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Recalling the 1937 Flood

Recent flooding prompts memories
of ‘Black Sunday’

The 1937 flood remains worst on record

Debra Maylum
Staff Writer

(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.

Madison 2-05 Cover

February 2005 Madison
Edition Cover

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 people’s 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 wouldn’t have been as bad, but I can’t say anything for sure,” said Ridenour.
“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 River’s 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 couldn’t get back,” said Webster, now a Madison resident.

Top 5 Historical Crests at
Clifty Creek in Madison

(1) 475.90 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

Note: 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 wouldn’t do it again, I don’t 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 don’t 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.

Reva Webster

Reva Webster

“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.
“I’ll 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 Madison’s 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.

Wilma Oakley

Wilma Oakley

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” said Ridenour.
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.

Louis DeCar

Louis DeCar

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.”

Louis DeCar

Photo Provided

Arial 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 don’t 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 did.”
“If you haven’t had to clean up after it, you can’t 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, don’t trust it. I’ve seen it happen. It’s something you don’t forget,” said Ashby. “I’m glad I’m up on the hill now.”

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