Bessie Tomlin and the 1937 Flood

Last week I noticed some search terms in my stats list pertaining to Bessie Tomlin, and I thought her story might make an interesting post. Bessie Tomlin is believed to have been the only casualty of the 1937 Flood in Portsmouth, Ohio.

I happen to have written a large research paper on the topic (the 1937 Flood in Portsmouth) in 2005, so I already had this story written out from years ago. The accompanying photos, I snapped this past weekend while in Portsmouth for a visit.

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Text below is an excerpt from: Lisa M. Pasquinelli, “Chapter IV: Living with the Flood in Portsmouth,” in The Great Ohio River Flood of 1937 (Dayton, OH: Wright State University, 2005), 12-15. [Find it on WorldCat.]

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1937 Flood at Portsmouth, Ohio (floodwall mural by Robert Dafford, photo by the author)

1937 Flood at Portsmouth, Ohio (floodwall mural by Robert Dafford, photo by the author)

HILLTOP SCHOOLS HOUSE REFUGEES

            All the public schools in Portsmouth closed at the end of the school day on January 21, which, as luck would have it, was the last day of the semester anyway. Schools located in the flood zone were opened up for storing furniture (on the upper floors, of course), and all the students’ books were locked in one room. Hilltop schools, which still had heat, opened to refugees, and the students were asked to take their own books home with them, to free up as much space as possible.[1]

            The Hilltop schools utilized for refugee housing were: Lincoln, Highland, Garfield, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Rosemount. At one point, Lincoln School, located on the northwest corner of Kinney’s Lane and Waller Street, held about 1,600 people, before several hundred were evacuated elsewhere due to overcrowding.[2] Highland, on the northwest corner of Hutchins and Logan streets, held as many as 1,300. Garfield, at the northeast corner of Gallia Street and Mabert Road, held at least a few hundred, and at one point a sandbag barrier was necessary to keep water out of the basement and keep the heat running.[3] McKinley, on Kinney’s Lane at the north end of Baird Avenue, held 400 people before being converted to a hospital on January 29.[4] For a time, Washington School, located at the corner of Eleventh and John Streets, also held refugees, but it had to be evacuated as floodwaters quickly reached it.[5]

            During the evacuation of Washington School, the drowning of Portsmouth’s only 1937 flood victim occurred. On Monday, January 25, emergency workers were evacuating refugees from Washington School, which had been without access to food or fuel for a day and a half. One boat, commanded by a white fireman named Walter Chick, departed Washington School around 7:00 p.m. that evening carrying eight refugees. The boat was rowing towards Waller Street, which it would then follow north to Lincoln School on the Hilltop. However, as the boat was turning left (north) from Eleventh Street onto Waller, a wave of water splashed into the boat. The splash startled one of the occupants, a 22-year-old African American named Bessie Tomlin, who stood up from her seat, making the boat unstable.[6]

The boat then turned over, spilling Tomlin and everyone else into the cold, muddy floodwater. Chick recovered, either stabilizing his own boat or finding his way to another, in time to answer Tomlin’s cries of “Save my baby! Save my baby!” as she struggled to hold her 18-month-old daughter Alberta above the water.[7] Chick grabbed the child from Tomlin’s hands but could not grab Tomlin herself in time, and she slipped away under the water.[8]

Detail of the Portsmouth 1937 Flood mural, showing Bessie Tomlin (photo by the author)

Detail of the Portsmouth 1937 Flood mural, showing Bessie Tomlin (photo by the author)

Additional rescue boats picked up the overturned boat’s other occupants, which included Tomlin’s two sons and mother-in-law. Rescuers took them to an emergency hospital that had been set up at the Church of Christ, at the corner of Grant and Summit streets, where they were treated for minor injuries.[9]

            One week later, on Monday, February 1, around 1:00 p.m., after much of the floodwater had receded, someone discovered Tomlin’s body at the corner of Tenth and Waller streets, one block from where her boat had tipped over.[10] Tomlin’s funeral took place at the Emrick Funeral Home, at 2:00 p.m. Tuesday, February 2, and she was buried in Greenlawn Cemetery in Portsmouth.[11] Her husband William Tomlin, two sons Herschel Lee and David Taylor, and her baby daughter Alberta Madeline survived her.[12]

Monument to Bessie Tomlin, Greenlawn Cemetery, Portsmouth, Ohio (photo by the author)

Monument to Bessie Tomlin, Greenlawn Cemetery, Portsmouth, Ohio (photo by the author)

Bessie Tomlin, a young wife and mother (who was expecting her fourth child at any time), was the only casualty of the 1937 flood in Portsmouth.[13] Her address was given in the Portsmouth Times as rear 1142 Eleventh Street, and she was, according to Jerry Holt of Shawnee State University (in Portsmouth), “on the run from an abusive husband” and had been staying with relatives when the flood struck.[14] According to the Portsmouth Times, Tomlin’s husband, William, was employed by the WPA and “was helping move furniture from the first floor of the Second Presbyterian Church when the tragedy occurred.”[15]

            The case of Bessie Tomlin was an isolated, unfortunate incident. Everyone else who was transported to the schools arrived there safely and found two good meals daily and warm beds. The American Red Cross provided most of the food, which they prepared at the schools, nearby churches, and neighbors’ homes.[16] On Monday, February 1, the refugee schools even began issuing meal tickets to those staying there. However, they soon became extremely crowded, as refugee numbers exceeded one thousand in schools such as Lincoln and Highland. Therefore, authorities temporarily evacuated many refugees to other cities entirely, to relieve overcrowding on the Hilltop area. By Friday, January 29, they had reduced the total number of refugees occupying Portsmouth school buildings to just over 2,060 people.[17] However, the Portsmouth Times announced on February 1 that school children in Portsmouth would remain on “vacation” for at least two more weeks, as schools continued to house refugees and store furniture, even as floodwaters were receding, while residents cleaned up their homes.[18]

 


[1] “River May Go Over 62 Feet,” Portsmouth Times, 21 Jan. 1937, 7; “Homeless Use City Schools,” Portsmouth Times, 22 Jan. 1937, 1.

[2] Lincoln School is located on the same corner as the “infamous” Kinney’s Lane Spring, which was an important source of fresh water during the 1937 flood and will be discussed later in detail. It functioned as a Portsmouth City school district elementary school until a few years ago, when it was demolished and a new cancer center erected in its place. See Appendix 1, “Street Map of Portsmouth, Ohio.”

[3] Today, Garfield School is known as Vern Riffe School and is the home of the Scioto County Mentally Retarded Developmentally Disabled program.

[4] This hospital served 38 patients and 10 WPA boarders.

[5] “Housing Biggest Problem Facing Relief Leaders,” Portsmouth Times, 28 Jan. 1937, 3; “2,062 Refugees Make Schools Their Quarters,” Portsmouth Times, 30 Jan. 1937, 3; “Special Train Takes Group; More May Go,” Portsmouth Times, 26 Jan. 1937, 1; “1500 Taken Out of Town,” Portsmouth Times, 27 Jan. 1937, 2; Polk’s Portsmouth City Directory 1937, 792; “School is Made into Hospital,” Portsmouth Times, 30 Jan. 1937, 2; Sword, Story of Portsmouth, 104; Polk’s Portsmouth City Directory 1937, 792.

[6] “Woman Drowned as Boat Tips Over; First Victim,” Portsmouth Times, 26 Jan. 1937, 1-2; Sword, Story of Portsmouth, 106; River Voices, Lorentz and Lorentz.

[7] It is unclear whether Chick was able to right his own boat or whether he found his way to another boat.

[8] Sources only focus on Chick being the one to snatch the baby Alberta from Bessie’s hands. Some later examinations of the story have given notice to the fact that the white fireman Chick acted quickly and without racially-oriented thought to save an African American child from drowning—and would have saved the mother, too, had he been able to reach her in time. According to Shawnee State University history professor John Lorentz, “The story [of Bessie Tomlin] was kind of lost to history. Race had something to do with it.” Also, in June 2001, Alberta Tomlin Parker had a joyful meeting with David Chick, son of Walter Chick. She said, “When I met him, I was so thrilled. He said, ‘I have a black sister now’” (Mark Ellis, “Mural Tells of Disaster that Hit Portsmouth 65 Years Ago,” Columbus Dispatch, 26 Feb. 2002, online Lexis Nexis, http://www.lexisnexis.com).

[9] “Woman Drowned as Boat tips Over; First Victim,” Portsmouth Times, 26 Jan. 1937, 1-2; Sword, Story of Portsmouth, 106; River Voices, Lorentz and Lorentz; Pictorial Views, n.p.

[10] For the approximate locations of Bessie Tomlin’s death and the site where her body was later recovered, refer to the yellow points B and C in Appendix 1, “Street Map of Portsmouth, Ohio.”

[11] “Flood Victim’s Body Found on 11th St.,” Portsmouth Times, 2 Feb. 1937, 2; Sword, Story of Portsmouth, 106. Tomlin has recently (within the last ten years or so) been memorialized with a large, pictorial marker over her grave in Greenlawn Cemetery in Portsmouth, and she has been immortalized in one of the murals painted on the new Portsmouth floodwall in the 1990s.

[12] “Flood Victim’s Body Found on 11th St.,” Portsmouth Times, 2 Feb. 1937, 2; River Voices, Lorentz and Lorentz. The Portsmouth Times says the baby’s name was “Arverta,” but Alberta Tomlin Parker gives an interview in the River Voices video, as well as The Columbus Dispatch (Mark Ellis, “Mural Tells of Disaster that Hit Portsmouth 65 Years Ago,” Columbus Dispatch, 26 Feb. 2002).

[13] “Flood Victim’s Body Found on 11th St.,” Portsmouth Times, 2 Feb. 1937, 2. The drowning death of Bessie Tomlin was the only truly accidental death recorded in Scioto County as a direct result of the 1937 flood. That is, according to all secondary sources, Tomlin is hailed as the “only victim” of the 1937 flood in Scioto County. However, a second flood-related death occurred in Scioto County on Thursday, January 28, around 5:30 p.m., and for the sake of completeness will be mentioned here. Everett Conley, a 32-year-old Franklin Furnace man, had made a bet with his friends that he could swim two hundred yards through the floodwater, fully clothed. Unfortunately for him, he became fatigued while still at least fifty feet from shore, and he drowned before anyone could help him. Perhaps secondary sources have ignored this second flood death in Scioto County because it was, in a manner of thinking, Conley’s own fault for making the wager in the first place, and so the accident was not entirely “accidental.”

[14] “Woman Drowned as Boat tips Over; First Victim,” Portsmouth Times, 26 Jan. 1937, 1-2; River Voices, Lorentz and Lorentz.

[15] Ibid. Incidentally, Second Presbyterian Church is located on the northwest corner of Waller Street at Eighth Street, only a few blocks from the scene of the accident (Polk’s 1937 Portsmouth City Directory, 743; see Appendix 1, “Street Map of Portsmouth, Ohio,” yellow points B and C).

[16] Highland School refugees’ meals were prepared at nearby Franklin Avenue Methodist Church, at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Logan Street. Lincoln School refugees’ meals were prepared at nearby Central Presbyterian Church, at the corner of Waller and Twenty-third streets. (See Appendix 1, “Street Map of Portsmouth, Ohio.”)

[17] A Portsmouth Times survey of refugees in the Portsmouth school buildings on Friday, January 29, revealed the following numbers: Roosevelt, 547; Highland, 520; Rosemount, 310; Lincoln, 375 (all “colored”); Garfield, 312. The sum of these numbers is actually 2,064, not 2,062, so I used the phrase “just over 2,060.” By January 29, the Ohio River had been falling for a day and a half; however, the river level was still above 71 feet, and most areas in the flood zone were still flooded.

[18] “Housing Biggest Problem Facing Relief Leaders,” Portsmouth Times, 28 Jan. 1937, 3; “Many Go Back into Homes to Start Mop-Up: Rehabilitation Steps Mapped,” Portsmouth Times, 31 Jan. 1937, 3; “2,062 Refugees Make Schools Their Quarters,” Portsmouth Times, 30 Jan. 1937, 3; “More ‘Rest’ is Seen for School Children,” Portsmouth Times, 1 Feb. 1937, 4.

6 responses to “Bessie Tomlin and the 1937 Flood

  1. This post was included, with permission, on the Scioto Historical web site, at http://sciotohistorical.org/items/show/45#.UbnYSfm1F8E.

  2. Pingback: Sure it’s genealogy; it’s just not mine! | Glancing Backwards

  3. I grew up in the Portsmouth area and used to work with her grandson. His mother is the baby that was saved when Mrs. Tomlin drowned. I know that almost 400 people died in the flood but her story always seemed so tragic, yet beautiful at the same time. Maybe because it happened in the town I lived in, on the streets I drove every day or maybe because I had a bit of personal connection to the family. Her story needs to be known

  4. I loved this piece. My mother was from Portsmouth and was 3 years old at the time but remembers it. She will be 82. At the time of the flood she and her parents lived in Rome. They had the highest home and the water went up to the second floor while others were totally inundated with flood water. She will enjoy this paper. Thank you.

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