the 1937 Flood
flooding prompts memories
of Black Sunday
1937 flood remains worst on record
(February 2005) The recent flooding of the
Ohio River has inconvenienced many people, damaged property and left
residents and city officials with debris to clean up along the riverfront.
The river crested on Jan. 13 at 28.0 feet (recorded at McAlpin Upper
Dam), five feet above the official flood stage.
Those who have lived along the river for many years know
that the rising waters can bring destruction unlike anything that has
recently been experienced. Many residents have lived in the area long
enough to recall many of the major floods recorded in local history.
None remain in peoples memories as clearly, however, as the flood
of 1937, documented as the worst flood in Ohio River Valley history.
The river crested at 72.8 feet on what many who remember it still call
Black Sunday, Jan. 24, 1937.
Old timers always talked about the floods of 1884 and 1913, but
those were nuisance floods in comparison, said Jefferson County
historian Louie DeCar, 81, who was 13 years old when he experienced
the 1937 flood.
It rained 19 out of the first 21 days that January, said
Hugh Ridenour, a researcher of the 1937 flood who lives in western Kentucky.
Rain, rather than snow due to the above average temperatures, caused
areas along the Ohio River to measure as much as 22 inches of precipitation.
Maybe snow would have melted slower and the flooding wouldnt
have been as bad, but I cant say anything for sure, said
The weather this year was so similar that I thought we might have
a repeat, said DeCar. We had seen heavy snow in December
that started melting late in the month. Then it rained I think every
day of January.
The rain in January of 1937 resulted in flooding at levels 10 feet above
any flood in the Ohio Rivers history. Homes along the river had
water up to the roofs. Many locals still recall the water rising higher
than they ever imagined it could.
Reva Webster, 90, was 23 years old during the 1937 flood. Webster worked
as a Southern Bell relief operator, located on the top floor of the
Farmers Bank of Milton. I walked across the street and went to
work, and when I left I couldnt get back, said Webster,
now a Madison resident.
5 Historical Crests at
Clifty Creek in Madison
ft. Jan. 27, 1937
(2) 464.30 ft. Feb. 15, 1884
(3) 464.00 ft. March 8, 1945
(4) 463.20 ft. March 12, 1964
(5) 463.00 ft. April 1, 1913
451.80 ft. = Flood level on Jan. 12, 2005
Numbers indicate feet above sea level.
Source: National Weather Service
Webster, like many others, took a boat to the top floor
of her home along the river to rescue whatever belongings she could.
I went in the top floor and got my cat and sewing machine. We
lost everything else, she said. Webster then returned to the telephone
exchange, where she stayed and kept business running as usual for those
on higher ground who were unaffected by the water.
The parents of her friend, Wilma Oakley, 80, were the chief operators
at the telephone exchange, where they all stayed together. Water
came through the floor. It was dangerous, said Webster.
I wouldnt do it again, I dont think, said Oakley,
who was 12 years old at the time.
As the water began to rise, every person in town moved their belongings
to the second floors of their homes, but the water just kept rising.
We never dreamt it would get as high as it did, said Oakley.
I dont think there was a dry house in Milton.
As the water rose to the second floors, boats were used to take everything
from the top floors out to higher ground. Anything left in most homes
was lost or destroyed.
In Madison, the water rose to Second Street in some places. The river
was only a few feet from the first floor of the Lanier Mansion. The
Madison Coal Co. moved the unloading of barges to the corner of Broadway
and First Street so that no one would have to go without heat. The Brown
Gym on Broadway was full of water up to the stage floor, and it reached
the top of the steps at the old high school.
I remember when the water finally came inside the
school and they had to dismiss us, said DeCar. We were out
probably for a week or two.
Homes and factories in downtown Madison were flooded. Many people refused
to leave their homes and, as the water rose, had to be rescued by boats.
Ill never forget walking from my home on Second Street between
Central and Poplar and seeing the water one block from my house,
DeCar said. I went back and my mother was packing her suitcase.
She said, If you think they are moving me out (in a boat), you
have got another thing coming. She was ready to go.
Many vacant lots along Madisons riverfront today are the former
locations of factories that were flooded so badly in 1937 that they
never re-opened. Some can be seen in remaining photographs with water
half way up the brick walls.
The entire Ohio River Basin was affected. Some areas were
hit harder than others. It depended which side of the river you
were on and if there were tributaries running into the river nearby
The river ripped homes right off of the foundation, and many who remember
the flood recall houses and barns floating down the river. One diary
kept by Trimble County resident Carrie Hood at the time included this
passage dated Feb. 5, 1937: Mrs. Stethen left yesterday for Carrollton
to get her house on its foundation. It washed down out of Prestonville
during the flood and was caught and tied up. She will be back tonight.
All of the pianos in Milton were moved to the porch of the Wood-Oakley
Funeral Home in hopes that they would be high enough to go unaffected.
It was the highest point in town that the heavy pianos could be
moved to in time, but they were all lost, said Webster.
Ridenour remembers his mother telling the story of how
just two months before the flood she had moved from high ground in Breckinridge
County to the banks of the Green River in McClean County, Ky. When the
water crept up to her home, she moved most of her belongings out of
the house and moved to higher ground. Three weeks later, she returned
to find that she had left molasses, varnish, bran and eggs, all of which
had mixed and were dripping from the ceilings and walls,
said Ridenour. He recalled that his mother said, In those circumstances,
you might as well laugh as cry.
I am sure it was not so amusing at the time, but looking back,
people are able to find humor in the worst of circumstances, said
Ridenour. He prefers to tell the more humorous of the stories he finds
through his research.
One story he recalls hearing is about a woman who called WHAS radio
and asked that they please send a car to pick her up. But lady,
you are surrounded by water, said the man at the station. I
know, but I am terribly afraid of boats, responded the woman.
Another such story is of a man spotted on his roof taking down
his chimneys, brick by brick, and then throwing them through an open
window into his house. A neighbor asked him what he was doing. He responded,
I figure if I weigh it down, the house wont float away.
photo of Madison, In.
during the 1937 flood.
Through the flood, everybody worked together, and assistance
came from the American Red Cross and other organizations. The Red Cross
staff stayed busy giving free inoculations for typhoid and distributing
food, clothing and bedding to the thousands of people in need. In all,
according to reports, the Red Cross distributed more than $500,000 in
food and clothing aid.
I dont know how we got food or anything, but we survived
so we must have eaten, said Oakley. When it was all over,
everybody helped everyone get back to living. Sometimes I wonder how
my parents ever got things back to normal, but we all pitched in and
If you havent had to clean up after it, you cant imagine
it, said Violet Ashby, 85, a Milton resident who was 17 at the time
of the flood. She recalls returning to her home after the water receded
to find everything covered in mud.
We cleaned up and moved back upstairs first. It was easier to
clean because the water had not been up there as long, she said.
Ashby recalls that for many years, mud would still fall out of cracks
and corners of the house.
The Ohio River has never again risen to the levels of 1937. Those who
lived through it, however, say they will never forget the unexpected
destruction that the otherwise calm river caused. People today
say that the river is not going to come up, but I say, dont trust
it. Ive seen it happen. Its something you dont forget,
said Ashby. Im glad Im up on the hill now.
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