When I was a kid, I remember my grandparents and others of their generation talking about the 1937 flood that had affected our town, Portsmouth, Ohio.
As a child, I only thought about “the flood” as being in Portsmouth. It did not occur to me that if the Ohio River was flooded at Portsmouth, it was probably high everywhere else (or at least everywhere else downstream), by the very nature of rivers. But when I got older and more interested and did a little research on it — okay, a lot of research (I wrote my 2005 history honors thesis on the 1937 flood) — I quickly learned that it was definitely not a localized incident but an extremely widespread disaster. It affected pretty much every community along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, breaking previous flood records in many of them.
For example, Portsmouth had long bragged that it was “flood-proof” thanks to a floodwall that would protect against a river height of 62 feet — which never quite made sense to me since the 1913 flood at Portsmouth reached over 68 feet. (So why brag about a 62-foot floodwall?) However, on January 27, the Ohio River crested at over 74 feet at Portsmouth, 12 feet higher than the floodwall. Thankfully, since then, a new 77 foot wall has been built, and so far, so good.
But back to the 1937 Flood… This year is the 75th anniversary of the 1937 Flood, and I couldn’t just let it pass without saying a word — not when I spent the better part of my senior year of college reading and writing about it.
I know that a lot of the affected communities are holding commemorative events this month to remember the flood. Unfortunately, I will be missing them, since I no longer live along the Ohio River, but if you have a chance, check them out some of the 1937 Flood commemorative events in cities like Cincinnati (library event list) and Portsmouth (event list).
If photos are what you’re interested in — and who isn’t? — you should definitely check these out:
- Portsmouth Public Library’s 1937 Flood photos (over 70 images).
- 1937 Flood Group on Flickr (35 items as of this writing). I actually created this group, and I encourage you to share any photos of the ’37 flood you might have!
- Cincinnati in ’37 flood (WLWT News).
- Evansville, IN, in ’37 flood (WFIE News).
- Louisville, KY, in ’37 flood (National Weather Service).
- I’m sure I could find more and more, but I think you get the idea…
Here are some great non-web resources on the flood:
- Lowell Thomas, Hungry Waters (Philadelphia: J. C. Winston Co., 1937). I used this heavily in reading up on the “greater context” of the flood for my research paper. There are lots of library copies (including at Dayton Metro), and for that matter I think I personally own at least two copies of it.
- American Red Cross, The Ohio-Mississippi valley flood disaster of 1937 : Report of Relief Operations of the American Red Cross (Washington, DC, 1938). Another one I was glad to find at the Dayton Metro Library back in ’05! Lots of interesting statistics.
- River Voices (DVD, 2002) by Lorentz Productions. It’s an oral history project about the ’37 flood centered on the story of Portsmouth. There are a few library copies out there; I own one myself. You can also watch it at the Portsmouth Public Library Main library, where it is playing all day through the end of the month (Jan. 2012); or at Shawnee State U.’s Verne Riffe Center on January 27, 2012;
- Portsmouth Public Library’s 1937 flood page.
- Ohio Historical Society’s 1937 flood page (includes a brief video).
- Wikipedia’s “Ohio River flood of 1937” — to be perfectly honest, it’s really pretty poor, but you might find some of the references and external links interesting;
I have noticed in recent years that there have been some new books published on the flood. (Where the heck were these when I was writing my paper in ’05?!)
- James E. Casto, The Great Ohio River flood of 1937 (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2009). Hey, love the title! I haven’t seen this (it’s on my wishlist), but it looks like mostly pictures — a great way to tell the story, flood photos make a huge impact! (Mr. Casto will be speaking on Jan. 26, 2012, at the Portsmouth Public Library.)
- David Welky, The thousand-year flood : the Ohio-Mississippi disaster of 1937 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). This is also on my “list” — hooray for a university-press history of this event! Hey, I just realized that we have this book at the library where I work…going to have to request it…okay, just did!
One of the librarians at the Portsmouth Public Library gives a nice review of some of these materials in this YouTube video. The PPL also has some oral history interviews with 1937 flood survivors (including Alberta Parker, whose mother Bessie Tomlin died in the ’37 flood), as well as a video about the River Voices video on their YouTube page, so check it out.
And finally, since I have mentioned it at least three times — just in case you are interested in reading a copy of my 2005 senior history thesis “The Great Ohio River Flood of 1937”, you should be able to find a copy at : Columbus Metro Library and Shawnee State University’s Clark Library (both have cataloged it so it is listed on WorldCat); Portsmouth Public Library’s Local History Room and Greene County Public Library (not on WorldCat but I remember giving them each a copy).