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The River: The Great Flood of 1937 as told aboard the BB Riverboat Belle of Cincinnati in 2018


The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders shares the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. This a part of a long and continuing story. The Ohio River reached 70.99 feet 87 years ago in the Greater Cincinnati area. Capt. Don was reminded of this ’37 story being republished here from 2018. See how to order his The River hardback book below.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

The Great Ohio River Flood of 1937 took place in late January and February 1937. With damage stretching from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, one million people were left homeless, 385 were dead, and property losses reached $500 million. ($8.7 billion, today)

The ‘37 Flood resulted from unprecedented January rain throughout the region. January 1937 was the wettest month in Ohio since 1866 with a state average of 9.57 inches. Normal January precipitation is two to three inches. The highest Ohio rainfall was 14.88 inches in Fernbank, just west of Cincinnati, but the rain in Louisville, Kentucky surpassed even that total.

The Great Ohio River Flood of 1937 took place in late January and February 1937. With damage stretching from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, one million people were left homeless, 385 were dead, and property losses reached $500 million. ($8.7 billion, today)

The flood was particularly difficult for the City of Cincinnati where the river stayed above flood stage (52 feet) from January 18 until February 5 and reached its crest of 79.99 feet on Tuesday, January 26.  Communities along the Ohio River in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois also faced severe problems.  As the flood waters rose, gas tanks exploded, and oil fires erupted on the river. Parts of Cincinnati remained under water for nineteen days, and electricity and fresh water were in short supply.   On Jan. 24, after one million gallons of gasoline dumped into the Ohio River from ruptured storage tanks and the water caught on fire in Camp Washington. On the very same day, the city water’s supply ran dry. That day was so terrible, it is still remembered as “Black Sunday.”

On Jan. 26, 1937, the Ohio River crested at 34.5 feet in Pittsburgh, nearly 10 feet above flood stage but still less than the historic St. Patrick’s Day flood the year before when the river crested at a record 46 feet in the city. Waters reached significantly higher levels downstream; setting numerous records in other cities.

Many people lost their homes as a result of the flood. The 19-day flood drove 100,000 people out of their homes covered 15 percent of Cincinnati and 40 percent of Covington in water, killed eight, and caused more than $25 million in damage – roughly $435 million in 2017 dollars.

Lawrenceburg, Indiana was especially devastated. Water reached to the second floor of the three-story, Greek Revival Style, Dearborn County Courthouse and entire sections of the city were completely annihilated. After the waters receded, houses were found that had been rolled along like giant balls by the force of the flow. Much of Lawrenceburg remains today, devoid of pre-1937 houses and structures.

The flood was particularly difficult for the City of Cincinnati where the river stayed above flood stage (52 feet) from January 18 until February 5 and reached its crest of 79.99 feet on Tuesday, January 26.

Back in the 1937 flood, in the hamlet of Rabbit Hash, Kentucky across from Rising Sun, Indiana, only the Rabbit Hash General Store stayed put as the Ohio River swelled, thanks in part to a hook system that keeps it grounded. In 1997, the water reached the windowsills, which is about waist height if you’re standing in the store. As long as the Ohio River stays below 60 feet, the store will stay dry. Or as the late Don Claire explained:

“So, why is the General Store still there? The ’37 flood was not Rabbit Hash’s first encounter with Mother Nature. Significant Ohio River floods occurred in 1849, 1883, 1884, 1913, and 1937 – each sequentially reaching a higher depth. The people of Rabbit Hash could take a hint. The local blacksmith in the 1880’s devised a solution for the ever-threatening problem.  He designed and installed a series of threaded rods bolted on all four corners of the General Store between the bottom sill logs and top plate logs. Underneath the store, these rods have a hook. Another rod and hook system is anchored by concrete into the ground just below these rods. When flood waters rise and begin to float the store, these hooks engage and secure the building in place until the water subsides. There is still 1937 river mud in the attic of the General Store which attests to the efficiency of the protective system. It works so well that similar systems have been incorporated into the barn and museum buildings which are also prone to flooding.”

Fifteen miles downstream from the Rabbit Hash General store, on the Indiana shore, the thriving community of Patriot was ravaged by the raging waters that demolished most of the handsome brick and wooden buildings. Patriot, the birthplace of Engineer Elwood Mead for whom Lake Mead is named, never recovered from the ‘37 Flood.

In Louisville, the Ohio stayed above flood stage for twenty-three days. On January 27, the river crested at 85.4 feet, over thirty feet above flood stage (55 feet). More than 60 percent of the city was underwater and about 230,000 of Louisville’s 350,000 residents had to evacuate their homes. Rainfall in Louisville was a record 19.17 inches for the month. Property damage exceeded $250 million.  ($3.3 billion, today.)

Many people lost their homes as a result of the flood. The 19-day flood drove 100,000 people out of their homes, covered 15 percent of Cincinnati and 40 percent of Covington in water, killed eight, and caused more than $25 million in damage – roughly $435 million in 2017 dollars.

From Pittsburgh to Cairo, every town, city, farm, and facility along the flooded course of the Ohio River had similar tales of misery and suffering to tell and remember. The only bridge crossing the entire length of the Ohio River that remained open was the historic Roebling Suspension Bridge between Covington and Cincinnati.

The Ohio River Great Flood of January 1937 surpassed all prior floods during the previous 175 years of modern occupancy of the Ohio River Valley.  The overall scope of the flood surpassed the major floods of 1884 and 1773, and geological evidence suggests the 1937 flood outdid any previous flood.

The Evansville, Indiana Courier newspaper carried a brief page one story saying the Ohio River might reach flood stage (back then, 35 feet; but now, 42 feet) on January 10. Nothing too alarming, certainly not of biblical proportions like a river outside its banks for 40 days and nights. Evansville news in 1937 focused on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s impending second inaugural and a General Motors strike in Detroit. But the river and its tributaries kept rising. By January 17th, there were fears of backwater flooding “east side” basements and furnaces. Then came the downpours (16 inches in 11 days in the Ohio Valley), even an ice storm and snow for a slushy mess.

On January 22, with 51 Red Cross nurses arriving from Chicago, the Courier warned 120,000 residents the record flood of 1913 (48.4 feet) might be surpassed. Several thousand people evacuated as one-by-one, railroads and highways were closed by high water. People took refuge in local schools, churches, businesses or with families outside the flooding. Thousands got typhoid shots. The U.S. Army distributed clean water. Martial law was declared on the 24th.  By the last day of January, when the Ohio crested at 53.74 feet, almost 19 feet above flood stage — water was a foot deep at 8th and Main downtown. Five-hundred Evansville city blocks were a lake. About 7,500 structures were damaged to the tune of what today would be $300 million. The Ohio River didn’t recede inside its banks until February 19.

Lawrenceburg, Indiana was especially devastated. Water reached to the second floor of the three-story, Greek Revival Style, Dearborn County Courthouse and entire sections of the city were completely annihilated.

January 1937 opened with a two-week period of rain in Paducah, Kentucky on the lower end of the river, followed by a sleet storm. As residents were accustomed to rising waters, few were initially concerned. By January 19, however, it became clear that the water was reaching an ominous level, prompting the chairman of the Red Cross to appoint emergency committees. Emergency responses were complicated by downed lines of communication.
 
Telephones, telegraphs, and radio stations were rendered silent, leaving people to worry about the safety of their family and neighbors in Paducah and beyond. By January 30, water levels reached approximately fifty-nine feet, and the complete evacuation of the town came under military supervision.
 
The flood reached its highest point on February 2. Nearly ninety-five percent of Paducah was submerged as water levels swelled to 60.8 feet. When the water subsided, the displaced citizens of Paducah returned to unsafe buildings, utilities that required renovations, and millions of dollars in property damage.
 
After the disaster, talk of constructing a flood wall began circulating the city. On February 22, a petition was sent to the U.S. Congress to build a levee to protect Paducah. Work on it began soon after. A worst-case scenario test, conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1968, determined that the flood control available from dams on the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland Rivers, along with the Paducah floodwall, would prevent an occurrence like 1937 from happening again. Only time will tell.

Back in the 1937 flood, in the hamlet of Rabbit Hash, Kentucky across from Rising Sun, Indiana, only the Rabbit Hash General Store stayed put as the Ohio River swelled, thanks in part to a hook system that keeps it grounded.

Cairo is the southernmost city in the State of Illinois and located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers; some 981 miles downstream from the “Point” in Pittsburgh. Cairo at the time of the 1937 Flood was the only community on the Ohio River completely surrounded by levees due to its low elevation between the rivers.
 
These levees were strengthened by the Army Corps of Engineers after the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. As part of this project, the Engineers established the Bird’s Point-New Madrid Floodway. The Ohio River Flood of 1937 brought a record water level to Cairo that crested at 59.5 feet. To protect Cairo, the Corps of Engineers closed the floodgate and blew a breach in the Bird’s Point levee for the first time to relieve pressure on the Cairo flood wall.
 
The Cairo seawall levee reached a height of sixty feet. A newspaper account noted, “ “Water laps at emergency barrier atop sixty-foot seawall. Women, children ordered to flee as workers, handicapped by freezing weather, struggle to bolster defenses.”
 
Over a year before the flood, Mr. Cullen Cleary Franklin, a native of Franklin, Tennessee, a town outside Nashville named for a family ancestor, had a profitable small business which helped provide additional cash for his large family during the Great Depression. Mr. Franklin, better known as “C. C.” made and sold moonshine whiskey which he dispensed wherever men congregated around pool halls, card, and crap games and such. At a quarter-dollar a Mason Jar lid-full of his quality product, Mr. Franklin quietly supplemented his family’s income in those tough economically-challenged times.

One day as Franklin was readying a batch of “fixins” for his distillery, he was short the sugar needed for the fermentation; so he went “across the holler” to where a friend ran his own distilling enterprise to borrow from his friend’s sugar sack. Suddenly, Mr. Franklin was surrounded by a swarm of Federal Law Enforcement agents, the “revenuers” who had been staking out the friend’s still.  The government agents knew that the distillery wasn’t the property of C. C. Franklin, but they wanted him to “rat-out” the real owner or else become their guest at the “iron door hotel.” When Franklin refused to divulge the name of the rightful owner, he was sentenced to, and served, a year and a day in solitary confinement.

In Louisville, the Ohio stayed above flood stage for twenty-three days. On January 27, the river crested at 85.4 feet, over thirty feet above flood stage (55 feet).

When released from prison, C. C. realized that the next time he and the Feds would tangle, he would likely be killed. So he bid his wife and family adieu and set off north for Illinois to seek work and find a new home before sending for them. The former moonshiner arrived in Cairo, Illinois just as the torrential rains began to swell the Ohio River.

As the newspaper noted, the women and children were evacuated from the city of Cairo, but what the paper didn’t say was that all able-bodied men were, with the threat of a gun, involuntarily pressed into labor gangs to remain within the walled town to reinforce the levee as the water rose to the top of the concrete and earthen protection. Over 4,000 men fought the rising waters; among them was Mr. Cullen Cleary Franklin.

Another account read: “The brimming Ohio River, sloshing near the rim of the levee system here, advanced today on Cairo’s last line of flood defense – an eighteen-inch-thick wall of boards and earth. The wall, three feet high, is a hurriedly built superstructure crowning the sixty-foot barrier that saved the city from past floods. A wooden framework, reinforced with braces, was filled with sacks tamped full of dirt.”

Such was the work the Tennessee native was sharing with a small army of other men. As the deluge crested, the levee held. Cairo was saved and was the only city on the Ohio River that did not get its feet wet.

The industrious Mr. Franklin’s selfless labor was soon singled out for praise by both his fellow workers and those who oversaw the reinforcement of the seawall. While he worked along the riverbank, Franklin noticed that a large flotilla of shantyboats bobbed merrily along outside the levee. He saw that the simple floating homes were relatively unaffected by the flood and its aftermath. Simply put, the shantyboats went up with the rising water and came down with the tide as it fell.

The only bridge crossing the entire length of the Ohio River that remained open was the historic Roebling Suspension Bridge between Covington and Cincinnati.

Also of interest, were the plots of riverbank allocated to each floating houseboat where the occupants could grow most of their food. The Ohio and nearby Mississippi River were mined for their fishes that provides nourishment to the boatmen and their families as well as a source of cash and for barter from fish-hungry city folks as far away as Paducah and even St. Louis.

After the walled city was safe for the women and children to return, Mr. Franklin arranged for the purchase of a much-used shantyboat with a garden plot above it. Soon the Franklin family joined their father, and over the ensuing years, they prospered as shantyboaters and fishermen. As Mr. C. C. became more successful and was able to afford it, he purchased a farm outside of town. But still maintaining their connections with the river, he and his sons also became professional boatmen. His daughters succeeded and married well. Mr. Franklin’s youngest child, David became a licensed Captain and Pilot on the river, and on several occasions, Captain Dave L. Franklin was the Relief Captain of this very boat, the BELLE of CINCINNATI, we are cruising on now.
 
It is nearly 82 years since the Great Flood of 1937 when the Ohio River crested at 79.99 feet on the Cincinnati gauge; some 28 feet above flood stage, a historical height history never seen before. You know what happened: It had rained and snowed and sleeted that January. It was, and still is, our wettest month on record at four times more than the average precipitation. At one point in the 10-day deluge of 1937, the river rose four feet in 24 hours. At another point, the flood traveled at 894,000 cubic feet of water per second. That’s 55,696,200 pounds or 27,848 tons per second! Yipes!! A lotta weight.

The flood reached its highest point on February 2. Nearly ninety-five percent of Paducah was submerged as water levels swelled to 60.8 feet.

After the floodwaters receded, governments on all levels sought to tame this ancient, wild thing of a river. New walls were built.  There’s the Serpentine Wall guarding Yeatman’s Cove now. On the other side of the river, the flood walls in Covington and Newport face Cincinnati were built to a height of 80-feet. Eighty-feet sound familiar? Portsmouth, upstream from Cincy, had built walls in front of the river since 1908. But those didn’t stop the river in 1937. So more walls were built on top of the old ones.  New levees and reservoirs were constructed, and so were flood gates and pumping stations.

In 1938, Congress passed the Flood Control Act. That funded 75 flood-control projects along the Ohio River and its tributaries. It built lakes and reservoirs. There are some half dozen agencies, from our backyard and beyond, that are now monitoring every gallon of water in the Ohio River, for speed and temperature. For quality and quantity. For changes and constants.
 
Will there be another flood as awesome, or exceeding the Great 1937 Flood? Will there be an earthquake worse that the one that devastated San Francisco in 1906? Scientists say that both scenarios are possible, and quite probably, given that conditions are right.

Again, only time will tell…
 
Historic Ohio River Crests:

• (1) 80.00 ft on 01/26/1937
• (2) 71.10 ft on 02/14/1884
• (3) 69.90 ft on 04/01/1913 – Capt. Jesse Hughes told of this one.
• (4) 69.20 ft on 03/07/1945
• (5) 66.30 ft on 02/15/1883
• (6) 66.20 ft on 03/11/1964 – I witnessed this flood at Kennedy Park.
• (7) 65.20 ft on 01/21/1907
• (8) 64.80 ft on 04/18/1948 –  My dad and I observed this one.
• (9) 64.70 ft on 03/05/1997 – I was at Metropolis, IL.

• (10) 63.60 ft on 03/21/1933
• (11) 62.20 ft on 01/14/1913
• (12) 62.10 ft on 03/18/1907
• (13) 61.80 ft on 02/12/1918
• (14) 61.40 ft on 03/29/1898
• (15) 61.32 ft on 03/03/1962
• (16) 61.27 ft on 03/01/1962
• (17) 61.20 ft on 02/01/1918
• (18) 61.20 ft on 02/26/1897
• (19) 61.00 ft on 03/10/1955 – I was on flood at Walt’s boat Harbor.
• (20) 60.80 ft on 01/04/1943
• (21) 60.60 ft on 03/28/1936
• (22) 60.04 ft on 04/24/1940

Cairo at the time of the 1937 Flood was the only community on the Ohio River completely surrounded by levees due to its low elevation between the rivers.

Men piling sandbags along the levee during flood of the Ohio River in Cairo, Illinois. Photograph by Russell Lee, February 1937.

Franklin noticed that a large flotilla of shantyboats bobbed merrily along outside the levee. He saw that the simple floating homes were relatively unaffected by the flood and its aftermath. Simply put, the shantyboats went up with the rising water and came down with the tide as it fell.

Mr. Franklin’s youngest child, David became a licensed Captain and Pilot on the river, and on several occasions, Captain Dave L. Franklin was the Relief Captain of this very boat, the BELLE of CINCINNATI, we are cruising on now.

Will there be another flood as awesome, or exceeding the Great 1937 Flood? Again, only time will tell…

Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He has been a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before he learned to drive a “machine” and became a captain in the USAF. He is an adventurer, a historian, and a storyteller. Now, he is a columnist for the NKyTribune and will share his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good.

 
 

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Enjoy Captain Don Sanders’ stories of the river — in the book.

ORDER YOUR RIVER BOOK HERE

Capt. Don Sanders The River: River Rat to steamboatman, riding ‘magic river spell’ to 65-year adventure is now available for $29.95 plus handling and applicable taxes. This beautiful, hardback is 264-pages of riveting storytellings, replete with hundreds of pictures from Capt. Don’s collection — and reflects his meticulous journaling, unmatched storytelling, and his appreciation for detail. This historically significant book is available just in time for Christmas gifting — and for the collections of every devotee of the river.

You may purchase your books by mail from the Northern Kentucky Tribune — or you may find the book for sale at all Roebling Books locations and at the Behringer Crawford Museum and the St. Elizabeth Healthcare gift shops.

Order your Captain Don Sanders’ ‘The River’ book here.   


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3 Comments

  1. Virginia Rhynders says:

    Thanks for republishing this fascinating article. So interesting, as always

  2. Michael Gore says:

    Thanks, Capt. Don and NKYTribune, for this interesting and well chronicled reminder of the power of a river over its subjects in the realm of its plain when at flood. The experts say that if the same amount of rain were to fall again over the same area as in January 1937, it will result in lower flood crests with the aid of all the retention reservoirs up the many tributaries. That gives a great comfort, but knowing the river and its atmospheric feeder, I sometimes wonder about the if and when of the next rain apocalypse that far surpasses anything before.

  3. Cora Reade- Hale says:

    Thanks, Capt. Don for bringing these flood details to life.and Thanks NKyTribune for running it again as we experience another rain soaked Winter.
    My Dad told me of the floods of 1913 & 1937 . But somehow I forgot his tellng was just a piece of those great floods & others & effects areas outside of Cincy.

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