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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Remembering the 1937 Ohio River Flood!

How Highlands High School Got Its Name
Suspension Bridge during 1937 flood. The Suspension Bridge was the only open link along the Ohio River in '37. Enquirer. 

By John Deering

When have you ever seen boats – cabin cruisers – tied to the railings of the Roebling Suspension Bridge?  Never? Well, when my mother and I were sightseeing on that bridge in January 1937,   there they were!  Boats tied to the railing on the downstream side. It was just one of the startling things I, a ten-year old,  remember of those days when the Ohio River hit  80 feet--  28 feet above flood stage. At least once, Mother and I walked from our 26th Street home to the Suspension Bridge to see the flood. (We took a street car back, though.)  Even though there was a temporary elevated sand-bag road to the bridge, there was limited vehicular travel on the bridge.  Only official vehicles were allowed to go onto the bridge.

There was “Water, water everywhere,” as the poet has said, and he was right.   Well, at least it seemed that way. Even near our high- and- dry home on 26th Street near Holmes High School, the stadium and many near-by homes at a lower elevation were inundated. In the Metropolitan Cincinnati region, almost 100,000 families had to leave their homes in search of somewhere else to stay.  One of those families came to live with us. It was my mother’s sister’s family – all five of them.  There were two women in the same kitchen? HA! That is one of the reasons we walked so much.

The flood reached much of riverside Newport, Bellevue, Covington, Ludlow, Dayton, and environs, but it did not stop there.  Parts of these cities were indeed inundated, but other parts of town were nowhere near the river, but the sewers unexpectedly brought water to all kinds of places.  The water reached where Ann’s family home was  in Covington -- far from the river.  They went to bed one night and awakened in the morning to find they were marooned on their second floor.  Now, how to get out? Well, a neighbor had somehow contacted a friend with a canoe. After he had rescued that family, he came for Ann’s family.  He paddled in by the front door; then the family descended  the stairs and two at time were taken by canoe to dry land.  This shows how fast the water was rising. Think of this: a family goes to bed high and dry, but the next morning they are  leaving by canoe.  (HA! How many times has that happened to you?) This was not unusual.   Another example of how fast the water was rising is the day my mother went to some friends’ home in another part of town to help   gather things to be salvaged. She walked into the house, helped to box up clothes and other portable necessities, looked to leave, but she was marooned.  By the same route she had used to walk in, she had to be carried out by a man in hip boots.  Fortunately she had parked the family Chevrolet farther up the street.

The original St. Elizabeth Hospital on Eastern Avenue in Covington was also affected. Although the water was not deep in the basement, the heating plant could not be used. To maintain hospital care for the seriously ill, a steam roller had been parked in a relatively dry area on the east side of the building to supply steam for heating some of the building. Even though I was only ten years old, I remember these things distinctly.

My aunt’s family had come to live with us – that included my cousin who was  older and bigger. He became a royal pain! (His older brother eventually took him to his home in Southgate.  He is Satan’s problem now.) We slept in shifts. I went to bed on time each night, but I had to get up early so my uncle could sleep in my bed. He worked for the C&O railroad on the night shift.  After getting up, I’d go down to the living room where Mother and Dad had been sleeping in a sofa bed.  Their bedroom had been taken over by others. Since  Dad had left to go to his office, I climbed in with Mother. Soon everyone was up except my uncle and our day began. With all these others in our home, Mother and I took walks.  Just how many long walks Mother and I did each day I don’t remember, but we walked a lot.

Oh, there was plenty of water, but it was not safe water for drinking. Mother boiled water daily for drinking and for cooking. Adding to the frustration of the flood the water department turned the water off during part of the day. Therefore, families kept bath tubs filled so that with a bucket the toilets could be flushed.

Of course, the flood affected far more than the Cincinnati area. It reached from Pittsburg to the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys flooding towns by backing up the tributaries and creeks along the way. Some people’s homes were not only flooded, but they literally floated away.  I  remember seeing wooden houses floating down the Ohio River.

Schools were closed whether they were flooded or not.  The problem was getting to and from schools. My school was the 6th District – one mile from my home near Holmes.  The flood did not reach the 6th District, but water was less than a block or so from it.  When we were eventually allowed to return to school, we had to bring our own drinking water in our Boy Scout canteens or thermos bottles.

What was it like after the flood? It was a mess! Mud and debris were everywhere. Besides the mud and furniture, there were  so many pianos just lying on the sidewalks waiting to be taken to the dumps.  The fire departments came with their hoses and began flushing all the mud down those same sewers that had carried the water to so many places.  Finally things got back to normal. There was talk of building flood walls, but there was still the Depression with which to contend.  Then came World War II and flood walls were not on any list for building.  However, a few years after the war had ended, the authorities announced the floodwalls were going to be built. The river is considerably under better control now; we see them on the riverfront  such as Newport on the Levee.  Most people rejoiced, but not all.

For example, the property owners on Riverside Drive in Covington said “NO!” That street has been for many decades the site of large and beautiful homes.  It was a surprise to the authorities, but the setting of those homes and the view are really fine. To this day, the homes on Riverside and adjacent streets are some of the most beautiful in Northern Kentucky. The owners allegedly said, “We will take our chances with flooding.” Well, it isn’t likely any future flood will be worse than the one in 1937, and they survived that one.

The water didn’t reach Fort Thomas, of course, but some results of the flood did. The original 1914 building of Highlands (known as the “old” building) housed people from the flooded areas of the county.  Since the 1936  (the “new” building) had only been completed a year of so before, no one was allowed to occupy that one. Ironically, though, the reason Fort Thomas is on the high and dry level is that the Army barracks were once in the floodplain. They were moved to the “Highlands” to escape the frequent floods.  Thus we got the name for our high school.

This flood has been called the “flood of the century.” Fortunately there has not been one like it since; however there have been other floods where many of the same homes were inundated. For example, in 1945 when I was a senior at Holmes, the city asked our principal – Russell Helmick – to lend them some boys to help people move furniture from endangered homes. We did that for almost a week or more.
Of course, the 1937 flood was one no one who lived then will ever forget.      

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