Remembering the 1937 Flood

New book marks 70th anniversary
of Louisville’s experience

Author Bell captures the effect on the city
and its people; will sign book in La Grange, Ky.

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

LOUISVILLE, KY. (March 2007) – Dennis Miller vividly remembers being awakened at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. by the Louisville Fire Department to evacuate his Ormsby Avenue home when he was 7 years old.

March 2007 Ky. & Ind. Edition Cover

March 2007
Ky. & Ind. Edition Cover

Along with his parents and six brothers and sisters, the family was bustled outside in the cold darkness of a winter night while still in their nightclothes to board a waiting flatbed wagon that would take them to safety.
Water covered the floor of his home and was “almost over the house by the next day,” he said. Miller was referring to the flood of 1937, a natural disaster that displaced many families and forced some to become homeless refugees for quite a long time.
Miller and his family stayed with his grandmother at Preston and Lee streets in Louisville, “and we almost had to leave there” because of the rising water. Unable to walk down the city streets, his father and two brothers took a boat back to their home to get clothes.
The thing he recalls most is “my parents saying how devastating the flood was for Louisville.” They also spoke of American Red Cross efforts and food aid that was sent out to families in need.
The family had to wait a long time before they could move back home. When they did, it was only after the plaster had been torn off the walls and repaired and the house rewired.
It is memories such as these that Louisville author Rick Bell has recorded in a recently released book, “The Great Flood of 1937: Rising Waters, Soaring Spirits.” Bell chronicles the emotions, facts and historical significance of the event in the lives of many Kentuckians through photos, historic maps, log books and diaries.

“The Great Flood of 1937”

Like San Francisco’s earthquake and Baltimore’s

The Great Flood of 1937 Book
fire, the flood of 1937 became a Louisville benchmark; modern Louisville started with it.” So said Harper’s Weekly, and most historians agree.  
Seventy years ago, in January 1937, the Ohio River flooded in biblical proportions. Like New Orleans after Katrina, two-thirds of the city of
Louisville, Ky., was under water. But the citizens of Louisville, under the inspired leadership of Mayor Neville Miller, fought
Rick Bell
through the hardships and the challenges of the city’s worst natural disaster to overcome extraordinary tragedy to save their city.
This is the complete story of those heroic days. Through historic photographs, maps, log books, diaries and personal recollections, author Rick Bell re-creates, in thrilling detail, the magnitude of the devastation and the totality of the city’s eventual triumph.

Source: Book publisher’s note

The Ohio River flooded in wintertime in late January and early February 1937. Families found themselves cold, homeless and hungry during a period when the country was in the middle of the Great Depression following the Dust Bowl.
The river was above flood stage for 23 days, with flooding from Pittsburgh down to Cairo, Ill. More than 1 million people were homeless along this route, with 385 dead. Property losses topped $500 million.
“It was the greatest natural disaster up until that time,” Bell said.
More than 19 inches of rain fell during January, leaving more than 60 percent of Louisville under water and without power. Businesses were devastated. Other areas, such as the 118-acre Rose Island amusement park, was lost and never rebuilt.
“I’ve been interested in the flood all my life,” said Bell, 60. He grew up in the Portland area of Louisville and remembers his family relating stories of the flood. Growing up in Louisville in the 1950s, “you heard people talk about it.”
Bell’s parents lived above a grocery store, and for this reason faired better than some. His brother was six months old at the time, and the family had to live in the attic amidst valuable antique furniture his mother had stored. It was this same furniture that was burned for his brother to have dry diapers.
Bell’s mother died 1 1/2 years ago, and she is partly the reason he wrote this book.
“People really do want to share their story and experiences,” he said.
Portrait artist and former Louisville resident Geraldine McCollum was 4 years old in 1937. Like Miller, she recalls her family being awakened in the middle of a dark night in Louisville’s Portland neighborhood and taken to the fire station in a mail truck.
“It was a very dark night, no lights in the neighborhood,” said McCollum, who now resides 50 miles upriver in Madison, Ind.

Lincoln Standing on Water

Photo by Caufield and Shook Collection

“Lincoln Standing on Water,” one of
the most famous images associated
with the 1937 Flood, is a bit of an illusion.
The photo was taken several days
after the flood’s crest when the
water had lowered to the feet of the
statue, located at Fourth and York
streets. Water marks on the walls of
Louisville Free Public Library show the
high water mark actually reached
to Lincoln’s knees.

She’ll never forget “the fear” and hearing the cries of people all around to “send a boat” in the black darkness. You’d really have to experience it.”
After his family was safe, her preacher father spent the remainder of the night assisting rescue efforts. During this devastating time, there was one small spark of humor to the situation.
In the confusion of darkness and sudden fear, McCollum’s mother accidentally tied the strings of her 7-year-old brother’s knee boots together. “This rather hampered his movement in that excited darkness!”
In his past position as assistant to the director of the Filson Club, Bell gave a presentation for the 50th anniversary ceremony of the flood. This information formed the core of his book. “There were lots of remembrances for the 50th anniversary,” he said.
Some of the photos in the book have never before been published. The University of Louisville staff members worked with Bell, giving him access to the thousands of archived pictures in their archives.
James Manasco served as photo editor for the book and works in Special Collections at the U of L’s Ekstrom Library, where the photos are stored. “We should preserve our history,” said Manasco.

Flood rescuers

Photo by R.G. Potter Collection

Louisville’s flood brought out the
best in people, many of whom used their
boats to transport 230,000 victims to
safety in only three days.

The Ekstrom Library has more than 40 collections of archived flood photos, some of earlier flood periods (1884) and even the mayor’s scrapbook. There are almost 2 million images stored at U of L, Manasco said.
Individuals have donated much of this material, but there were several local major photography companies that had saved negatives and donated their collections as well, said Manasco.
The significance of these photos lies in the fact that many of them are the only remaining record of some of the buildings that once stood in downtown Louisville.
“It’s important to know where our culture has been,” he said. These images show what America, not just Louisville, would have looked like at the time.
The flood “touched everybody in this community,” said Bell. “It reshaped the community. There are a lot of people around who experienced it. It’s what made us who we are today.”
Ruth Klingenfus, 85, lived in Pewee Valley, Ky., at the time of the flood. She remembers attending school in nearby Anchorage. The school had to close for a time because of the flood.

1937 Flood Facts:

• Four of the greatest floods of the Ohio River Valley occurred in 1884, 1913, 1937 and 1997.
• Overall total precipitation for January 1937 was four times its normal amount in the areas surrounding the river. In fact, there were only eight days in January when the Louisville station recorded no rain.
• Though the rains began to fall early in the month, the most significant rainfall occurred between Jan. 13-24.
• The morning of Jan. 24 was perhaps the darkest moment in the history of the flood as the entire Ohio River was above flood stage. The river in Louisville rose 6.3 feet between Jan. 21-22.
• With the river reaching nearly 30 feet above flood stage, Louisville had the greatest height of the flood. The previous record set in 1884 had been broken by 11 feet.
• The river crested at Louisville Jan. 27. It measured 57.1 feet on Louisville’s upper gage, while farther down the river, in Paducah, the river crested at 60.6 feet on Feb. 2.
• Louisville was the hardest hit city along the Ohio River, where light and water services failed. Almost 70 percent of the city was under water, and 175,000 people were forced to leave their homes.
• The Weather Bureau reported that total flood damage for the entire state of Kentucky totaled $250 million, an incredible sum in 1937. Another flood of this magnitude would not be seen in the Ohio River Valley until 60 years later.
– Information taken from the Kentucky Climate Center website at http://Kyclim.uku.edu/factsheets/ohioRiver.htm. “Fact Sheet: Ohio River Floods,” by David Sander, Research Assistant, and Glen Conner, State Climatologist Emeritus for Kentucky.

“It was quite a hard time,” she said. “Many people lost a lot of things.”
Klingenfus’ husband, Carl, had an aunt in the St. Matthews area with whom he went to stay. But many people had to leave Louisville and find temporary shelter in surrounding counties, such as Oldham and Shelby. “People were brought out to more secure places,” she said.
One of these shelters was the vacant Confederate Home in Pewee Valley. During this time, Sis Marker, 88, went to work there for the Red Cross. “Two hundred refugees came to the Confederate Home,” she said.
Marker was attending Spencerian College at the time and remembers coming home on the last day of school with Klingenfus’ sister, Anne Malone. “We had to detour to get home.”
She had an aunt that lived on Preston Street come and stay with her family. When relatives went back to her home to see what they could salvage, she told them to get her dog at all costs. “She would rather have been shot than to have lost that dog,” said Marker.
“We were proud to publish this book,” said Carol Butler of Butler Books. “Not only did Rick Bell do a fantastic job recounting the 1937 flood, it was a commemorative book. It’s important for the community to capture their personal recollections.”
Butler said her company published this book because “it was a role we wanted to play. These stories will live forever and capture a legacy.”
For the past 2 1/2 years, Bell has served as the executive director of the U.S. Marine Hospital Foundation, where he is overseeing restoration of the historic building. (See the RoundAbout article on the U.S. Marine Hospital at our website under “Archived Articles” and click on “December 2005 stories.”)

• Author Rick Bell will hold a book signing at Karen’s Book Barn & Java Stop, 127 E. Main St., La Grange, Ky., from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. March 17. Visitors can purchase the book for $25. Call (502) 222-0918 for information. The book is also available at Louisville-area bookstores or ordered directly from Butler Books by calling (502) 897-9393 or by going online at: www.butlerbooks.com.
• To donate photos or other collections to the U of L Ekstrom Library, contact James Manasco at (502) 852-8731 or Amy Purcell at (502) 852-1861.
• The Oldham County History Center is also interested in collecting memoirs and photos of the flood to add to their collection. Contact Executive Director Nancy Theiss at (502) 222-0826 or email her at: ochstryctr@aol.com.
• The Jefferson County (Ind.) Historical Society Museum Archives, 615 W. First St., Madison, Ind., also has a large collection of 1937 Flood photos in its collection. Contact archivist Ron Grimes at (812) 265-2335.

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