Tag Archives: Portsmouth Ohio

Recalling the Great Snow of ’94

It’s hard to believe that events I remember from my childhood are already reaching the “20 years ago” mark, but it’s true. And one of the biggest large-scale  (and by that, I mean, not specific to myself or my family) memories I have from childhood is what I’ve always thought of as “the Great Snow of ’94.”

That was 20 years ago this weekend. I’ve always remembered that it was the Martin Luther King, Jr., Day holiday weekend. I was 11 years old and in the fifth grade. We all knew when we left school on Friday that we were in for a holiday (MLK Monday is a holiday most places), but little did we know that a blizzard was about to turn our 3-day weekend into a 2-week vacation!

Great Snow of '94 #5

That’s me sitting on a swing in our back yard during the Great Snow of ’94. As an archivist, I cringe at the thought/speech bubble sticker, but I also know that somewhere at my parents’ house, the negative for this picture is safe (and unmarred) in a cabinet, waiting for me to scan it someday.

Great Snow of '94 #1

A portion of our back yard (that’s a trampoline, the net of which was at least 2 feet off the ground), during the Great Snow of ’94.

As I did not remember to research this at the local library when I was home for Christmas (which is really too bad, since I was there over a week and had plenty of time to do so!)   And I really wanted to include some true historical details about the storm, rather than just my own recollections.

I have had little luck finding information about this snowstorm on the Internet, at least not specifically pertaining to my hometown of Portsmouth, Ohio (on the Ohio River). I have found several links to information about northern Ohio and Louisville, KY (to which I will link at the end). I was just about to give up, when I finally came across Thunder in the Heartland on Google Books. (I knew of this book, and I even own a copy, but unfortunately it’s packed away somewhere.) Thomas Schmidlin’s Thunder in the Heartland: A Chronicle of Outstanding Weather Events in Ohio (Kent State University Press, 1996) is a fantastic source if you want a short overview of any remotely notable weather event from Ohio’s history. And that’s just what I needed!  (I was beginning to fear that my memory of “about 2 feet of snow” was a figment of my imagination until I found Schmidlin’s description.)

Here’s an excerpt of what Schmidlin had to say about (what I call) the Great Snow of ’94 (from pages 76-77):

January 1994 was an “old-fashioned” winter month in the upper Ohio Valley, with two exceptionally deep snowfalls followed by record cold on 19 January. Snowfall on Tuesday, 4 January totaled twelve to twenty inches from Marietta to Steubenville…

A greater snowfall arrived on Monday 17 January. This storm left six to ten inches across nearly all of Ohio but, again, the deepest snow was along the Ohio River. Portsmouth received twenty inches of snow, and thirty inches was reported at Lucasville. Twenty-two to twenty-four inches fell in Adams County, with fifteen inches reported in Piketon and Jackson. Snowfall intensities of five inches an hour were measured at Chillicothe.

Highways were closed Monday by deep drifts and abandoned cars in extreme southern Ohio. Nine south-central counties declared snow emergencies Monday morning, banning all but emergency travel and essentially shutting down the region. Temperatuers were cold, so the snow did [p. 77] not stick to trees and there was no widespread disruption of phone and electric service. Businesses assisted residents who could not get out in the deep snow. The pharmacy at Kroger’s in Portsmouth delivered medicine to customers who were unable to travel, according to the Portsmouth Daily Times. Southern Ohio Medical Center [the hospital in Portsmouth] employees were picked up and delivered to the hospital in four-wheel-drive trucks and rescue squads.

Major roads were reopened Tuesday, but rural highways of southern Ohio were blocked and families remained snowbound. The effort to clear side roads continued into Wednesday. Schools were scheduled to be closed Monday for Martin Luther King Day and remained shut all week in southeastern counties by the deep snow and temperatures below -25 degrees…

Snowfall during January totaled 45.5 inches at Newport and 33.3 inches at Marietta. These were among the heaviest snowfalls ever recorded in Ohio outside the Lake Erie snowbelt. At the Parkersburg Airport, five miles south of Marietta, snowfall totaled 40 inches during January 1994. This was a record for any month, exceeding the old record of 35 inches in November 1950. The January snowfall was more than had fallen in the entire past two winters combined in southeastern Ohio.

Wow, after all that detail, the comparatively small amount that my 11-year-old brain saw fit to commit to permanence seems pretty weak. Nevertheless, here are my recollections (and some photos, throughout this entry, which I was thrilled to realize I had on hand at my house, rather than being inaccessible—and possibly difficult to locate—at my parents’ house):

We actually lived in Minford, Ohio, a smaller rural town outside of Portsmouth; it was closer to Lucasville (7 miles away, mentioned in the excerpt as having 30 inches of snow!) than Portsmouth (14 miles away).

I remember that there seemed to be about 2 feet of snow (which is substantiated by the above excerpt); it was over my knees (as illustrated in the included photos!). I remember that simply walking through the snow (which was no easy feat) left these trailing paths like you were in some sort of a maze, because the snow was so high it almost felt like maze walls (maybe I made this association because I always loved doing mazes in those activity books when I was a kid).

Great Snow of '94 #7

As you can see, the snow was over my knees. I was 11. We had about 2 feet of snow in Minford, Ohio.

Great Snow of '94 #6

My younger sister, then 9 years old, wading through the snow.

When I asked Mom what she remembered about the snowstorms, those paths were the thing that stuck out in her mind, because my youngest sister was only 4 at the time, and following us in the paths we made was the only way she could get through the snow at all!

Great Snow of '94 #4

My youngest sister, age 4, diving into a snow drift.

Another snippet that Mom remembered was how concerned we were about our pet rabbit, a Californian bunny named Pretty (seriously) who lived in a pen (which I think had a wooden house part also) in the backyard. Dad was worried, so he went (er, waded) out to the rabbit house, expecting to find a dead rabbit, but when he finally unburied enough of the thing to see inside, she was just fine in there; the deep snow had created a sort of igloo!

When I read in that excerpt (above) that there were NOT widespread power outages from heavy snow and ice causing downed trees to break the lines, I realized that this was not something I had ever thought about before with relation to that particular snowstorm. I suppose if we HAD experienced a power outage, I would have remembered, as school was out for….two weeks, I think…and that would have been a long damn time to be without electricity when the temperatures were so cold. We had a gas furnace, but if the electric blower isn’t working, it’s still not much use; my parents do have 1 fireplace in the part of the house that we were living in at the time—it was still a work in progress—but I don’t recall if the fireplace itself was installed and working yet! A power outage certainly would have been a disaster in that storm!

Great Snow of '94 #3

Well it looks like there was plenty of snow on the trees in this picture of our back field, and yes, I’m fairly certain it was from the same storm. But yay for no downed power lines!

We did eventually want to go to the grocery store—and this is the only other particularly vivid memory I have from that storm—but the driveway, like everything else, was covered in 2 feet of snow. I remember my father plowing the driveway with the front-loader on his tractor. (I am thrilled to have a photo of this, which appears to have been taken by my aunt, who lived next-door, as I can see the metal porch supports from their house in the shot.)

Great Snow of '94 #8

Dad plowing the driveway with his tractor—my favorite photo of this event!

Great Snow of '94 #2

Believe it or not, there is a Dodge Caravan (left) and a Toyota Corolla (right) under all that snow.

Eventually, once the driveway—and the car—was cleared off, I remember getting into my Dad’s old Toyota Corolla and puttering down the highway to the local grocery store (about 1 mile away), only to (if I recall correctly) find that it was still closed due to the snow—I guess the employees couldn’t get there. So much for bread and milk!

I asked my husband what he remembered about the snowstorm, as he was also an 11-year-old in southern Ohio at the time—he actually lived in Lucasville. He seems to recall that he was at the local Boy Scout camp, Camp Oyo, that weekend for a winter camp-out (now known as Okpik, though he says they weren’t calling them that at the time). They were scheduled to go home on Sunday, and they actually did so, although they briefly considered staying another day…which would have had them stranded, as the majority of the snow fell on Monday. Thank goodness they went home when they did!   He said he remembers sticking a yard stick into the snow at their house in Lucasville and measuring almost 3 feet of snow (which again meshes with what the book said).

Pitiful selection of relevant items I found online:

What are your memories of the Great Snow of ’94?  I’d love to hear them! (Please include at least an approximation of where you lived at the time, since geography is important here.)

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.


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.]


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)


            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.