. Fortunately, area residents were quick to donate money and goods for the flood victims. Each day, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported a long list of people and what they gave for the flood relief efforts (“At Newport: Desperate Situation – Relief Gives Out – People Fleeing,” Cincinnati Enquirer, February 12, 1884).

The soldiers of the Newport Barracks were forced to vacate the second floor there on February 11th and to take housing on the third floor. The parade grounds, once the scene of many memorable gatherings, contained at least ten feet of water, and the floodwaters were over the porches of the barracks. Many speculated that this flood would destroy the prospects of the Barracks remaining in Newport. A military gentleman told the Cincinnati Enquirer that, “the people of Newport may as well give up the idea of retaining the Barracks here. The government officials have had enough with three floods, and do not propose to risk the fourth” (“At Newport: The Falling Waters Reveal Sad Sights,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Feb. 18, 1884). Meanwhile, the soldiers at the Barracks had been active in efforts since the start of the flooding, manning two relief boats.

The Ohio River finally crested on Feb. 14, 1884, at 71.75 feet. The city of Newport had suffered greatly in proportion to its population. Of Newport’s population of 25,000 people, 18,000 were homeless and 5,000 buildings were underwater. On the day of the crest, the relief store assisted 13,000 people and distributed 2,000 gallons of coffee, 2,000 gallons of soup, 8,000 loaves of bread, 2,500 pounds of cooked ham and 400 pounds of beef (“At Newport: The Suffering Increases – Fearful Destruction of Property,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Feb. 15, 1884).

With the water finally receding on Feb. 15, the conditions of the properties in the flooded district could be ascertained. Some brick houses had caved in when their foundations washed away, while wooden frame bungalows were warped into every conceivable shape. A number of them floated away, and nearly every street in the flooded area was blocked by a house that had been moved from its foundation. Outhouses and heaps of fencing were aimlessly floating in the streets (“At Newport: The Suffering Increases – Fearful Destruction of Property,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Feb. 15, 1884).

Homes that looked comfortable and pleasant before the flood were transformed into one mass of indescribable debris. Some people were identifying property that had floated a half-mile away. It was the working class in the West End who suffered the most, as more than 200 houses were completely destroyed there. Families who owned their small home before the flood came back to find their only shelter had been swept away by the waters. If their house wasn’t gone, it may have been lying on its side or standing on its end, or still floating around at the mercy of the water. Overturned houses and cottages became common sights, and in one place, a whole row of one-story dwellings had floated away in a confused heap (Vance, p. 101).

The Newport Fire Department assisted in the cleanup efforts as they worked to tow back 30 houses that had floated from their foundations. It took several weeks to repair the manufacturing establishments in the city so they could reopen, giving work to the thousands who had been unemployed. During that time, the working men had to be cared for by the relief committee. The relief store was giving away approximately 8,000 pounds of meat, 4,000 gallons of soup, 8,000 gallons of coffee and 8,000 loaves of bread per day (“The Situation at Newport: Four Thousand Houses Underwater,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Feb. 17, 1884). In total, the Relief Committee received and distributed $111,000 worth of supplies (equal to $2.9 million in 2020) (“The Flood,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Dec. 26, 1884).

Finally, on Feb. 18, the water had receded enough to allow people a chance to clean their homes. Residents could be seen scrubbing out their premises and building fires in rooms in an effort to dry them. In the second stories, where the water had barely reached in some places, people were living with a comparative degree of safety. However, the long soaking that both brick and wood houses received caused the walls to show visible signs of weakness, so safety could never be guaranteed (“At Newport: The Falling Waters Reveal Sad Sights,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Feb. 18, 1884). City Council, in conjunction with the relief committee, took steps to have the streets cleaned after the water receded to prevent disease and to bring a sense of normalcy back to the community (“Newport: People Scrubbing Their Houses – The Demand for Relief Increasing,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Feb. 19, 1884). The residents of Newport repaired, rebuilt, and reclaimed their neighborhoods. Resiliency emerged victorious, as ordinary life resumed.

Deborah Pitel is a graduate of the MA in Public History program at Northern Kentucky University. She is the author of Marketing on a Shoestring Budget: A Guide for Small Museums and Historic Sites, published in conjunction with the American Association for State and Local History.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at NKU (Northern Kentucky University) and the author of many books and articles.

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