Written by Aaron-Michael Fox.
The “Great” Ohio River flood of 1937 took place in late January and early February of 1937. It is arguably the worst natural disaster in the history of the Ohio River Valley. The river had flooded many times in its history, but none of them rivaled the ’37 Flood.
With damage stretching from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cairo, Illinois, one million people were left homeless with 385 dead and property losses reaching $500 million ($8.5 billion in 2017 dollars). Federal and state resources were strained to aid recovery, as the disaster occurred during the depths of the Great Depression and only a few years after the Dust Bowl in the Midwest.
The flood came about as the result of several inches of snow followed by warm weather and heavy rainfall over a matter of a few days. In Huntington, the flood crested on January 28, 1937 at 69.45 feet, more than 19 feet above flood stage.
“It was our (Hurricane) Katrina,” local historian James Casto told the Herald-Dispatch in 2009. “There were one million people driven out of their homes. The C&O had special trains taking people from Huntington to Charleston, and the N&W ran trains north from Ironton and Portsmouth to Columbus. When passenger cars were filled, people crowded in cattle cars and box cars to escape, most with nothing more than the clothes on our back.”
Of the 40,000 people living in the flooded areas of Huntington, 25,000 were made refugees, as fresh water and fuel were scarce. 11,000 people applied for Red Cross aid with total damages estimated at $425.5 million in 2017 dollars. In all, five people died along with numerous pets and livestock.
1. The flood makes the cover of the Herald-Dispatch on January 19, 1937.
2. Marshall University and the eastern end of Downtown. Old Main is the large building in the center-right.
3. Looking west on the 1000 block of Fourth Avenue, January 25, 1937.
4. “Venice on the Ohio.” During the flood, many businesses stayed open and made deliveries by boat.
5. “Refugee camps” and emergency stations were set up in the upper floors of many factories and downtown buildings, such as this one in the Municipal Auditorium in City Hall.
6. Many people’s only option was to climb to the attic or even roof to await rescue. There were no cell phones or 911 to notify anyone of your location.
7. Many families lost everything in the flood.
8. Even many of those who didn’t, had to spend days or weeks in makeshift “refugee camps” throughout the city.
9. Looking East (toward Marshall University) from the top of the Coal Exchange Building.
10. College Avenue Apartments somewhere downtown.
11. A man attempts to traverse the front of a downtown building on the 700 block of Third Avenue. This location is currently occupied by the Municipal Parking Garage.
12. Aerial view of the 300 block of Eighth Street. The Cabell County Courthouse can be seen in the top right.
13. A delivery truck rests between a tree and a house somewhere on Third Avenue in the West End.
14. Marshall University looking northwest from what is now Buskirk Field. Old Main is on the left.
15. The south side of the 800 block of Fourth Avenue. All of these buildings still stand.
16. The waters begin to recede in front of what is now the Marshall Hall of Fame Cafe at Third Avenue and Ninth Street.