SLIDESHOW: 1937 flood forever changed Louisville and its people

LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- The breathless narration from a newsreel helps tell the story:  "The roaring crest of the swollen Ohio practically engulfs Louisville."

The aptly-nicknamed River City and the rest of the nation were trying to emerge from the Great Depression when disaster struck in 1937.  The Ohio River rose to 30 feet above flood stage.  As Louisville Metro Councilman and local historian Tom Owen put it, "No one believed, oh we had had floods before, but no one believed this was possible."

Memorable images from the time included water as high as traffic lights and fish caught in the lobby of the flooded Brown Hotel at 4th and Broadway.  The Louisville Water Company's Zorn Avenue pumping station was surrounded by flood waters, and City Hall was surrounded by sandbags.

As historian Rick Bell puts it, "Was this the worst natural disaster to ever hit Louisville?  Oh, yeah, without question.  In fact, it was the worst natural disaster in American history in the 20th Century."

Bell grew up in Portland and often heard his parents talk about the flood.  He's written a book about it which includes the famous picture of the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the downtown library.  "It looks like Lincoln is standing on water," he says, "when in fact the high water mark came up to Mr. Lincoln's knees."

Bell says the Ohio River was 24 miles wide in some places in Louisville, running from the hills of southern Indiana all the way to the Salt River in Bullitt County.  "It just impacted every citizen in this community," he says, "with 175,000 people evacuated from their homes and massive amounts of damage."

There were not enough boats to rescue everybody from downtown, so ingenuity took over and a pontoon bridge was built at East Jefferson Street to get people out and into the Highlands.  It was built in 23 hours out of empty whiskey barrels.

Bell says 75,000 people crossed the bridge to safety in just four days.  Not only did residents have to endure the cold, the nasty muddy water, and the nighttime darkness, but a huge fire burned out of control in the West End, resulting in even more fear.

Tom Owen says, "There were all kinds of rumors of the apocalyptic depths of the river."  He also noted that the night sky lit up when the Louisville Varnish Company caught fire, killing three people.

In all, 90 people would lose their lives in the Louisville flood.  It also permanently altered the city's landscape.  Owen explains, "People began to move away from the river, moving to these potato fields out here called St. Matthews and Highlands and out to Shively and away from the river's edge."

After the devastating flood, the Army Corps of Engineers built a 29-mile floodwall around the city.  That leaves the question:  will we ever see a flood the magnitude of the 1937 flood again?

Bell says, "If it would flood again, it would require twice as much rain in the same time period.  It would have to be a perfect storm."  But Owen points out, "The weather we don't control, and there is no guarantee it couldn't happen again."

Both Bell and Owen talk about how the community came together to clean up and rebuild.  Even though Churchill Downs was flooded that February, the Kentucky Derby still ran in May. 

But a city and its people would be forever changed as a result of the great flood of 1937.

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