Remembering the 1937 Flood

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.

1937 Flood in Portsmouth, Near Waller Street (note N&W Train Depot in back ground)

1937 Flood in Portsmouth, Near Waller Street (note N&W Train Depot in back ground) (from my Grandpa P.'s collection)

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.

77-foot floodwall at Portsmouth, Ohio

77-foot floodwall at Portsmouth, Ohio

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:

Here are some great non-web resources on the flood:

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).

3 responses to “Remembering the 1937 Flood

  1. Sewista Fashionista

    I have a sewing blog – hence the handle,but I also do genealogy and have been fruitlessly searching for a list of the dead or missing from the Portsmouth, OH (Adams/Scioto county) area. Since I live in Cinti. I can’t quickly search the old newspapers, and sadly Google News Archive is down which used to be such a good resource. Do you know where I can find such a list to confirm if one of my husband’s ancestor’s was officially reported missing.

    • Hi, thanks for your comment! If I recall correctly, only one person in Portsmouth died “officially” as a result of the flood — Bessie Tomlin. But as for others who might have been reported missing in the area, I would recommend contacting the Portsmouth Public Library’s Local History Room — url http://yourppl.org/lh/ — to see if they have a list.

      • Sewista Fashionista

        Thank you for the source and link! My ancestor isn’t Bessie Tomlin but others must have been named somewhere. As I have a new baby it may be way in the future, but I will give you a heads up what I find out through the library.🙂

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