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As the 75th anniversary of the flood of 1937 approaches, The News-Democrat is looking back on this natural disaster. This article appeared in the Thursday, Feb. 18, 1937 issue of The News-Democrat.
Carrollton today still is in a “drying out” process, still dazed and crippled after the worst flood in recorded history, that has caused property damage and loss that will run into the millions of dollars. As the brownish, filthy waters have receded, leaving behind their awful stain and stench, losses have continued to mount. There is so much to be done that it seems to progress at a snail’s pace.
Restoration of the city will in many instances mean actual rebuilding. Repairs will prove effective in many cases but there are many buildings which will have to be built from the foundation up.
Homes have shifted on their foundations and have caved in as a result of the slowly moving but nevertheless destructive waters of the rain-fed river, which from its foundation at the junction of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers at Pittsburgh to its mouth at Cairo, Ill., has flooded thousands of acres of land and inundated countless homes and factories.
One thing for which the community has to be justly proud is that there were no deaths attributable directly to the flood.
On Thursday, January 21, the Ohio and Kentucky rivers went well above flood stage and were still rising at a rapid rate, inundating riverside homes, and still it rained in torrents. Over 20 families were forced to move from their homes here that day
Thursday night the river alarmingly rose over five feet, and by Friday morning all Main Street merchants were frantically moving their stocks of goods to top floors or trucking them out to higher ground. By night a boat was the only means of transportation down Main Street.
Saturday morning daylight [Jan. 23] revealed six inches of snow, but with freezing weather everyone hoped for a stand of the river.
All of Prestonville had been evacuated, all of Main Street, and all side streets up to Highland Ave., and all streets from the Kentucky river up to Third.
There were a great many cases of sickness, flu and pneumonia. Refugees were quartered in the Court House, the Jail, the Sixth Street Warehouse, the Baptist and Methodist churches and the High School; and many in the homes of friends and relatives.
Carrollton had been cut off from the world for three days—no telephone—no telegraph—all roads closed—and no power boats to stem the terrific current of the rivers.
Two short wave radio operators attempted to set up a short wave station in the Post Office, but were unable to get a contact.
Mr. L.B. Jennings, local telephone office manager, with Mr. W.C. Smith, of the News-Democrat, drove out 12 miles to Eagle Station, where the main telephone line was out of water, and tapped the wire there to call for aid. He got radio station WHAS first and Mr. Smith asked for relief—for food, fuel, blankets and typhoid serum. Later Smith was able to get a call thru to Mr. Ralph Quinn, General Manager of the Cincinnati Enquirer, and to Mr. Quinn the entire community owes a vote of thanks. After disclosing the exact condition of Carrollton—that the entire business section was under water, that at least 400 people were homeless, that we needed power boats to evacuate, that food and fuel were running short—Mr. Smith asked Mr. Quinn to get help to us as soon as possible.
Within 24 hours that help was here. Who will ever forget that frantic, black Sunday—when it poured rain and sleet in torrents all day long, and the river rose higher and higher? When everyone was at the breaking point—and all at once we heard that steamboat whistle, and the government boat “Scioto” came rushing down the Ohio laden with food, blankets, clothing, serums and a barge of coal. Life saver. Yes, indeed, it kept many a person from breaking—saved our reason and nerves, if not actually our lives. Mr. Quinn had used his influence to secure this boat for Carrollton at once. The “Scioto,” which stood by for a week, was our mainstay. 750 people could easily have been accommodated on this boat, without crowding.
On Saturday the water pumps were submerged, and the water supply cut off. Saturday night we had no electric power for some time, as the Kentucky Utilities lines went under water, but an effective switch was made to the Carrollton Furniture factory dynamo, and as it remained above the water, we were most fortunate in having electric current.
The water rose so rapidly on Sunday [Jan. 24] that officials were forced to move the refugees from the Court House and the jail. Mr. J. Lyter Donaldson was made Disaster Chairman of the American Red Cross. A hospital was set up on the third floor of the High School, and the Red Cross kitchen on the first floor. Mr. George Scott again rallied to the cause and cooked the meals for all the refugees.
All the surrounding towns adjacent to Carrollton made every effort to send in help—but our lack of power boats greatly retarded their efforts. Campbellsburg, New Castle, Eminence, Shelbyville, Lexington and even as far as Cynthiana, who sent two representatives here to offer homes for 400 people—all stood by to be of assistance in our time of need.
By Monday morning [Jan. 25] the river had reached High Street even as far up as the Standard Oil Filling Station at Fifth St., and the low part in the back of town was flooded. Early that morning four Coast Guard boats put in from Cincinnati, another thing for which we must thank Mr. Ralph Quinn, for they were our salvation. They began at once evacuating refugees across the Kentucky River to Mound Hill, where cars and school busses were waiting to move the people farther inland to higher ground. About 1,500 were evacuated by Wednesday. These cutters manned by sailors, used to sea duty, did most efficient rescue work, and they also brought in nurses and serums, and transported quantities of food. The terrible current in the river seemed nothing to them, after stemming ocean waves and storms. By Monday afternoon the radio operators had the short wave set working that was set up at the Post Office. And many important messages were sent out that way. Too much praise cannot be given these two boys, Eugene Moore and W. Bryant, who toiled laboriously to make contact with the outside world.
Still the river rose—and by Tuesday morning [Jan. 26] had reached the south side of High Street, down at Fifth Street, but by noon it was on a stand—and by afternoon started falling slowly.
In 1913 the water lacked 22 inches of reaching the first floors on the north side of Main Street. The News-Democrat office [then located on Main Street] had exactly nine feet of water. So from those figures we know that the flood here was from 10 to 15 feet higher than in 1913.
In 1884 the river reached a stage of 71.7 feet, but even with all that water the south side of Main Street was not flooded, old residents inform us. What caused the terrible inundation of Carrollton’s business district this time? The Kentucky River is the answer. All the time during the height of the flood the Kentucky River was several feet higher than the Ohio. In fact at its crest it was estimated to be at least 170 feet deep under the bridge. Surrounding Carrollton was more water than the city has seen since its founding
Some of the business houses were able to move most of their merchandise before the water surged into their establishments, but many were unable to move much of their stock.
Many merchants stacked their stocks high on shelves and counters, feeling that because the river never had been that high—it never would be, and so they suffered a great loss.
The river fell so slowly that it took the water two weeks to leave the business section.
The streets were ankle deep in mud. It is not possible to catalogue each street and each house, but the terrible destruction cannot be described—the unutterable confusion of overturned buildings, shattered homes, ruined business establishments, slimy mud, mixed with wreckage and debris—struck one speechless. There still is no beginning and no end of work.
Valuable quantities of tobacco here in the seven warehouses escaped in the rising river. Mr. R.M. Barker had 3,600 hogsheads in storage, and not a pound was lost.
There was a minimum of looting and thieving here as the waters receded, due in a great measure to the state militia, who did guard duty in the stricken sections. Louisville suffered a loss estimated at $1 million from looters, in small outlying drug and grocery stores.