Thursday, February 9, 2017

1937 flood swamped Crittenden river communities

The Great Flood 1937 inundated communities along the Ohio River that forms Crittenden County’s northern border and its tributaries like the Cumberland River on the southwest border and Tradewater River that forms the northeastern border. The map above shows what flooding (light blue) might have looked like in Crittenden County based on elevation and the reported Ohio River stage at Shawneetown, Ill. The communities of Dycusburg, Tolu, Fords Ferry and Weston were swamped with floodwaters and parts of Shady Grove were under water. The normal channels of the Ohio and Cumberland rivers and an other bodies are shown in dark blue above. Roads are depicted in yellow, and green shows the Shawnee National Forest.


It remains one of the worst natural disasters in American history and is rivaled locally only by the 2009 ice storm that crippled Crittenden County.

The Great Flood of 1937 swamped cities and towns the entire length of the Ohio River, displacing hundreds of thousands of residents from Pittsburgh, Pa., down to Cairo, Ill., including those along Kentucky’s northern border and every river community in Crittenden County. Across four states, the mid-winter calamity claimed 385 lives and racked up nearly $9 billion in damage in today’s dollars.

Because of its rural nature and relatively early warning before the floodwaters rose to epic porportions, Crittenden County was spared the human toll and devestating personal property losses endured in places like Cincinnati, Louisville, Evansville and Paducah. Still, it was a disaster brought on by flooding that won’t likely again be seen locally by anyone living today

“It was a lot of water,” said Robert Lee White, who at 99 is one of the oldest residents of the county to recall a January deluge and the ensuing floodwaters. “If you lived in the right place, it was bad.”

Dycusburg was one of many communities in Crittenden County
where residents were forced to flee to higher ground during the
Great Flood of 1937 along the Ohio River and its tributaries like
the Cumberland River. (Click to enlarge)
Eighty years ago today (Feb. 2, 2017), the inundation was at its peak along the lower Ohio River. At Paducah, the river was at a record 60.6 feet, 21 feet above flood stage. Three days earlier just upstream from the bank in Crittenden County, the river crested at 65.64 feet at Shawneetown, Ill., which is 32 feet above flood stage and almost 10 feet above the next highest crest on May 6, 2011. The rising water reached 68.1 feet in Crittenden County at Lock and Dam 50, where the lockhouse and surrounding homes were submerged.

The 500-year flooding was brought on by a torrent of rainfall over a period of days. Already waterlogged from more than 27 inches of rain in the last four months of 1936, the ground could not handle the 17.6 inches that fell across 22 days in January 1937. The flooding far eclipsed previous records along the Ohio and most of its tributaries and changed how the nation approached natural disasters. In fact, the resulting flood control efforts aimed at preventing those high water marks from being reached again included Kentucky Dam.

The waters rose so high that Coast Guard cutters dispatched to help areas in need were forced to sail through fields and streets when the boats no longer had enough clearance overhead to navigate under bridges.

In Crittenden County, Tolu, Fords Ferry and Weston were put underwater along the Ohio River and Dycusburg residents were forced from their homes along the Cumberland River. The Tradewater River, a minor tributary of the Ohio that forms the county’s northeast boundary, flooded Blackford in Webster County just across the channel and backwaters encircled Shady Grove.

Farmers with cattle and silage were among the last to flee their property, using every hour possible to save livestock and grains from the previous year’s harvest. Still, not all could be saved and agricultural losses accounted for much of the damage in Crittenden County.

Roads and highways like U.S. 60 were swamped, communications compromised and despite the warning time afforded residents due to their locale downstream from major cities already dominating headlines, many refugees were still forced to leave behind all but a few belongings that would fit in a skiff headed for higher ground. Most local refugees were able to stay with friends or family above the rising water. But many out-of-county workers were cut off from returning to their families for many days.

White, who lived with his parents a few miles inland from Tolu and at a higher elevation on Irma White Road, was one of the lucky ones.

“Our house was in the hills, and it didn't bother anything,” he said. “The water was out there, though.”

White and a buddy cobbled together a raft with spare wood from around the farm and explored the flooded lands of northern Crittenden County. Most of the roads, White said, were under water.

“It was a lot of fun,” he recalls. “You could go almost anywhere you wanted.”

White, though, takes no pleasure in accounts of losses from the 1937 flood that saw the Ohio River rise at Tolu by almost an inch per hour at its worst. As a farmer in the area for decades, he understands the give and take of the nation’s second largest river by volume.

Marion remained dry from the flooding, and became a centerpience among regional relief efforts. The city’s National Guard Armory and Woman’s Club of Marion building were used as refugee centers, housing dozens displaced by the flooding. The clubhouse and Fohs Hall were also used as infirmaries, staffed by nurses brought in by the state to tend to the wounded and sick. The Crittenden Press from Feb. 12, 1937, also reports that the city’s three “colored” churches also housed and fed about 75 blacks from Paducah who had nowhere else to go.

The city also served as an American Red Cross distribution hub for food, clothing, bedding and medical supplies. About two dozen men with local Guard unit were called to duty to deliver goods and check on the welfare of area residents.

Recovery from the massive flood was slow. In 1937, the nation was in the depths of The Great Depression. The economic hardships, already among the worst in rural areas like Crittenden County, were made worse from the devastation to agricultural land and retail losses due to nearly a month of isolation.

In the 1930s, there was no flood insurance, no FEMA and those of only the least means received any kind of assistance to rebuild, and that was through the Red Cross. Farmers were eligible for only meager stipends to replace lost silage. The Works Progress Administration, or WPA, was called on to help rebuild public works projects, not assist with private rebuilding. It took more than 1,000 tons of rock to reconstruct Shady Grove Road, now Ky. 120, from Marion to Shady Grove and 1,200 more tons to repair what is now Ky. 91 North from the current edge of Marion’s city limit to Ky. 387.

The 1937 disaster forever changed America’s approach to flood control. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the U.S. spent $85 million ($1.4 billion today) on Ohio River flood control and hundreds of thousands in the spring and summer of 1937 alone for mosquito control. Kentucky Dam was built to control the waters of the Cumberland River and hundreds of square miles of low-lying lands along the Ohio were set aside as reservoirs for floodwaters. And floodwalls in cities like Paducah were reconstructed to handle another 500-year event.

For more on the 1937 flood on the Cumberland River in Crittenden County, visit

During the Great Flood of 1937, residents all along the length of the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Cairo, Ill., were forced from their home during the 500-year event. One of the communities affected was Fords Ferry in Crittenden County.
Homes around the Lock and Dam 50 area in Crittenden County were swamped by the 1937 Flood.